Skip to content

Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses- Rowan Williams

As most of his sermons are unscripted, these are rare.

His sermon on the Annunciation is highly speculative. Even if his wife told him about her feelings during pregnancy, he can’t get into the mind of Mary.

Williams reflects on peace, war, justice, sexuality, wholeness, suffering, loneliness, vocation, and mission. Sermons from the church year and practical matters of Christian spirituality such as intercessory prayer and Bible study are also included; still others celebrate great Christian figures across the centuries, from the Anglo-Saxon saints to Michael Ramsey and T. S. Eliot.

Quotations:

Iris Murdoch, in her novel The Black Prince, makes one of her characters say, “Curiosity is a kind of charity.” The falsity of that is as apparent in the book as it is in our experience. It is an un­scrupulous rationalization of the lust for power which can be hid­den in curiosity, the diabolical thirst to know without loving, to substitute knowing for loving. Anyone entering on a way of life that will involve hearing other people’s secrets must become aware of the deeply ambivalent element present in his or her motivation: the desire for power over other people that priests, teachers, psy­chiatrists, and many others are so often afraid to admit to them­selves. People are going to put their hearts in your hands again and again, and unless you face the massive dangers at work here—recognize that you are probably the sort of person who needs to see the hearts of others—the consequences will be de­structive. You won’t know how much damage you can do.

But don’t think of this as an exclusively negative thing. People open their hearts because they have to, and people ask others to open their hearts because they have to. All of them, on both sides, are compelled by the magnetism of truth. I may dread the rejection of the person to whom I confess, but can I live with lies, fantasies, and public roles? I may fear the damage my prob­ing may do, but can I be content if my friend offers me only a su­perficial mask? In any case, these things cannot and will not be forced; it’s only by long, careful practice in both speaking and lis­tening that we shall recognize “right moments” and respond with accurate sensitivity to the needs of someone else. And one of the things that is required from the “counselor” is a kind of pastoral imagination—the ability not to see others in terms of me, but me in terms of others; not just relating their experiences to my simi­lar ones, but trying to sense the experience as they are experi­encing it, seeing with their eyes, feeling with their nerves. This is the “ecstasy” of love, the ability (as St. Thomas Aquinas said) to “go out” from yourself and to understand others as they are in themselves and for their own sake.

And it is of course God who teaches us this imagination. For God’s knowledge of us is not the dreadful, stifling omnipresence

I spoke of earlier, the all-seeing eye in the middle of heaven.

When St. John tells us that our Lord “knew what was in us,” he is pointing to something very different, what Langland in Piers

Plowman called “kind” knowing—knowing by kinship—and what scholastic philosophers called (unpromisingly) “knowledge by connaturality”: feeling with our nerves, seeing with our eyes, “made like us in every respect except sin.” This is the complete ecstasy of God, entering into the morass of human subjectivity and human motivation. Whatever we may want to say in detail about the doctrine of the Incarnation, it seems to me an indis­pensable part of our gospel to be able to say that God has been, and is, “inside” human motivation. “He knoweth whereof we are made.” He is capable of this unparalleled act of imagination, of knowing what it is to be a creature as well as creator, knowing what it is to be in doubt, in agony, in temptation, in darkness and abandonment, in hell. There is the lesson of ecstasy, under­standing the other in the other’s own terms.

Yet perhaps the doubt remains. W H. Auden, in his “oratorio” For the Time Being, makes Herod say that if God has lived as a hu­man being, he will now expect everyone to live a perfect life be­cause it’s been shown to be possible—a very alarming doctrine indeed, and a not unfamiliar one in some kinds of Christianity. God can say to us, “I’ve had this experience but it didn’t defeat me,” which will be a very depressing thing to hear on the day of judgment. But surely we have our corrective in the gospels them­selves. Not only do we have the grand schematic doctrinal story of the God who identifies with humanity, we have also the par­ticular local history of Jesus of Nazareth, whose compassion was such that he could be represented by St. John as saying, “I judge no one.” It is usually frivolous, if not blasphemous, to speculate about Jesus’ state of mind, but it is hard not to feel in our Lord’s responses to the sinful an element of sheer visceral pity. “Where are your accusers? Is there no one who condemns you? Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus was tempted as we are: if Gethsemane gives us any insight, he was tried in ways from which most of us would shrink. And what his struggles seem to have produced was a sense of the precariousness of goodness, love, and fidelity so pro­found and strong that no failure or error could provoke his con­demnation, except the error of those legalists who could not understand that very precariousness. To Christ, the sinner is a victim more than a criminal. He knows what is in us. He is within human motivation and understands just how free and how unfree we are. He knows the measure of our own responsibility better than we ever can ourselves. He is a high priest who knows our weakness and whom, then, we can approach without fear.

The obedience of God’s people is above all else a glad response to that great consistency in the being of God, the law of God’s own life.

So covenant is the promise of God’s faithfulness, and covenant is our response to that faithfulness. Without the provision of the law of God’s being—the self-consistency, the eternal faithfulness of God to his own being—we could not begin to be obedient, we would not know what it was we had to attend to. So if this is a feast of covenant, it is thereby also a feast of obedience.

The life of Jesus is not a series of acts of jumping to attention to commands issued by a holy despot. The obedience of Jesus is the readiness to see the Father’s will in every circumstance, every situation, and every person presented to him, and to respond to it with wholeness of heart at once. The obedience of Jesus lies in seeing the need of the leper or the blind man or the Syrophoeni­cian mother and saying “yes.” That is obedience: it is seeing the situation, seeing the drawing of God’s will in it, and being drawn into response.

God looks at the world and in it sees his own promise. He responds to the needs of the world, knowing that the world can be brought into his light, can be healed and transfigured.

The opposite of flesh is not spirit, but stone: “A rock feels no pain, And an island never cries.”

Frail children of flesh? Yes, because flesh is what hurts. Not only is it simply and literally fragile, the hurts inflicted on what we think of as our spirits are the hurts we have in relations with other fleshly beings, absorbed through our ears and eyes.

Perhaps all this is a bit of what the Ascension Day hymns and prayers mean when they speak of the whole of human nature be­ing raised to heaven in the ascension. If Jesus is the presence of God’s promise in our world, and if the ascension means that, through the power of the resurrection, we now share the same calling as Jesus, seeing in his light and with his eyes, then two things follow. First, we as Christian believers are “in heaven,” but not so as to remove us from earth. Quite the contrary: in the middle of the world’s life, we are given some share in God’s per­spective on things, so that God through us may make his loving faithfulness real and effective here and now. And second, the things and persons of this world are seen in a new way, seen as charged with hope, with a future of glory and of healing. They are seen as if already part of the new heaven and new earth in which God’s purposes have been brought to completion.

Any interest in the diabolical, any so-called expertise in demonology and the analysis of the dark and the absurd, is a failure in faith. If “exorcism” is ever anything more than the proclamation of God’s victory and God’s acceptance, if ever it be­comes a matter of clinical technique, it has entered the conflict on the devil’s terms, attempting to fight again the battle that Christ has won. No one will finally remove for us the risk of darkness, the influx of “black grace”—in Iris Murdoch’s memorable phrase—that inflates our hatreds and pushes even our loves into cruelty. All that can be done is, again and again, to refuse the temptation to rationalize, and turn to the compassionate Word of God. To dramatize and objectify the world’s senseless evil is to yield to its undeniable magnetism and to swell its potential power; and it is destructive enough without that. But to know it as the wounds of Christ is to see without illusion: not the pain but the threat can be healed.

‘My title is a paradox, and people tend to be annoyed by paradoxes — in many ways quite rightly. We suspect them of concealing muddle, and so of representing some kind of intellectual or spiritual cowardice.’

“The real question is about what you are really after: do you want spirituality, mystical experience, inner peace, or do you want God? If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of a purchase on God, you are still playing games.”

“The vital significance of the Church in this society, in any human society, is its twofold challenge – first, challenging human reluctance to accept death, and then challenging any human acceptance of death without hope, of death as the end of all meaning. … That is why Jesus’ death is not the end of a story, but the last point in his great struggle to free God into the world.”

Return to the home page

The Book Thief

This wartime drama is based on the novel by Markus Zusak. As Nazism spreads through Germany and people are forced to burn books in the street, a young girl discovers the joy of literature through her adoptive parents and the young Jewish man they are sheltering.

Taught to read by her kind-hearted foster father, the girl begins “borrowing” books and sharing them with the Jewish refugee being sheltered by her foster parents in their home.

In February 1938, a voice representing Death tells about how the young Liesel Meminger has piqued his interest. In one of the opening scenes, Liesel is travelling with her mother and younger brother on a train. On the way, her brother dies and is buried next to the tracks. Liesel steals her first book, titled The Grave Digger’s Handbook, when it falls out of the gravedigger’s pocket. Liesel is then brought to her new home, where she meets her new foster parents Rosa Hubermann and Hans Hubermann.

Rudy Steiner, a boy who lives next door, accompanies her on her first day of school. When the teacher asks Liesel to write her name on the blackboard, she is only able to write three Xs, revealing to her classmates that she is unable to write. She is taunted by her schoolmates who chant “dummkopf” (“dunce” in German) at her. One of the boys, Franz Deutscher, challenges her to read just one word to which Liesel responds by beating him up. She impresses Rudy, and they become fast friends. When Hans, her foster father, realizes that Liesel can not read, he begins to teach her, using the book that she took from the graveside. Liesel becomes captivated with reading anything she can.

When first arriving at the school, a large poster with many faces can be seen. This is a replica of an accurate period piece, a poster depicting the “ideal” Aryan phenotypes according to the region. Painted by two artists with racial obsession, these posters were placed in every school, and students are forced to memorize them.

Liesel and Rudy become members of the Hitler Youth movement. While at a Nazi book burning ceremony, Liesel and Rudy are harassed into throwing books onto the bonfire by Franz, but Liesel is upset to see the books being burned. When the bonfire ends and everyone left Liesel was still there, she grabs a book that has been only singed. She is seen by Ilsa Hermann, wife of the mayor. When Rosa asks Liesel to take the laundry to the mayor’s house, she realizes that the woman who saw her taking the book is the mayor’s wife. Instead, Ilsa takes her into their library and tells Liesel she can come by anytime and read as much as she’d like. One day Liesel is found reading by the mayor who not only puts a stop to her visits but dismisses Rosa as their laundress.

During Kristallnacht, Max Vandenburg and his mother, who are Jewish, are told by a friend that only one of them can escape, and Max’s mother forces him to go. Max’s father had saved Hans’ life in World War I, and hence he goes to the Hubermanns’ house where Rosa and Hans give him shelter. Max initially stays in Liesel’s room while recovering from his trip, and they begin to become friends over their mutual hatred of Hitler. World War II begins, initially making most of the children in Liesel’s neighborhood very happy. Max is moved to the basement so that he can move around more, but it is cold and Max becomes dangerously ill. Liesel helps Max recover by reading to him books “borrowed” from the mayor’s library with every spare moment.

One day while “borrowing” a book from the mayor’s home, Liesel is followed by Rudy. He discovers the secret of Max, whose name he reads on a journal Max gave to Liesel for Christmas. Rudy guesses that her family is hiding someone, and he swears to never tell anyone. Franz overhears Rudy’s last words of keeping it a secret and violently pushes Rudy to reveal the secret. Rudy throws the journal into the river to keep it away from Franz. After Franz leaves, Rudy plunges into the icy river to rescue the journal, and Liesel realizes that she can truly trust him. Soon, a local party member comes by to check the Hubermanns’ basement, and they have to hide Max.

While working, Hans sees a neighbour and friend named Lehman being taken away by the police because he is a Jew. Hans tries to intervene, telling the officer that Lehman is a good man, but Hans’s name is taken by the soldiers and he is thrown to the ground. Hans realizes what a mistake he has made, since this has made his family visible. He tells the family, and Max realises he must leave in order to protect them. Hans then receives a telegram that he has been conscripted into the army and must leave immediately.

On the way home from school, Liesel believes she has seen Max in a line of Jews being forcibly marched through town, and she begins screaming his name, running through the line. She is thrown to the pavement twice by German soldiers and finally relents when Rosa picks her up and takes her home. Within a few days, Hans returns from the front because he was injured by a bomb that hit another of his unit’s truck.

The family is reunited only for a short time. One night the city is bombed by accident, and the air raid sirens fail to go off. Hans, Rosa, and Rudy’s family are killed in the blast. Liesel was spared from the bombing because she fell asleep in the basement while writing in the journal given to her by Max. Neighbours bring Rudy out of his house, barely alive. He begins to tell Liesel that he loves her, but he dies before he can finish the sentence. During this scene, Death is heard speaking again about how he received the souls of the dead. Liesel passes out, and one of the soldiers carries her to a stretcher. When she wakes up, she sees a book among the rubble and picks it up. She then sees the mayor and Ilsa drive up. With Ilsa being the only friend she has left, Liesel runs up to her and hugs her.

Two years later, after Germany has fallen to the Allies, Liesel is working in the tailor shop owned by Rudy’s father. Max enters. Overjoyed by his survival and return, she runs to hug him. The final scene is Death speaking again about Liesel’s life and her death at the age of 90, mentioning her husband, children, and grandchildren, as we look over her modern day Manhattan Upper East Side apartment with pictures of her past and a portrait of her, upon which the camera lingers. The narrator does not state whom she married but implies that she became a writer.

Mairéad Roche praised the film for providing a “fresher perspective on the war” through the experiences of ordinary Germans who lived through the Nazi era: Mairéad Roche praised the film for providing a “fresher perspective on the war” through the experiences of ordinary Germans who lived through the Nazi era.

 

[from trailer] Max Vandenburg: If your eyes could speak, what would they say?

 

[last lines] Death: I have seen a great many things. I have attended all the world’s worst disasters, and worked for the greatest of villains. And I’ve seen the greatest wonders. But it’s still like I said it was: no one lives forever. When I finally came for Liesel, I took selfish pleasure in the knowledge that she had lived her ninety years so wisely. By then her stories had touched many souls, some of whom I came to know in passing. Max, whose friendship lasted almost as long as Liesel. Almost. In her final thoughts, she saw the long list of lives that merged with hers. Her three children, her grandchildren, her husband. Among them, lit like lanterns, were Hans and Rosa, her brother, and the boy whose hair remained the color of lemons forever. I wanted to tell the book thief she was one of the few souls that made me wonder what it was to live. But in the end there were no words. Only peace. The only truth I truly know is that I am haunted by humans.

 

Liesel Meminger: There once was a ghost of a boy who liked to live in the shadows, so he wouldn’t frighten people. His job was to wait for his sister, who was still alive. She wasn’t afraid of the dark, because she knew that’s where her brother was. At night, when darkness came to her room, she would tell her brother about the day. She would remind him how the sun felt on his skin, and what the air felt like to breathe, or how snow felt on his tongue. And that reminded her that she was still alive.

 

Max Vandenburg: So… How is Rudy?

Liesel Meminger: I don’t know. Rudy is a pain in the neck.

Max Vandenburg: The only thing worse than a boy you hate, is a boy you like, right?

 

[first lines] Narrator/Death: One small fact: you are going to die. Despite every effort, no one lives forever. Sorry to be such a spoiler. My advice is when the time comes, don’t panic. It doesn’t seem to help.

 

Narrator/Death It’s always been the same. The excitement and rush to war. I met so many young men over the years who have thought they were running at their enemy, when the truth was, they were running to me.

[from trailer]  Liesel Meminger: Is that your book?

Max Vandenburg: It wasn’t always mine.

 

[from trailer] Rudy Steiner: You’re stealing books? Why?

Liesel Meminger: When life robs you, sometimes you have to rob it back.

 

[from trailer] Max Vandenburg: Words are life, Liesel. All those pages, they’re for you to fill.

 

Rosa Hubermann: This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

Hans Hubermann: Yes, and just look how happy you are.

 

[from trailer] Liesel Meminger: I can’t lose someone else!

Max Vandenburg: You’ve kept me alive, don’t ever forget that.

 

Liesel Meminger: Did he take away your mother?

Max Vandenburg: Probably.

Liesel Meminger: Don’t worry… I cried a lot when I first came too. [pause] The soup is terrible, isn’t it?

Max Vandenburg: You may find this hard to believe, but it’s the best thing Ive ever thrown up.

 

Liesel Meminger: Do you think my mother really loved me?

Max Vandenburg: Of course. Every mother loves her child. Even Hitler’s.

Liesel Meminger: Do you think she writes to him?

Max Vandenburg: “Dear Führer, just wait until your father gets home! Love, Mama.”

Liesel Meminger: “Dear Führer, clean up your mess.”

Max Vandenburg: “Dear Führer, who cut your hair?”

Liesel Meminger: “You’re not going out in that, are you?”

Max Vandenburg: “What’s that growing on your lip?”

Liesel Meminger: “Don’t raise your voice at me!”

Max Vandenburg: “Stop spitting when you yell.”

 

Max Vandenburg: Where’s my weather report?

Max Vandenburg: [Liesel shows a snow ball] You’re full of wonders.

 

Death: In my job, I’m always seeing humans at their best, and their worst. I see their ugliness, and their beauty. And I wonder how the same thing can be both.

 

Rudy Steiner: Are you coming?

Liesel Meminger: Where are you going to?

Rudy Steiner: Isn’t it obvious? I’m running away.

Liesel Meminger: Have you thought this through?

Rudy Steiner: Ya. I don’t want to die. There – all thought through.

 

Liesel Meminger: Franz Deutscher doesn’t sound very smart.

Rudy Steiner: He’s the dumbest kid in school. But he shaves.

 

Max Vandenburg: [presenting Liesel with a blank book of pages] Write. In my religion we’re taught that every living thing, every leaf, every bird, is only alive because it contains the secret word for life. That’s the only difference between us and a lump of clay. A word. Words are life, Liesel.

 

[from trailer] Liesel Meminger: My name is Liesel Meminger. I don’t have a family. Or even a place to call home. I never understood the meaning of the word Hope. But I’m about to meet the people who will change all that.

 

Narrator: While ten thousand souls hid their heads in fear and trembled, one jew thanked God for the stars that blessed his eyes.

 

Max Vandenburg: I’m not lost to you, Liesel. You’ll always be able to find me in your words. That’s where I’ll live on.

 

Max Vandenburg: Memory is the scribe of the soul.

Rudy Steiner: I miss my dad. I don’t even know if he’s alive. [Rudy pauses] I’m not ready. I want to grow up before I die.

Liesel Meminger: So did my brother.

Rudy Steiner: I’m sorry. [he pauses again] I didn’t ask for this.

Liesel Meminger: Who would?

Rudy Steiner: I hate Hitler.

Liesel Meminger: Me too. [Rudy looks at her, seemingly surprised, but satisfied. Liesel stands up and shouts out to the woods] I hate Hitler!

Rudy Steiner: [stands up as well] I hate Hitler!

Rudy SteinerLiesel Meminger: I hate Hitler!

Liesel Meminger: Hitler is a monkey’s ass!

Rudy Steiner: Stick you, Hitler! [they laugh, and then they gradually become more serious]

Liesel Meminger: You’re all I’ve got, Rudy.

Rudy Steiner: Let’s go home.

 

Death: The bombs were falling thicker now. It’s probably fair to say that no one was able to serve the Führer as loyally as me.

 

Rudy Steiner: What’s an accountant?

Hans Hubermann: Something we will never need.

 

Liesel Meminger: I’m not stealing, I’m borrowing.

 

 

Liesel Meminger: [about Jewish neighbour] I don’t understand. What did he do so wrong?

Max Vandenburg: He reminded people of their humanity.

Liesel Meminger: Can’t he apologize?

Max Vandenburg: To who? Hitler?

Return to the home page

A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections – ROWAN WILLIAMS

As most of his sermons are unscripted, these are rare.

His sermon on the Annunciation is highly speculative. Even if his wife told him about her feelings during pregnancy, he can’t get into the mind of Mary.

Not very far into the book, I realised I’d read it before, I 1994) under a different title ‘Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses’ (DLT) – what a cheek, Cowley Press getting people to buy a book twice under false pretences.

Williams reflects on peace, war, justice, sexuality, wholeness, suffering, loneliness, vocation, and mission. Sermons from the church year and practical matters of Christian spirituality such as intercessory prayer and Bible study are also included; still others celebrate great Christian figures across the centuries, from the Anglo-Saxon saints to Michael Ramsey and T. S. Eliot.

 Quotations:

Iris Murdoch, in her novel The Black Prince, makes one of her characters say, “Curiosity is a kind of charity.” The falsity of that is as apparent in the book as it is in our experience. It is an un­scrupulous rationalization of the lust for power which can be hid­den in curiosity, the diabolical thirst to know without loving, to substitute knowing for loving. Anyone entering on a way of life that will involve hearing other people’s secrets must become aware of the deeply ambivalent element present in his or her motivation: the desire for power over other people that priests, teachers, psy­chiatrists, and many others are so often afraid to admit to them­selves. People are going to put their hearts in your hands again and again, and unless you face the massive dangers at work here—recognize that you are probably the sort of person who needs to see the hearts of others—the consequences will be de­structive. You won’t know how much damage you can do.

But don’t think of this as an exclusively negative thing. People open their hearts because they have to, and people ask others to open their hearts because they have to. All of them, on both sides, are compelled by the magnetism of truth. I may dread the rejection of the person to whom I confess, but can I live with lies, fantasies, and public roles? I may fear the damage my prob­ing may do, but can I be content if my friend offers me only a su­perficial mask? In any case, these things cannot and will not be forced; it’s only by long, careful practice in both speaking and lis­tening that we shall recognize “right moments” and respond with accurate sensitivity to the needs of someone else. And one of the things that is required from the “counselor” is a kind of pastoral imagination—the ability not to see others in terms of me, but me in terms of others; not just relating their experiences to my simi­lar ones, but trying to sense the experience as they are experi­encing it, seeing with their eyes, feeling with their nerves. This is the “ecstasy” of love, the ability (as St. Thomas Aquinas said) to “go out” from yourself and to understand others as they are in themselves and for their own sake.

And it is of course God who teaches us this imagination. For God’s knowledge of us is not the dreadful, stifling omnipresence

I spoke of earlier, the all-seeing eye in the middle of heaven.

When St. John tells us that our Lord “knew what was in us,” he is pointing to something very different, what Langland in Piers

Plowman called “kind” knowing—knowing by kinship—and what scholastic philosophers called (unpromisingly) “knowledge by connaturality”: feeling with our nerves, seeing with our eyes, “made like us in every respect except sin.” This is the complete ecstasy of God, entering into the morass of human subjectivity and human motivation. Whatever we may want to say in detail about the doctrine of the Incarnation, it seems to me an indis­pensable part of our gospel to be able to say that God has been, and is, “inside” human motivation. “He knoweth whereof we are made.” He is capable of this unparalleled act of imagination, of knowing what it is to be a creature as well as creator, knowing what it is to be in doubt, in agony, in temptation, in darkness and abandonment, in hell. There is the lesson of ecstasy, under­standing the other in the other’s own terms.

Yet perhaps the doubt remains. W H. Auden, in his “oratorio” For the Time Being, makes Herod say that if God has lived as a hu­man being, he will now expect everyone to live a perfect life be­cause it’s been shown to be possible—a very alarming doctrine indeed, and a not unfamiliar one in some kinds of Christianity. God can say to us, “I’ve had this experience but it didn’t defeat me,” which will be a very depressing thing to hear on the day of judgment. But surely we have our corrective in the gospels them­selves. Not only do we have the grand schematic doctrinal story of the God who identifies with humanity, we have also the par­ticular local history of Jesus of Nazareth, whose compassion was such that he could be represented by St. John as saying, “I judge no one.” It is usually frivolous, if not blasphemous, to speculate about Jesus’ state of mind, but it is hard not to feel in our Lord’s responses to the sinful an element of sheer visceral pity. “Where are your accusers? Is there no one who condemns you? Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus was tempted as we are: if Gethsemane gives us any insight, he was tried in ways from which most of us would shrink. And what his struggles seem to have produced was a sense of the precariousness of goodness, love, and fidelity so pro­found and strong that no failure or error could provoke his con­demnation, except the error of those legalists who could not understand that very precariousness. To Christ, the sinner is a victim more than a criminal. He knows what is in us. He is within human motivation and understands just how free and how unfree we are. He knows the measure of our own responsibility better than we ever can ourselves. He is a high priest who knows our weakness and whom, then, we can approach without fear.

The obedience of God’s people is above all else a glad response to that great consistency in the being of God, the law of God’s own life.

So covenant is the promise of God’s faithfulness, and covenant is our response to that faithfulness. Without the provision of the law of God’s being—the self-consistency, the eternal faithfulness of God to his own being—we could not begin to be obedient, we would not know what it was we had to attend to. So if this is a feast of covenant, it is thereby also a feast of obedience.

The life of Jesus is not a series of acts of jumping to attention to commands issued by a holy despot. The obedience of Jesus is the readiness to see the Father’s will in every circumstance, every situation, and every person presented to him, and to respond to it with wholeness of heart at once. The obedience of Jesus lies in seeing the need of the leper or the blind man or the Syrophoeni­cian mother and saying “yes.” That is obedience: it is seeing the situation, seeing the drawing of God’s will in it, and being drawn into response.

God looks at the world and in it sees his own promise. He responds to the needs of the world, knowing that the world can be brought into his light, can be healed and transfigured.

The opposite of flesh is not spirit, but stone: “A rock feels no pain, And an island never cries.”

Frail children of flesh? Yes, because flesh is what hurts. Not only is it simply and literally fragile, the hurts inflicted on what we think of as our spirits are the hurts we have in relations with other fleshly beings, absorbed through our ears and eyes.

Perhaps all this is a bit of what the Ascension Day hymns and prayers mean when they speak of the whole of human nature be­ing raised to heaven in the ascension. If Jesus is the presence of God’s promise in our world, and if the ascension means that, through the power of the resurrection, we now share the same calling as Jesus, seeing in his light and with his eyes, then two things follow. First, we as Christian believers are “in heaven,” but not so as to remove us from earth. Quite the contrary: in the middle of the world’s life, we are given some share in God’s per­spective on things, so that God through us may make his loving faithfulness real and effective here and now. And second, the things and persons of this world are seen in a new way, seen as charged with hope, with a future of glory and of healing. They are seen as if already part of the new heaven and new earth in which God’s purposes have been brought to completion.

Any interest in the diabolical, any so-called expertise in demonology and the analysis of the dark and the absurd, is a failure in faith. If “exorcism” is ever anything more than the proclamation of God’s victory and God’s acceptance, if ever it be­comes a matter of clinical technique, it has entered the conflict on the devil’s terms, attempting to fight again the battle that Christ has won. No one will finally remove for us the risk of darkness, the influx of “black grace”—in Iris Murdoch’s memorable phrase—that inflates our hatreds and pushes even our loves into cruelty. All that can be done is, again and again, to refuse the temptation to rationalize, and turn to the compassionate Word of God. To dramatize and objectify the world’s senseless evil is to yield to its undeniable magnetism and to swell its potential power; and it is destructive enough without that. But to know it as the wounds of Christ is to see without illusion: not the pain but the threat can be healed.

‘My title is a paradox, and people tend to be annoyed by paradoxes — in many ways quite rightly. We suspect them of concealing muddle, and so of representing some kind of intellectual or spiritual cowardice.’

“The real question is about what you are really after: do you want spirituality, mystical experience, inner peace, or do you want God? If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of a purchase on God, you are still playing games.”

“The vital significance of the Church in this society, in any human society, is its twofold challenge – first, challenging human reluctance to accept death, and then challenging any human acceptance of death without hope, of death as the end of all meaning. … That is why Jesus’ death is not the end of a story, but the last point in his great struggle to free God into the world.”

Return to the home page

General Election: The Vicar’s daughter

Return to the home page

ISLAM BEYOND THE VIOLENT JIHADIS: AN OPTIMISTIC MUSLIM SPEAKS – ZIAUDDIN SARDAR

Ziauddin Sardarchronicles the diversity and richness of Islam and, in doing so, answers a host of frequently asked questions:

  • Is Islam inherently violent and misogynistic?
  • Why do young men and women choose to join the jihadi caliphate?
  • What part should Muhammad’s teachings play in our own times?

I studied a lot of this stuff at university e.g. the Mutaziltes and various philosophers so I knew that Islam has never been monolithic.  However, it was good to be reminded.

It is noteworthy that millenarian Islam has much in common who America’s doomsday merchants.

There enlightened places like Morocco and Indonesia.

Sardar lays out what he calls two entirely different ‘versions’ of Islam. One, he says, is based on ‘an old tradition of love and tolerance, perhaps drawing some inspiration from Sufism’. The other is what he terms ‘a more recent sectarian version that has no room for humanity and ethics’. The latter, Sardar explains, is rooted in one particular interpretation of Islam—Wahhabism, which is also the ideology of the state of Saudi Arabia. Over the years, the ‘totalitarian creed’ of Wahhabism has succeeded in rapidly expanding, so much so that, according to Sardar, it ‘now occupies the central position in Islamic orthodoxy’ for many Muslims. This has been made possible by Wahhabism’s outright suppression of the great tradition of critical thinking and free thought in Islam. Because of this, what is considered as ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ has, as Sardar puts it, ‘become more and more dogmatic, narrow, authoritarian and inhuman’. Muslim clerics who subscribe to this version of ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ have, he explains, ‘banned criticism’ and ‘stolen free will’, turning their followers ‘into empty vessels who have nothing more to do than gratefully receive and follow their hateful ideology’. It is this ‘orthodox dogma’, Sardar explains, that has led to terrorism in Islam’s name.?

Wahhabism, Sardar explains, is a fear-based ideology. It replaces love of God with fear of God. ‘But it is not just God’ that it wants its followers to fear, Sardar adds, ‘but everyone and everything’, including women, Muslims who understand Islam differently, and non-Muslims. Wahhabism ‘drains Islam of all ethical contents’, because of which its followers are led to think a host of barbarisms to be supposedly an expression of God’s will, including intolerance, misogyny, floggings, beheading, xenophobia and violence. Hate forms the core of this ideology, Sardar contends, adding that Wahhabi-inspired groups distort the Quranic notion of jihad to seek to legitimize horrific violence in its name.

Sardar believes that a great deal of the blame for the present violence in the name of Islam can be laid at the doorstep of sections of ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ that have fused with Wahhabism. Their forbidding of questioning and criticism, their claim that they alone represent truth and that all others are false and their insistence on Taqlid or blind following lead to an extreme intolerance of others. So, too, does their belief that what they call the Shariah, a body of laws, is divine and hence which they think must be imposed on Muslims, something that inevitably leads to conflict.

The ‘orthodox’ Muslim belief that what is called the Shariah is mandated by God, Sardar explains, is actually false. ‘There is nothing divine about the Shariah’, he says. ‘The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Qur’an. The Shariah is a human construction, an attempt to understand the will of God in a particular context.’ What is considered by the ‘orthodox’ to be the Shariah ‘incorporated the logic of Muslim imperialism’, Sardar says, and also adopted ‘obnoxious Arab customs’ and so has become ‘dangerously obsolete’. Efforts to impose this legal code (in the name of establishing ‘Islamic governance’) thus inevitably lead to horrific oppression and violence?.?

Such oppression also draws sustenance from fabricated reports or Hadith falsely attributed to the Prophet, which number in their thousands, Sardar adds. ‘The elevation of the Shariah and manufactured hadith to the divine level has had a catastrophic effect on Muslims’, he notes. It has denied them agency, and has led them to believe that all they need to do is blindly obey the clerics, ‘no matter how barbaric or absurd the injunctions’ they insist on. ‘The vast majority of Muslims, including highly educated ones’, Sardar contends, ‘have become passive receivers of obscurantist dogma […] rather than active seekers after truth.’ ‘And if they are educated in madrasas, or have a mindless degree in science, engineering or medicine’, he adds, ‘they become empty vessels into which anything, however toxic, can be poured’. ‘Thus, Islamic orthodoxy itself is now the biggest problem facing Muslims’, Sardar says. ‘It does not offer […] a humane alternative’.

Sardar persuasively asserts that:

‘Both the Sunni and Shia orthodoxies have been covered with layer upon layer of manufactured dogma that is as absurd as it is dangerously obsolete. Of course the vast majority of orthodox Muslims […] are moderates and are truly horrified at what is being said and done in the name of Islam. But they have to realise that their cherished dogma, accepted so unquestioningly, has reduced them to dysfunctional societies and nations, and contains the seeds of strife and the horror they see all around their communities. The excesses of the extremists […] are derived from the very dogma the moderates themselves believe to be true. Enough is enough. It is time to rethink what Islam means in the twenty-first century.’

If, as Sardar says, the problem of ‘dehumanised, perverted interpretations’ of Islam, that have given rise to terrible barbarisms, including but not only violent jihadism, stems from ‘a particular ossified Islamic tradition that has become dominant’, the solution to the problem can, he says, also be found in the Islamic tradition. This is what he calls the ‘great critical and humanist tradition of Islam’. ‘Islamic history is full of critical voices and freethinkers who provide us with a totally different take on Islam’, Sardar writes, a history that goes back to Islam’s formative phase and that derives its inspiration from the Quran and the actions and sayings of the Prophet. Sardar reflects on the importance that these two sources of Islam place on learning, reflection and critical thought and on how the Quran regards reason as a means to get closer to God.

What he calls the ‘critical and freethinking tradition of Islam’, which he appeals to Muslims to recover and celebrate, began, Sardar says, just over a century after the Prophet’s demise. He celebrates in particular the legacy of the Mutazilites, Muslim scholars who were rationalists and also humanistic. They also advocated a contextual understanding of the Quran, which they regarded as created and not eternal. Hence, for them, ‘not everything in the Quran had universal validity’. They believed that some of its content ‘was very specific and directed towards the historic community it was guiding during the life of the Prophet’, a position that Sardar seems to enthusiastically endorse.

Sardar also sees hope in the rich tradition of Sufism in offering contemporary Muslims an alternative to the stultifying, suffocating ‘Islamic orthodoxy’, hailing the Sufis’ love of God and their critique of organized religiosity and ritualism.

Pained at the horrific conditions of many Muslim societies today, that are characterized by patriarchy, intolerance, violence and oppression, Sardar insists that the root cause for their malaise is what has come to be seen as ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ (in its Sunni as well as Shia versions). Hence, the only solution lies in replacing this with an alternate understanding of Islam, one drawing on the tradition of Muslims like the Mutazilites, who placed a premium on reason in their understanding of Islam, and the Sufis, for whom love was the pivot.

When he says, “And what’s wrong with ordinary Muslims interpreting the Qur’an for themselves?” I am thinking that’s what caused all the trouble in the first place.

It is irritating that this book doesn’t have an index.

I had to look up ‘occultation’ = an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object.

Quotations:

 ‘The vast majority of Muslims have become passive receivers of obscurantist dogma.’

Make no mistake: these dogmatic thugs hate rational and freethinking Muslims more than they hate non-Muslims or the West.

The facial furniture served the function of a military uniform. It made perfect sense in the specific context. I suspect that the Prophet would have provided his followers with military uniforms, if they had been available. ……The literalist would have us believe that everything the Prophet did or liked or disliked has universal import. He rode a camel, but even the literalists prefer to use a more modern means of transport. He fought with swords, but they are not much use in the age of guns and bombs

Imitation is all that the Muslims can do; there can be no new thought or interpretations. The entire history and culture of Muslim civilisation is rejected as deviancy and degeneration. The Wahhabis regard anyone not adhering to Wahhabi beliefs and prac­tices, including all other Muslims but particularly the Shia, as hostile dwellers in the domain of unbelief.

The love of God emphasised by Sufism and other interpretations is now replaced by fear of God.

Wahhabism has three main characteristics. First, like the Kharjites, the Wahhabis believe that history ends with the Prophet Muhammad. As such, the worldview of Wah­habism is ahistorical. Wahhabis abhor history, and see Islam as a utopia that exists outside history. Nothing that has happened since the time of the Prophet and his pious companions, including the great thought, learning and culture of Islam and its civilisation, is of any significance. Wahhabism has no concept of human progress, moral development or evolution.

Second, Wahhabism has no notion of ethics; it drains Islam of all ethical contents. Thus, anything can be jus­tified in the name of God, as an expression of the will of God. Intolerance, misogyny, floggings, beheading and xenophobia, as well as violations of basic human rights and violence, can be justified as divine will. Third, the state is unaccountable to anyone but God, whose will it exercises through the Shariah, or ‘Islamic law’. The Sha­riah provides the state with the only legitimacy it needs, and as long as the state enforces the Shariah no one can legitimately overthrow it. Party politics, democracy and other such ‘secular’ concerns have no place in the state.

Most Salafis hate everything about the world — they hate all other Muslims for not being Good Muslims (that is, like them); they hate all Muslim countries for not being `Islamic states’, and, most of all, they hate the West for being everything they are not.

The Muslim commu­nity is permitted to defend itself if attacked. The Qur’an declares: ‘Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight you and do not transgress, certainly God loves not the aggressors’ (2:190). The emphasis is on not transgressing, by which is meant not committing atrocities, not killing women, children and non-combatants, not burning down property or destroying people’s livelihood, and responding disproportionately. For this is the way to self-destruction: `Do not with your own hands hurl yourself to destruc­tion’ (2:195). Moreover, if the enemy ceases fighting, the Muslims have to lay down their weapons; only hostility is to be met with hostility. Thus defensive jihad is based on the principle of necessity and is for resistance, not to exterminate the enemy but only to persuade them to cease hostilities.

In classical Muslim jurisprudence, the last option comes with a string of conditions. Physical jihad is still jihad in the name of God, so it cannot be an act of aggression, which is forbidden by the Qur’an. It cannot be a jihad for the benefit, utility or material gains of a state. One group of Muslims cannot declare jihad on another group of Muslims. The decision to undertake jihad cannot be based on the whims of an individual or some authori­tarian or demented ruler but has to have the ijma or the consensus of the whole community — a consensus that is reached after much debate and discussion. There has to be a reasonable probability of success; it is not a suicide mission. And during conflict, the essential conditions of defensive jihad must also apply to offensive jihad: the val­ues of life, property and human rights must be preserved.

ISIS, however, does have one important additional ingredient: millenarianism. The cult believes that we are living in the end times when the return of the Mandi is imminent. There will be a great battle between the Mandi and his opponent Dajjal (Antichrist).

while the orthodox Shia wait passively and patiently for the end of days and the arrival of the Mandi, ISIS wants to hasten the process and propagates the belief that its activities, seen by the world as ‘outrageous and despic­able’, will speed up his return.

They would ask: Why is it legitimate for the West to have weapons but illegitimate for Muslims to arm themselves? Why is it that Israel can have nuclear capability but Iran cannot? Why is it that the Saudis can be equipped with the latest weaponry but the Hutis and other groups fighting against them in Yemen, or those fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, are denied the means to fight and defend themselves? ISIS presents an opportunity for payback for such hypocritical policies.

Indeed, the more educated ISIS recruits are following a well-established British tradition. For example, in the late 193os, a number of young British men, including George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, joined the Brigades to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

While insulting the Prophet is regarded as blas­phemy, which carries a death penalty in certain countries, quoting or using a dubious hadith that insults the Prophet’s intelligence and integrity is a normal everyday occur­rence.

What one is exhorted to read are the ‘signs of God’, which are manifest both in the revelation and in the material world.

‘The Pen’, which has the most exalted place in Islam, is a metaphor for thought, reflection, criticism, the study of nature, the material world and gen­eral pursuit of knowledge. The Qur’an makes a distinction between ‘those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge’ (39:9); and repeatedly asks the believers to think for themselves and study the signs of nature.

The Prophetic traditions supplement these teachings of the Qur’an. ‘The ink of the scholar’, the Prophet is reported to have said, ‘is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.’ He also said: ‘Seek knowledge from the cra­dle to the grave’; ‘An hour’s study of nature is better than a year’s adoration’

rejected the idea of praying during an eclipse. Al-Ghazali acknowledges that ‘these things have been established by astronomical and mathematical evidence which leaves no room for doubt’. Nevertheless, since the Prophet declared that when you see an eclipse you must seek refuge in the contemplation of God and in prayer’, the eclipse prayer is obligatory.

As the late George Makdisi, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at University of Pennsylvania, who spent a lifetime studying how Islam humanised Europe, shows so painstakingly in The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and Christian West, there was hardly any aspect of Islamic humanism which Europe did not copy: from textbooks and academic institutions, structures and slo­gans to singularity in character, behaviour and dress; from emphasis on eloquence and display of literary prowess to the cult of classical language; from the works on gov­ernment administration as part of moral philosophy to the history of cities, the novella, practical and specula­tive grammar to historical and textual criticism.

the Qur’anic notion of knowledge, which had over 500 definitions and varieties during the classical period, was reduced from meaning all knowledge — includ­ing, most importantly, scientific knowledge — to simply meaning ‘religious knowledge’. Al-Ghazali regarded ijma, consensus, in broad terms and talked about the consen­sus of the Muslim community. Indeed, he even included dead Muslims of the past as well as Muslims living in the present everywhere. But even the open-ended notion of Al-Ghazali’s ijma was eventually reduced to mean only `the consensus of religious scholars’

Over centu­ries, Islamic orthodoxy has shaped a mindset that turns the brain of even the most educated person into marsh­mallow. They can be highly critical in other spheres of life but when it comes to religion the critical faculties are suspended, conscience is put aside, and everything is accepted without question.

The only real and lasting solution to extrem­ism — from non-violent all the way to ISIS — is to break the walls of these prisons and free the intellect and the conscience of the believers.

Regarding the Qur’an, for example, we need to ask: Is every injunction in the Sacred Text universal? What in the Qur’an is contex­tual and thus merely historical? Is it a text to be consumed or interrogated? What are we to do with the ‘difficult’ verses

Then there are the so-called religious scholars. At the moment, almost anyone, literate, semi-literate or totally ignorant, can describe themselves as an alim, or religious scholar. All they need to set up shop —_start giving advice and fatwas in a mosque or on YouTube, teaching in a madrassa, or preaching on an evangelical channel — is to be able to quote a few verses of the Qur’an and a handful of hadith by memory. Contrast this with the rabbis or priests who have to study for years and go through long, arduous training.

Even a fatwa justifying paedophilia as ‘God’s Law’ has been issued

as Rumi put it, ‘the wound is the place where light enters’.

Return to the home page

Young People and Inter Faith Engagement E-resource – inter Faith Network

Such engagement can happen in schools and colleges but also in sport. SACREsds have pioneered it and have much expertise.

It’s online here

Return to the home page

 

 

 

Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook By Charles Kurzman

Muslim liberalism is a thriving tradition more than a century old and undergoing a revival within the last generation. This anthology presents the translated work of 32 Muslims who are concerned with the separation of church and state, democracy, the condiditon of women, the rights of minorities, freedom of thought, and the future of human progress. These liberal approaches face serious challenges, including accusations of treason and inauthenticity, and a Western ignorance about the existence and importance of this internal Islamic debate.

Although the West has largely ignored the liberal tradition within Islam, many of these authors are well-known in their own countries as advocates of democracy and tolerance. Among these are: Abdulkarim Soroush, a leading oppositional figure in Iran; Nurcholish Madjid, a prominent Indonesian intellectual; Mahmud Mohamed Taha, a religious reformer executed by the Sudanese government; and Ali Abd al-Raziq, an Egyptian religious scholar whose writings on the separation of church and state have been controversial since the 1920s. In an analytical introduction, editor Charles Kurzman discusses the history of the liberal tradition in Islam and identifies the main currents in liberal Islamic thought.

Widespread higher education has broken the traditional religious institutions’ monopoly on religious scholarship. Millions of autodidacts now have access to texts and commentaries, such as non-clerics with secular educations: engineers such as Muhammad Shahrour (Syria, born 1938) and Mehdi Bazargan (Iran, 1907-1995); philosophers such as Muhammad Arkoun (Algeria-France, born 1928) and Rachid Ghannoushi (Tunisia, born 1941); and sociologists such as `Ali Shari`ati (Iran, 1933-1977) and Chandra Muzaffar (Malaysia, born 1947).

For example, Fatima Mernissi (Morocco, born 1940), trained in sociology rather than theology, examined the hadith, “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity!” Consulting a variety of ancient sources, she discovered that the hadith was attributed to Abu Bakra (died circa 671)-born a slave, liberated by the Prophet Muhammad, who rose to high social position in the city of Basra. He is the only source for this hadith, and he reported it 25 years after the Prophet’s death. Mernissi suggests that this hadith, though included in Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari’s collection of traditions, Al-Salih (The Authentic) and widely cited in the Islamic world, is suspect for two reasons.

First, when placed in context, Abu Bakra’s relation of the hadith seems self-serving. He was trying to save his life after the Battle of the Camel (December 656), when, to quote Mernissi, “all those who had not chosen to join `Ali’s clan had to justify their action. This can explain why a man like Abu Bakra needed to recall opportune traditions, his record being far from satisfactory, as he had refused to take part in the civil war. … [Although] many of the Companions and inhabitants of Basra chose neutrality in the conflict, only Abu Bakra justified it by the fact that one of the parties was a woman.”

Second, Abu Bakra had once been flogged for giving false testimony in an early court case. According to the rules of hadith scholarship laid out by Imam Malik ibn Anas (710-796 C.E.), one of the founders of the science of hadith studies, lying disqualifies a source from being counted as a reliable transmitter of hadith. “If one follows the principles of Malik for fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence], Abu Bakra must be rejected as a source of hadith by every good, well-informed Malikite Muslim.”

Sura 49, Verse 13: “O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise each other.” Mohamed Talbi (Tunisia, born 1921) quotes Sura 5, Verse 48: “To each among you, have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. And if God had enforced His Will, He would have made of you all one people.” Hostile and discriminatory forms of inter-religious relations, according to this trope, are un-Islamic. In the words of Subhi Mahmassani (Lebanon, born 1911): “There can be no discrimination based on religion in an Islamic system.”

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 raised tremendous hopes among Islamists in Malaysia, Africa, and throughout the Islamic world. Iran was to be the showpiece of the Islamist movement. For the first time since the seventh century, a truly Islamic society was to be constructed. It has been painful for these people to find that dream unfulfilled.

There are many examples of this painful disillusionment and the liberal outcome that resulted. Consider `Abdul-Karim Soroush, a man who wholeheartedly favored the Islamic Republic in the early years.  Soroush participated actively in the revolutionary reorganization of the universities in Iran, which involved getting rid of many fine professors in the name of ideological purity. Yet even this staunch supporter of the Islamic Republic eventually had his doubts. By the mid-1980s he had started to distance himself from official committees on which he had served. By the late 1980s he came to realize that the Islamic Republic was not ushering in a new era of justice and righteousness. Soroush started to criticize the government and began to call for a reinterpretation of Islamic law and for academic and intellectual freedoms that his university reorganization had disregarded in the early 1980s. These themes, along with his impressive erudition and his talent for public speaking, made Soroush one of the most popular public speakers in Iran in the early 1990s. He spoke at mosques and universities and on the radio, always to big audiences. Naturally the Iranian government found his words threatening, and Soroush has since been barred from speaking publicly in Iran. He now speaks outside of Iran, when he is allowed to travel, addressing international audiences, mainly in Europe and North America, stressing the commonality of his views with Western interpretations of religion. But the pain of Soroush’s break with the Islamic Republic and his disillusionment are apparently so great that he literally cannot deal with his own former hopes and aspirations. In interviews, Soroush denies that he was a supporter of the Cultural Revolution in Iran or that he was active in the reorganization of the universities.  The Islamic Republic in Iran appears not only to be generating liberal ideas, but may even be erasing the memory of Islamist ideals.

If what follows seems to be a nit-picking over texts, one should look at the way Liberal and Conservative Christians have debated the meaning of biblical texts or the way that some rabbis seem to turn parts of the Torah inside out to mean the exact opposite of their seemingly plain meaning. As for freedom, bear in mind that the Church opposed it for centuries.

Mohamed Talbi (Tunisia, born 1921) quotes Sura 5, Verse 48: “To each among you, have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. And if God had enforced His Will, He would have made of you all one people.” Hostile and discriminatory forms of inter-religious relations, according to this trope, are un-Islamic. In the words of Subhi Mahmassani (Lebanon, born 1911): “There can be no discrimination based on religion in an Islamic system.”

Humayun Kabir (India, 1906-1969) argues that the precedent of the early period of Islam does not apply automatically to later periods: “The situation changed as the Muslim empire spread rapidly through large areas of Asia and many different peoples were brought within its fold. Many practical problems arose and Muslim political thinking had to find a place for non-Muslim subjects in a Muslim State. …[In India, today, for example,] Muslims have condemned compulsion in religion and admitted that different religions must be given due respect.”

“In a pluralistic and multi-religious society one cannot do better than to ponder on the Qur’anic vision of human conflicts: To every one of you we have appointed a right way and open path. If Allah had willed, He would have made you one community….” (Sura 5, Verse 48) But Vahiduddin interprets this verse within the context of the changing needs of an evolving Islamic community: the late 20th century, he writes, is a period, “When Muslims are tempted to take an extremely static view of religion. Their preoccupation with issues which are not of capital importance has made them uncompromising not only in inter-religious dialogue but also in inter-Islamic dialogue.”

 

Abdurrahman Wahid (Indonesia, born 1940), leader of the world’s largest Islamic organization, calls the 1945 Indonesian constitution better suited than an exclusively Islamic state for the particularly multi-cultural setting of contemporary Indonesia. “[T]here is a need for steps to be taken to resist the deterioration of relations between the different religions and faiths in Indonesia,” he writes, and the first of these steps is the defense of democratic freedoms: “First of all, efforts to restore the attitude of mutual respect among people from different faiths should be based on the fundamental legal principles of freedom of speech (even for very small minority groups), the rule of law and equality before the constitution.”

Hassan Hanafi (Egypt, born 1935) wrote: “There is no one interpretation of a text, but there are many interpretations given the difference in understanding between various interpreters. An interpretation of a text is essentially pluralistic. The text is only a vehicle for human interests and even passions. … The conflict of interpretation is essentially a socio-political conflict, not a theoretical one. Theory indeed is only an epistemological cover-up. Each interpretation expresses the socio-political commitment of the interpreter.”

Amina Wadud-Muhsin (United States, born 1952) argues in a similar vein that “when one individual reader with a particular world-view and specific prior text [the language and cultural context in which the text is read] asserts that his or her reading is the only possible or permissible one, it prevents readers in different contexts from coming to terms with their own relationship to the text.”

Abdullahi An-Na`im (Sudan, born 1946) said: “there is no such thing as the only possible or valid understanding of the Qur’an, or conception of Islam, since each is informed by the individual and collective orientation of Muslims….”

Although there are Muslims who find common ground with Western liberals, liberal Islam is not without its detractors.  Some claim that liberal Islam is inauthentic, that it is a creation of the West and does not reflect “true” Islamic traditions. “Authenticity movements” have been increasing globally over the past quarter-century, from religious authenticity movements such as Islamism or the B.J.P. Hindu nationalist party in India, to ethnic authenticity movements such as tribal hostilities that have resulted in gruesome massacres in central Africa. The emphasis on authenticity is not limited to the Islamic world.

One of the crucial characteristics of this renewed interest in authenticity is the idea that one can take a culture and draw a box around it; that a culture can be defined as a discrete entity, separate from other cultures, with well-defined boundaries. In reality, these boundaries are rarely so precise. In Uzbekistan, for example, the government insists that the Now Ruz New Year’s celebration was invented in Central Asia, not in Iran-as if cultural practices would be less valuable if they were imported from elsewhere.

The flip side of this increasing need for cultural ownership is a flurry of criticisms against things or people for not being authentic enough. Because liberal Islam shares concerns with Western liberalism, critics claim, it must not be a valid interpretation of the religion-if X is Western, it cannot be Islamic. This binary opposition ignores the tremendous history of cultural borrowings and influences that permeated the supposed border over the centuries.

If the first charge is that liberal Islam is inauthentic, and therefore somehow wrong, the second charge argues that liberal Islam should not be tolerated whether or not it is wrong. For example, Gai Eaton, a British Muslim, calls liberal Muslims “Uncle Toms.” In essence, Eaton is calling liberal concerns treasonous to the cause of Islam.  Not only are these concerns wrong, according to Eaton’s way of thinking, but right or wrong, raising these concerns publicly weakens the Islamic world in its struggle with the West. It is like a team sport, where each side demands loyalty from its members and sees any internal critique, any self-critique, as aiding and abetting the other team.

In Iran, for example, the feeling of being besieged by foreign, especially American, hostility is so strong that in order to survive, politicians must prove that they are not “soft” on the “Great Satan.” Iranian politicians who wish to negotiate with the West, or to raise concerns about democracy, human rights, or other issues, are immediately labeled by their political opponents as “soft on Satan.” This pattern is so common and so damaging to liberal concerns, that even Iran’s moderate president, Muhammad Khatami, engaged in liberal-bashing during his campaign in 1997, perhaps in order to ward off similar criticism of himself. In one speech, on May 4 at Tehran University, Khatami sounded liberal themes such as: “The government should provide a safe environment for the people so that they may express their opinions on internal issues and economic affairs,” and “We should study the West, a fountain of all transformations.” At the same time, he accused some liberal oppositionists of having “fallen in the lap of foreigners,” of not being a legitimate political party, and of not coming “from inside society.”

Western ignorance poses yet another challenge for liberal Islam.  For centuries, the West has constructed an image of Islam as “the Other,” identifying Islam with its most exotic elements. Islamic faith has been equated with fanaticism, as in Voltaire’s Mahomet, or Fanaticism (1745). Islamic political authority has been equated with despotism, as in Montesquieu’s intentionally redundant phrase “Oriental despotism.” And, Islamic tradition has been equated with backwardness and primitiveness, as in Ernest Renan’s inaugural lecture at the College de France (1862}: “Islam is the complete negation of Europe; … Islam is the disdain of science, the suppression of civil society; it is the appalling simplicity of the Semitic spirit, restricting the human mind, closing it to all delicate ideas, to all refined sentiment, to all rational research, in order to keep it facing an eternal tautology: God is God.”

Aside from bias, Western policy must better understand the distinctions within Islamic movements. An example  is the recent history of Algeria. The Front de Salvation Islamique (FIS), was divided into liberal and radical factions. During the elections of late 1991 and early 1992, the liberal wing was in the ascendant; its leaders were setting the group’s policy, its candidates were running for office, and it stood a great chance of actually coming to power.

Abbasi Madani, the leader of the liberal faction, made a number of statements aimed at calming the fears of Algerians and Westerners about the intentions of the FIS, such as: “Pluralism is a guarantee of cultural wealth, and diversity is needed for development. We are Muslims, but we are not Islam itself. …We do not monopolize religion. Democracy as we understand it means pluralism, choice, and freedom.”  The FIS had won 81 percent of the first-round elections in December 1991 and was poised to do equally well in the second round in early January 1992 when the Algerian military, supported by France and the United States, canceled the elections, banned the FIS, and arrested its leaders. The result was that the liberals within the Islamic movement were thoroughly discredited for having proposed an effort to win within the rules of democracy. The radical wing prevailed and even murdered liberal Islamic activists who objected to terrorism, such as Mohammad Sa`id and Abderrazak Redjam who were killed in 1995. The Western inability to believe that there might be such a thing as liberal Islam proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There has been some criticism of his choice of authors: Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Islamists and a man excluded from the United States for his role in fomenting violence against the government of his home country? ‘Ali Shari’ati, the theorist of the Islamic revolution in Iran? Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Islamist who told an audience in Kansas City in 1989, “On the hour of judgment, Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them” and whose book, The Permitted and the Prohibited in Islam, was banned in France?

Quotations:

Islamic political authority has been equated with despotism, as in Montesquieu’s intentionally redundant phrase “Oriental despotism.” And, Islamic tradition has been equated with backwardness and primitiveness, as in Ernest Renan’s inaugural lecture at the College de France (1862}: “Islam is the complete negation of Europe; … Islam is the disdain of science, the suppression of civil society; it is the appalling simplicity of the Semitic spirit, restricting the human mind, closing it to all delicate ideas, to all refined sentiment, to all rational research, in order to keep it facing an eternal tautology: God is God.”

“Religion is divine, but its  interpretation is thoroughly human and this-worldly.” (Abdul-Karim Soroush, Iran, born 1945):  “The text does not stand alone, it does not carry its own meaning on its shoulders, it needs to be situated in a context, it is theory-laden, its interpretation is in flux, and presuppositions are as actively at work here as elsewhere in the field of understanding. Religious texts are no exception. Therefore their interpretation is subject to expansion and contraction according to the assumptions preceding them and/or the questions enquiring them ….We look at revelation in the mirror of interpretation, much as a devout scientist looks at creation in the mirror of nature … [so that] the way for religious democracy and the transcendental unity of religions, which are predicated on religious pluralism, will have been paved.”

“Every interpreter enters the process of interpretation with some preunderstanding of the questions addressed by the text-even of its silences-and brings with him or her certain conceptions as presuppositions of his or her exegesis.”

Return to the home page