© Tom Stacey 2015 The Probus Lecture ®
ISLAM AND ITS FUTURE
The Dying Dragon
It was a full year ago that I was invited to give this talk, and together we settled on its theme of ‘Islam and its Future’. We could hardly have guessed how intense the issue of Islam would grow to be. Islam, in its various manifestations: what will become of it, what will it do to us?
My right to have a view is more experiential than scholarly. That’s to say, I have been in and out of the Islamic world since I was a 19-year-old soldier in what we now call peninsular Malaysia; then very soon thereafter as a roving newspaperman, taking in just about every Muslim or Muslim-populated country on the planet … soon to cover the 1956 Suez crisis from Palestine, then on a mission to trace the slave trade into Saudi Arabia, still in train in the 1950s, getting arrested in Dubai in the days before there was a single yard of tarmac in that emirate, or a building taller than their sheikh’s mud fort at one-storey-and-a-half. Then Pakistan – repeatedly – and Kashmir, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, the Levant and north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Islamic ‘stans’ of central Asia as successively Soviet satellites and today’s independencies, Aden, and back to oil-rich Arabia and the Gulf and Oman, in an area where I found myself establishing a quite extensive book-publishing business. I have known them all.
It was in the publishing role I came to father and ultimately to issue under the Stacey imprint an Encyclopaedia of Islam, having retained the allegiance to that formidable project over several years of its brilliant creator, Cyril Glasse, himself then a Muslim, of Russian provenance. He dedicated the work to me. So some vicarious scholarship has crept in. Meanwhile three of my novels have drawn extensively on my Middle East experience, and several long-short stories … My personal experience is so vivid, and ever more compelling, with this Islam now in the midst of us, here in an England ubiquitously provided with mosques in every major city, each issuing the call-to-prayer five times daily.
When the call-to-prayer comes at the moment of the setting of the sun in Riyadh, the Saudi capital (at the precise minute, as published in the paper and announced by radio the previous day) everything stops. The lights in the shop windows displaying the goods are switched off, the staff disperse, shoppers retreat into the street, from all around the devout, who are many, make for the nearest mosque from which the recorded muezzin will be issuing its amplified summons God is Great, there is no God but God, Mohammed is his prophet. Some 20 minutes later those same devout – all male – will emerge from the mosque beneath its minaret. Refreshed and purged by their ritual of prostration and submission to the great god proclaimed by their Islam (which means ‘submission’), they resume their buying and selling or their bargaining with the visiting khawaja, the shirt and trousered Westerner like me.
In that same 20 minutes out in the street I, too, make it my practice to withdraw into myself and to pray – pray to, of course, the same God, since God is indeed One, yet mine in another context, a Christian one. It is a valuable moment: out in Arabia I carry a book of prayers in my pocket for the purpose. Here in England I would recommend shutting for a 20-minute daily sundown prayer break to Mr Marks and Mr Spencer, and the rest of the high street. It would be good for the soul. But time-tagged prayer is not part of the of the Jewish or Christian obligation as it is in the Muslim world.
In Riyadh, that obligation means what it says. If you’re a store proprietor and you don’t shutter down the moment you hear the Salah muezzin – the one-from-last of the 5 daily designated prayer-times – then and there you’ll lose your license to trade. If you are a backstreet trader or stallholder in the souk and you don’t shut shop on the dot you could lose a tooth or if you’re unlucky an eye: the religious police, the mutaween, will have paid you a call, and they are pretty physical.
The-call-to-prayer asserts the one-ness of God, initially to have done with the pagan idolatries which prevailed in Medina and Mecca when the Prophet Mohamed held sway in the few years before his death in 632. It was and is, also, one in the eye for the Christians and their triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christian communities were scattered through the region when Mohamed was actually governing those two small cities of Medina and Mecca, and conducting his 63 military campaigns (no less) in which he personally took upon himself to cleanse the citizenry of any groups resistant to his personal rule and the revealed doctrine that went with it: in particular the Jewish groups, of which there were two in Medina in Mohamed’s time, and many more settlements in the neighbouring Hejaz.
As for Christians, Mohamed acknowledged the sanctity of Jesus as a teacher of godly inspiration in the tradition of Abraham and Moses. But the notion of Jesus’ ‘sonship’ of God, that’s to say the Christian concept of Incarnation, was an idolatrous anathema; and Jesus’s crucifixion was, according to the ‘revealed’ Koran, an illusion.
We need to be aware of the span of both Christianity and Judaism in the scattered community in which Mohamed grew up. The mighty civilisation of the region lying to the north, the Roman empire with its capital now at Constantinople, was formally Christian. That is where power had emanated, wealth generated, and human attainment had excelled, more or less immemorially. In early life, as a Meccan merchant in charge of his wife’s family’s caravan, Mohamed himself would travel to that empire – specifically Syria. In the course of one such business trip, he had a long discussion with a Christian monk of Damascus named Baheera. One of Mohamed’s cousins, Waraq ibn Nawfal, was a Christian. It was not until two or three decades after the Prophet’s death, as Islam was set on winning control in Palestine and North Africa, that armed assault on Christian communities ensued.
Meanwhile, to any Arab of the Hejaz of Arabia, as was Mohamed, acquaintance with Hebrew scripture and Christian belief was familiar, however imprecisely. Up to the late previous century, the 6th, a fully Arab nation state of Jewish faith, albeit of a savage autocracy, was established in Himyar, today’s Yemen, until it was violently overthrown from across the Red Sea by Christian Ethiopians, establishing a new Himyaritic Christian capital in the oasis of Najran, or Nazareth. Its bishops would come north to preach in the Hejaz. Within a century Najran – today’s most south-westerly Saudi city – was to fall to the sword of Mohamed’s Islam surging south from Mecca and Medina.
Mohamed drew from Hebrew scripture, both consciously and unconsciously, the quasi-history and tradition of his own Abramic Semitic origin, and most of the precepts of diet, hygiene, social regulation and conduct which came to him as a revelation from God in a cave on a Hijazi hilltop at the age of 40, and subsequently. There we find them, those precepts, in the Jewish Torah – in the Pentateuch of our bible, especially Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
So there was Christianity governing the Roman empire to the north, upon which the impoverished, desert-girt Hejaz, with its scatter of oases and Red Sea ports and its Bedouin tribesmen had long gazed towards in awe and envy. Mohamed could scarcely have dreamed one day that his Arabs, as Saracens, would come to threaten – with his doctrine – the mighty structure that had ruled the fertile world of the eastern Mediterranean; nor that another race proclaiming his faith and teachings would one day capture Constantinople itself.
The scholarly view today is that Mohamed never intended to found a universal religion, or supposed he was doing so by virtue of his vision bestowed by Gabriel – the afflatus received in his cave – establishing the structure of submission before the one Abramic God, literally enslavement, by law, moral compliance, personal discipline, and upright management of affairs. H e was getting a grip on the people he had forcefully converted on his home ground of Mecca and Medina/Yathrib, to make the best of themselves under his personal governance. Yet what rapidly came into being was a comprehensive structure of living and thinking demanding strict obedience to a detailed rote of worship, a legal system, a dietary regime, hygienic practice, matrimonial procedures, set conduct towards slaves and wives (doctrinally defined as subservient to the husband who owned them), and towards their children, to be educated exclusively by the mosque. The Prophet himself remained illiterate. What he learned was by hearsay and from God; what he taught was by mouth.
There was to be no countering these divinely revealed rules. Apostasy warranted death by beheading, infidelity – at least on the part of the woman – by stoning. The rewards of religious compliance, in particular for the male, were to await him in a famously sexualized paradise. Thinking for yourself was nowhere conceded; ‘light’ as a concept of mind or soul, was not on offer; it was a structure for the generality of unthinking man. But as a structure among those desert-girt Arabs it proved acceptable, and soon brought them a heady and unprecedented scent of power.
It was not until some two decades after the Prophet’s death that the Koran was assembled as a single, Allah-inspired revelation from the scraps of parchment, palm leaves, animal hides and shoulder-bones on which his utterances had been noted down by one follower or another. It was another generation before the Koran, the ‘writing’, was codified and enshrined as the unassailable and unchallengeable voice of Allah, transmitted by his Messenger. Already by then, with sword and slogan, the Arab armies were on the surge north, northwest, and northeast, and indeed south, converting by the sword.
Simultaneously they were setting in place administrative structures and legal mechanisms that could be made to work, with a lingua franca, Arabic, to go with it, under the leadership of a sequence of caliphs, ‘representatives of Allah’, each in his contrasting ways of mounting ambition and ruthlessness: Umar, Uthman … & Mu’awiya. Each of them was in turn assassinated until, in 680, half a century after Mohamed’s death, the two main factional contestants for Islamic authority confronted one another at Karbela, in Mesopotamia, and the split between the prevailing majority, Sunni, and the Shia, soon to be centred upon Persia, became the permanent reality of the Muslim world.
Mohamed himself, exemplar of his rule on his own ground in the Hejaz, had made no bones about how to secure the allegiance to the god-ordained cause of Arab rule. You can read him in the 47th sura, or chapter, of the Koran. ‘When you encounter non-believers, smiting to the neck it shall be until – once you have routed them – you are to tighten their fetters.’ Likewise on the plunders of Allah-ordained battle: ‘Tell our Believers,’ declares sura 8, ‘the spoils of war belong to God and his Messenger … Remember the time when you were few in number and held to be weak on earth and you feared men would tear you to pieces.’
Such a style of propagation of the Faith was remote indeed from the Christianity of some 6 centuries earlier as seeded by Jesus of Nazareth and disseminated by his apostles and Paul and by the saints and martyrs of the first four centuries of what we know as the Christian era.
Islam, from its inception, was spread by force and fear, at Allah’s command. It had risen as an ethnic phenomenon on the part of marginalized and mostly nomadic Arabian people at a moment of unprecedented vulnerability for the two empires confronting one another across the Indo-European world: that of Christian Byzantium and largely Zoroastrian or Buddhist Iran.
It is not widely understood how such a lacuna of orderly power had opened up since the previous mid-century, the 6th, and the expansion of Byzantine power under the emperor Justinian and his pact of ‘eternal peace’ with the Khusrow, the Persian shahanshah. A combination a fortuitous disasters or misfortunes descended upon the established twin imperial order. These included two devastating waves of bubonic plague. The Justinian-Khusrow pact had broken down the enfeebled Byzantine was threatened by Persians from the east and Avars from the north. Persia was in turn embattled with its Parthian neighbours from the Caspian.
To their own astonishment, the Arab armies had swiftly displaced the Byzantine Romans from Palestine and Syria, and soon thereafter the Persians from Mesopotamia. In the city of Jerusalem, already holy both to Jews and Christians, they erected their mosque – the ‘house of prostration’ – in the immediate vicinity of the Jewish temple and the Christian Church of the Resurrection.
In this new, quasi-imperial, reality of the Caliphate the existent cultures, languages, allegiances of belief and attendant custom and ritual, once subdued, were permitted a licensed co-existence within a dominant Islam, with some non-converts paying a fee for the privilege – Christians of various persuasions, from Nestorian to Copt; Jews; less comfortably Zoroastrians, Samaritans, Manichaeans. The Caliphate was ethnically inclusive both of fellow Arabs as well as linguistically and culturally sharply different communities speaking Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Phoenician, Kurdish, Circassian, Berber, Cushitic, Persian, Parthian and Dari. Such diversity held together with workable constraints and cultural fertility to survive the convulsion of the Umayyid Caliphate’s displacement by the Abbasid in 749, and the abrupt shift of the imperial capital from Damascus to Baghdad, in Mesopotamia.
Islam, and its Arabic, remained the repository of governance, law and administration across a territory which in the span of half a century had come to embrace the peoples east-to-west from beyond the Indus to the Atlantic, reaching southward along the Sahara and lower Egypt and Red Sea, and northward to the eastern shore of the Black Sea, the Caspian, and across the Oxus to the Aral Sea. It held together, however restlessly, as a vast region of open trade, while preserving a range of local rulerships and allegiances, albeit subject to the ultimate authority of Koranic Sharia and imperial taxation.
The salient point is that the expansion of the Caliphate as a single territorial entity was an achievement by a people who had hitherto been seen, and had seen themselves, as peripheral to the mainstream of civilization in the known world – as what the racing men among us would call the ‘also-rans’: a scattered, non-cohesive and preponderantly nomadic people of nugatory cultural attainment beyond orally-transmitted Bedouin poetry. What supremely had happened was an ethnic assertion of power, with an underpinning, or over-arching, of divine revelation to one member of a community conditioned by a relentlessly harsh and waterless environment which in themselves called forth the specific collective disciplines their newly devised religion codified.
With the stuff of the new religion itself all but confessedly derivative from the Judaism which pervaded the sweep of territory where Islam originated, plus a dusting of Christianity, the salient figures and mythologies of Abramic tradition were familiar to all of Semitic heritage. The progeny of Hagar and her son by Abraham, Ishmael, no less than of Noah and Lot, Isaac and Jacob – all were present in genealogical descent as far as the revered and historically verifiable Solomon-bar-David. Not only its precepts but the tone of high-flown incantatory diction and ecstatic utterances of the Prophet as recorded in the Koran and Hadith, echoed the language of prophetic Jewish scripture.
As for the dusting of Christianity, the figure of Jesus of Nazareth was indeed honoured as being imbued by the spirit of God, yet as one more in the line of prophets beginning with Abraham and Moses. Islam, however, had decisively overlooked Jesus’ over-riding doctrine of love and, supremely, of loving one’s enemy, of ‘turning the other cheek’. By that critical spiritual advance (one cannot put it otherwise) Christianity had enshrined the supersession of lex talionis – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – such as informs Judaism and Islam alike and, to this day, bedevils Arab-Jewish relations. It is that supersession which has lifted Christianity to its spiritual eminence and doctrinal distinction.
Let me make a provocative analogy. The derivativeness of Islam’s doctrine and style from Jewish scripture and experience was no less evident and no less ready-made than Mormonism’s derivativeness from the Bible. There’s many a fine Mormon – and Mitt Romney could make an honourable President of the US. But we can none of us doubt that the teenage Joe Smith could not have interpreted the gold sheets he claimed he found in a hollow on a hilltop in upstate New York a couple of centuries ago to give us the Book of Mormon in some 500 pages, if he had not grown up in a bible-reading family and was steeped from childhood in the two Judaeo-Christian testaments, New and Old. My analogy is not frivolous. There are many million devout Mormons in the world just as intelligent as the rest of us: they own a fair number of the hotel chains in the US and no longer go in for polygamy.
The point I seek to make is that it’s a matter of place and time as to what takes off as a new so-called faith, however frail the plausibility.
From the mid-7th century to the mid-9th, philosophical debate persisted in the Islamic hierarchy. Then things came to a head between the free-thinkers and the upholders of Koranic orthodoxy. Under the liberal regime of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun, the so-called Mutazilites were in the ascendant, championing man’s moral freedom and responsibility for his actions, albeit under divine aegis. Then Sunni traditionalists rose in objection. They were headed by the scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal.
The diehards won the day. Religious enquiry and diversity were ruthlessly swept aside and doctrine was purged of dissent. At the heart of the empire (then Baghdad), the exclusive authority of the Koran was asserted, and accepted texts were confined to that book and the Hadith, the assemblage of comments and deeds attributed to Mohamed, of which two contrasting versions had come into existence, one for Sunni and one for Shia.
At the doctrinal and religious Arab fountainhead, therefore, from that fateful year 848 there was to be no advancing of Islamic theology: no more debate, no re-defining, no voiceable speculation, no free-thinking analysis. The Koran was revealed Arabic scripture and declared untranslatable, its rote-repetition the route to eternal truth, and adherence to its disciplinary, dietary, societal, legal and devotional rules the sole code of righteousness. Believers were not to think for themselves: Islam meant what it said: submission. Obscurantism was to rule, in the hands of the Caliphate’s imams. And as we shall see, it persists to this day. You will find – I have personally found – those who can, and will, recite whole tracts of the Koran in Arabic, without understanding Arabic at all: they are making sounds to whose meaning they are entirely deaf. It is purely a talismanic exercise, on a phenomenal scale.
By a quirk of history, however, – a fathomable quirk – Islam was then on the brink of its golden age which would flourish throughout most of Europe’s Middle Ages, to the mid 13th century. That was when, in 1258, the Mongol horde under Hulegu, grandson of Genghis, took Baghdad, destroyed it, and slaughtered the last Abbasid Caliph.
So what had transpired after the defeat of liberal Mutazilite thinkers and creators of the al Mamun caliphate by the diehard Hanbali and Hanafi purists in mid-9th century Baghdad?
There had followed an instant purge of free-thinkers and intellectual explorers in the region of the Caliphate’s capital city. It was a savage age. Dissenters died. Baghdad’s leading scholarly polymath, the philosopher and medical researcher, Al Kindi, who was attempting to align Neoplatonic spirituality with Islamic, had his library seized and confiscated. Across the Caliphate wherever the mosque’s imam remained in Arab hands, there was retribution or persecution. The mystical poet and teacher Al Hallaj was to be put to death for daring to proclaim his personal union with God. Yet by now the empire was territorially vast and already, following complex upheavals, no longer the ideological fiefdom of the Baghdad Caliph. It was culturally alive in its own parts in its own way.
Islam had introduced across a vast area an approximate structural commonality. But already it was no longer in ethnically Arab hands, and already its upheavals had resulted in three territorial segments comprising Mesopotamia and a partially Islamised Persia, the Levant and Red Sea, and a North Africa now incorporating Muslim-colonised Spain. Soon the three divisions would be five, still as a nominal Caliphate, though no longer an Arab but a Persian in the Caliph’s role and with no overall doctrinal inhibiting of intellectual fertility. In Europe, the breath-taking surge of conquest had been already halted, and indeed turned, at Poitiers, in France, in 732 by Charles Martel; Islam on European soil was now contained south of the Pyrenees. Yet, hence, on account of the diversification, the intellectual ferment running through much of Islamised territory at the end of what Christians would call the first millennium was fecund and irrepressible, if not doctrinally at least intellectually.
Only a few of the leading figures, famous in their day, their names revered by students of the period down to the present, were ethnically Arab: instead they were north Africans (such as Berbers), Syrians, Kurds, Persians, or Turkmen, and in an outstanding instance, Jewish. These shining lights were invariably men of brilliance and high scholarship – Al Khwarizmi the geographer and mathematician who has given his name to our word algorithm and died during the pogrom against free thought; al Biruni the physicist who at Caliph al Mamun’s request had calculated the circumference of the earth to within 41 metres of accuracy – that same earth which the Church of Rome, some 8 centuries later in the time of Galileo, deemed to be flat (as did the very recent prime spiritual authority of Saudi Arabia); al Farabi, the philosopher, musician and logician, who died in 950; Ibn al Nafis, dying in 1256, who described with precision the circulation of the blood, anticipating our own physician William Harvey by three and a half centuries. There was Avicenna – Ibn Sina – seen, by the evidence of his name, as at least half Chinese, who translated from the Greek into Arabic the works of Aristotle and the Enneads of Plotinus. There was Averroes – Ibn Rashid – the lawyer, from Spain, who, by the medium of Greek into Arabic and thence to Latin brought various Aristotelean texts to the cognisance of mediaeval Christian scholars like Aquinas and Meister Eckhart. There was the dazzlingly versatile Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian (by today’s geography): scientist, mathematician lawyer, philosopher, historian and indefatigable traveller who in the late 14th century met and parleyed with Tamberlane, the Mongul empire-extender, anticipating the eventual attunement of the Moghul invaders of India to Islamic conversion.
These Islamic luminaries were all at work in defiance of the Caliphate’s ideologically Koranic exclusivity, and sometimes in the face of outright condemnation – most memorably by their fellow scholar and polymath al Ghazali. Like various others, al Ghazali strove to reconcile or at least align the spiritual reality – what in Islam is known as al haqq – of man’s deeper devotional experience with what can be found in the Koran. It was largely, and disquietingly, in vain. Al Ghazali himself, so ardent, somehow foundered and failed, at an advanced age in 1095, and underwent a nervous breakdown. Yet from this he was to emerge, restored, by patient ascent into the refinement and self-denial of mystical union with God, which in the context of Islam we know as Sufism and which he saw as the valid bequest of Mohamed.
This ascent is significant in the context of our theme, Islam and its future. By whatever route He or It is approached, God is God. Man, with the blessing, – or the curse, – of consciousness, and his recognition of the ‘I’ in its terrifying isolation, cannot but reach out for that which has permitted the fact of being: what the Hebrews (avoiding a name) termed ‘rthe Great I Am’. Such man indeed attained to, and always will, by a multitude of routes in a variety of experiences, – overwhelming, ecstatic, momentary or sustaining –; yet all, intimate collectively or separately, characterised by the loss of self in the embrace of that which is no longer of place and time but of the infinite and eternal. This is the embrace which the Christian has notably perceived as the love of God in reciprocation.
It is describable (if at all) in recollection most readily in the erotic metaphor of, say, – in our own tradition – the Song of Songs or the poetry of St John of the Cross, the spiritual ecstasy of the scholar-hermit Richard Rolle of Hampole and his Incendium Amoris (Fire of Love) of the 15th century. The Dialogue of Catherine of Siena in the previous century, or the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing bear vivid witness to the same experience. So too does the apophasis of the non-Christian Neoplatonists in the 2nd century, or in the 17th century Jakob Boehme, inspirer of the Romantic philosophers of our own era.
It is no coincidence the greatest exponent of Islamic mysticism, Sufism, also of that Golden Age of Islamic civilisation I have spoken of, is and was, like John of the Cross, a Spaniard, or at least half a Spaniard: Ibn Arabi from Andalusia of the 13th century, some three and a half centuries before his Christian fellow-mystic, John. They shared a territory, a heritage of, at the very least, landscape, quite probably one language or another, and idiom, and, dare I say it, God. Ibn Arabi’s near contemporary Sufic exponent was the Farsi-speaking central Asian, Jalal uddin Rumi, from Balkh in today’s Afghanistan but then Persia: teacher, poet, and initiator of the so-called whirling dervishes. (It is a stately whirl.)
Now, the Sufic contribution to Islam of the Golden Age is vital to grasp. It was, we must be sure to bring ourselves to recognise, at least a partial redemption of the Islamic event. And so it remains. It was present already in the 9th century with the Persian Al Bistami, and in the 11th with Al Maari, the Syrian, philosopher of the ‘necessity of what is not necessary’. The experience of the Sufi is as authentic and vital as that of the Christian mystic, or the Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu or indeed the Taoist. The surviving utterances of the Sufis are inspired, and enduring, and at one with the spiritual attainment of Man universally.
What strikes us in the Islam of the Golden Age is how eclectic it was and evidently needed to be, as a very consequence of the rigour and insubstantiality of the theological base provided by the Koran and the Hadith through which alone the Prophet provided his doctrine.
As to the literary strain of this new and unforeseeable Arab-initiated civilisation, it took root amid the Sufis in the medium of Arabic, and separately amid anciently highly literate Persians in their tongue. The brilliant Jewish polymath Maimonides, born in Cordoba in 1135, drew upon Al Farabi and Avicenna to bring a measure of reconciliation between the Islam he served as an administrator and Judaism, and indeed Aristotle and the Neoplatonists he translated. Thomas Aquinas was to draw upon his wisdom.
The Persians, albeit Islamised, saw themselves as perhaps aloof from strictly Koranic ideology. This we can hear and respond to in the 15th century voices of the poets Hafiz or Omar Khayyam or that wonderfully ambitious and inventive Farud uddin Attar whose masterpiece of pilgrimage in the quest for Truth (al Haqq), The Conference of the Birds, has scarcely a reference to the Koran: Mohamed gets no more than a nod. (That said, the leader of the Truth-seeking birds is the hoopoe, whose head and beak describe a calligraphized bismillah: the In the name of God with which the Koran opens.) Even more startling, and blissfully daring, is the poet Kabir, of exquisite economy and imaginative verve who, clearly of Muslim provenance in Moghul India, took off creatively in the Hindu idiom.
In my inexpert observation, much of the creative flowering of Islam’s Golden Age seems more in the spirit of the Shia persuasion than of the majority Sunni. And let us place all this against the rigorous injunction of submission by which Islam kept hold of its masses, induced its ritual of prostration and rote utterance at set points in the day in the house of prostration.
We are now touching the nub of the dilemma that Islam confronts us on the international scene of today and the Britain of today: orthodox Islam shuts down independence of thought, endeavour, and action. It confines its adherents to its given mode in the totality and minutiae of life. Allah, with His Messenger, peace be upon him, never takes a step back: He is forever under your feet, managing the household and also – ideologically – the civil government you live under. Since Allah’s Koran ordains how a man shall handle his wife or children or servant or slave, to disobey that husband or father or master is to disobey or defy God. For a person to seek their own destiny, their own route to fulfilment, is not less than presumptuous towards an Allah who has closed off all options but what is comprehensively prescribed in ‘the Writing’. The ever repeated insh’allah in the Arabic-speaking world – the if it is God’s will – is, and morally should be, central to every believer’s mindset. The essential human Will to self-exploration and self-advancement as upheld by Aristotle of the Hellenes, say, or the Christian Descartes, is disallowed – that critical thrust to emotional, creative and scientific exploration, experimentation and enlightenment. Such is the thrust that drove forward European civilisation and more recently north-Atlantic Christendom from the Renaissance’s exposure to Hellenism, and the Reformation’s exposure of the Bible in the vernacular to every reader’s assessment and response.
So the Golden Age of Islam came to be eclipsed by the reawakening Europe of the 15th and 16th centuries with the global reach of Europe’s geographic explorations, and the intellectual explorations of its thinkers, writers, musicians, artists and indeed certain of its men of God. That self-generative drive to human advancement and personal betterment since the Middle Ages was to leave the diaspora of Islam behind both creatively and spiritually, both intellectually and politically. This too we must grasp.
Given a prescribed mindset, for a person to live in the perpetual entertainment of another option – a putative choice, now or at some future point in time – of the commanding given, whether of god or government, is a virtual psychological impossibility. It is a recipe for neurosis. Hence the virtual impossibility of a Muslim nation living within a democracy, as we know it. The political map of today’s world dismally demonstrates this reality. Various of our Western political leaders, all elected – Mr Hague or Mr Cameron among them – may have fancied that the Arab Spring, so-called, was a popular surge to the prospect of electoral freedom. How starry-eyed they now know themselves to have been. Only a fragment on the streets sought a democracy – sought anything beyond the overthrow of the current form of tyranny in favour of a better one.
Within the Islamic masses, what was to remain was the intimate comfort of micro-management by an Allah who was as remote as the stars that crowded the desert sky by night. He was of the ‘hundred names’, or perhaps a thousand, of which the most spoken is ‘the Compassionate’, which is to say he pities us men, the pinnacle of His creativity; and the next most spoken name is the Merciful, which was to forgive Man’s weakness, backsliding, fallibility. He is way out there and in no way down here. Man’s best course, his enjoined course, is resignation.
Here on earth for the common run of the Muslim faithful there is no mediator, no human sonship, no exemplar, divine incarnation, such as had broken forth from the Jewish tradition in the figure of Jesus from little Nazareth five and a half centuries before Mohamed had been born. Allah’s word did not become flesh. His followers’ ‘incarnation’ was, and remains, that jumbled book of his utterances and injunctions, shafts of ecstasy and incantation.
Put the two alongside. Oh my God.
There has been no such overt juxtaposition. Yet the Koranic, mosque-provided deficiency has borne down upon the intelligent devout. Their refuge has been Sufism, of which I have emphasised the significance: at the bald peak the faiths meet. At the abandonment of religious exclusivity.
For the Muslim, bereft of any of the Christly mediation with which most of us are familiar in our lives or at least in our inherited patterns of thought and morality – for the Muslim adherent to lose yourself in the presence of Allah by is no readily accessible experience by sticking to the rules and parroting the Koran. I tread warily. God is God; prayer is prayer. Let one not presume to devalue any man’s prayer. Yet the surrender of the self in union with the Creator of the Universe, with Allah, cannot but be an elevation of a remote, and starker order for the common man in regular attendance at the mosque for repeated prostration, and no woman in any circumstances, sans praise, sans music, sans mediator, sans Messiah. Such a Koran’s rote, I venture, would have brought to silence Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John Bunyan, Dante Alighieri, John Milton, Thomas Tallis to JS Bach to Olivier Messiaen. It would have stayed the hand of Michelangelo or El Greco or Samuel Palmer, and so on through the vast range of Christian or Christianised creators of our contemporary world. In the Allah remaining to our world is no option for flesh-and-blood identification in the conduct of life, no loving-kindness of Christian terminology, no Koranic equivalent of the grace of God; an Arabic ruh for ‘spirit’ yet not for the Holy Spirit as function in the invocative sense assumed by Jesus.
Sufic spirituality is not at hand for the common worshipper; not for the collective devout in the mosque below, prostrating by a diurnal routine of submission. In today’s Islamic heartland, Saudi Arabia, guardian of the holy places of Mecca and Medina, Sufism is viewed with extreme suspicion. It is not for men and women to suppose themselves capable of personal union with God. When not so long ago, as I entered the country by the airport at Riyadh, my baggage was duly inspected, and any printed items submitted to the airport’s official censor. My briefcase was found to contain a study of Sufism by the Edwardian scholar Reynard Nicholson: it was confiscated (like Al Kindi’s library!).
We should not underestimate Saudi Arabia in the Islamic phenomenon of our own time.
We need to know what has happened since the Golden Age of Islam with its brilliant scholars, scientists, poets and mystics, and its astonishing architectural achievements various of you will be familiar with in Cordoba, Granada, Marrakesh, Fez, Tlemcen, Tunis, Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Samarra, Bukhara, Samarkand, Isfahan, Herat and Agra.
Islam as a culture, rooted in submission, in resignation, had no resources for competing with Renaissance and post-Reformation Europe in human advancement, with Europe’s of dominance in respect of power, wealth, technological development, and the fertilization of ideas. Islam’s intellectual freedom was frustrated by the straight-jacket of its Koranic insistence; its ability to handle modern statehood and government-by-consent stymied by the Islamic mindset.
Moghul rise in Hindu and Dravidian India, already faltering after two centuries, was ineluctably replaced by British traders. This self-same seafaring nation was soon in turn to establish colonial authority in Singapore and its Muslim Malayan hinterland, as were the Dutch in Java and the rest of the mostly Muslim East Indies, somewhat as the Romanoffs took power in Islamised Turkic and Tajik central Asia from the 18th century.
The countervailing spread of Ottoman authority prior to and following the capture of Constantinople in 1453 was to prove over time not the reassertion of a proselytizing Islam it seemed to threaten. It was, rather, an Asian people’s ethnic thrust for power and grandeur and, perhaps above all, an entry into Europe and what Europe meant in terms of human sophistication. It is not generally known how close the Ottoman Sultan and his regime came to having the entire structure convert to Christianity four years after its capture of its newly named Istanbul – conversion to a Christianity seen as the source of an ineffable and elusive mode de vie.
In the longer unfolding of Ottoman history, after the defeat by the ships of the Venetian alliance in the Adriatic at Lepanto in 1571, and Sultan’s failure to capture Vienna a century later, Ottoman imperialism was set to wane, stifled by its own bureaucracy and petty corruption until its ill-judged alliance with Germany in the Great War stripped it of all it once possessed. There was naked Turkey, albeit still with its foothold in territorial Europe at Istanbul. As we know, Turkey’s thrust would not be for a revitalized Islam but the very opposite: a defiant secularism under its chosen head of state, the Albanian Kamal Ataturk, who ruled in permanent evening dress à la Savile Row.
The colonial powers of Europe had come to occupy the bulk of the vanished Ottoman empire as surrogate rulers – Britain, France, and in the far Maghreb, Spain too. Islam, on the face of it, had had its day. Its monuments remained, from the Alhambra to the Taj Mahal, to astound the visitor, like the monuments of Greece and Rome whose gods were as dead as their sacerdotes and Caesars; the adherents of its mosques and rituals populated the earth from north Africa to central and southern Asia to the Indies, yet everywhere as vassals of a European paternalism in power and governance, skills and wealth.
By today, however, something has changed. You do not require from me a potted history of the past ¾ of a century. In the context of the West and of Britain today, of the Britain whose Prime Minister was moved the other day emphatically to require from us the eradication of an Islamist enemy in our midst and to warn against an imperious threat to a fragile Middle East from a new self-proclaimed caliphate bent on jihad, I need only to point to developments. Neither was predictable a mere two or three generations ago – in, say, 1940: namely oil, and migration.
Arab oil was to transform the world’s economy with extraordinary suddenness and to cascade wealth upon a region of the globe previously perceived as the least endowed. The region’s largest and richest state of all, a brand new one, happened to contain the site of Islam’s birthplace and thus to host the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage its Prophet enjoined. By virtue of that peninsula’s seeming worthlessness, the desert peninsula had largely escaped colonial intrusion. Instead it had come into a kind of isolated statehood as an Islamic theocracy among its mid-easterly oases as recently at the 18th century by virtue of a pact in 1744 between an inspired preacher of a fundamentalist conviction – let us describe it Calvinistic – and a family ambitious for power. The Islamic Calvinism banned all music, all song, all decorative art, all symbolism, even the erection of a gravestone. It would wish to eliminate of anything which laid claim to civilisation prior to the arrival of Islam.
This theocratic authority the Saudi family with its Wahhabi doctrine held and spread for a couple of generations until crushed by the Ottomans in 1818. That theocracy was to return, albeit more briefly, and territorially confined, with that same fundamentalist credo of Mohamed Ibn abd al-Wahhab in the final third of the 19th century, only to be crushed again. Then, on January 15th 1902, the charismatic young Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, emerging secretly from exile, stormed the key oasis of Riyadh with a raiding party. So Ibn Saud, as history knows him, launched his progressive mastering of the whole territory we know today as Saudi Arabia, under the same Wahhabi banner until his formal declaration of kingdomhood, peninsula-wide, in 1932.
In the new Sunni kingdom’s predominantly Shiite eastern province on the Persian Gulf Western prospectors were probing for oil. Ultimately it was Americans – in 1937 – who found it at Dhahran. Soon after the War the vast extent of the hydrocarbon treasure began to be apparent. It took Israel’s devastating victory in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 for Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbours in the Gulf to nationalize their oil and gas resources and quadruple the price. So released the deluge of wealth upon the family kingdom’s territory and government, and so began the massive funding of the Wahhabi intervention in international Islam with the endowment of mosques and madrassas worldwide, and the arming of Allah-driven insurrection in Russian occupied Afghanistan, the incipient Taleban.
Today the Saudi leadership may rue that global funding. At this moment they find themselves aligned with us and America and, obscurely, Assad’s secular Syria, and even Shi-ite Iran, to confront Isil. Yet Isil and Ossama bin Laden and the Taleban and al Qa’ida and jihadist suicide bombers are no less the whelps of Abd al Wahhab’s fundamentalism, actively disseminated by Saudi money since the mid-’70s.
This same past half-century we in Britain have admitted in unprecedented numbers Muslim economic immigrants from our former empire. Overwhelmingly they have come from the Pakistan impetuously brought into being in 1947 under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. That country’s Bengali eastern half broke away as Bangladesh. Wholly Muslim in faith and mindset, and in impervious family allegiances, the immigrant communities are today embedded in Britain’s major conurbations predominantly in Northern and Midlands working-class communities. In our political indolence and our blithely liberal generosity, we have fostered the establishment on our alien soil a working replica of a fundamentalist, and often Saudi-financed Islamism. Under the attractive title of multiculturalism, by which the governing class flatters itself with the moral elevation of its own citizenry’s resentful hospitality, we have accommodated usage of the languages and mores of implanted communities which neither need nor seek appreciable engagement with the hosting nation.
Historically we must set this idealism against the horror of ethnicity gone mad in Nazi Germany, and a subsequent revulsion for the race-based policy of the Boers’ apartheid in our own empire’s former dominion of South Africa. Today there are Islamic communities of comparable proportion to ours in France and Germany, and in lesser measure elsewhere in continental Europe.
We and European partners are only now beginning to grasp what this means. The Islam we have imported is a collective religious allegiance providing a comprehensive programme of life permitting no questioning, no debate, not even – indeed – harkening, and ordained by God. We of a Christian and Christian-Hellenic inheritance and presumption of the pursuit of personal enlightenment interpret Islam as if it were like Christianity with differences. Yet there is no such essential comparability between the religions. Christianity is a religion and a mindset for individuals – or of ‘two or three gathered together’; and that Christian right to individuality, to personal autonomy, in conviction and manner of life has come to apply as a moral right on the part of the secular majority of today’s native British.
Islam is a strictly collective religion, wilfully and even gratefully blinkered, fundamentalist in its essence, and with its rewards to come in in a five-star paradise.
The Muslim community has been able to seal itself off not only from the Christianity being offered in the church down the road from the mosque, but from the indolent secularity of the host community which any imam perceives around him. That imam is possessive of the allegiance which separates his own congregation from the indigenous British whom he justifiably despises for their shallowness, selfishness, indulgence and mean priorities. He sees a society of welfare dependency, fecklessness, broken families, fatherless families, motherless families, or no perceptible family at all.
As for any immigrant Muslim who has slithered into pornographic lusts, bought sex, drugs and drink there can be little surprise that he or she might rebound into redeeming his own life in one go as a suicide bomber, for a desperately reclaimed Islamic identity.
That’s a relative rarity. Yet for the generality of the immigrant Muslim communities, they cannot but experience a perpetual tension at being unable to apply the totality of their religion within their own lives as immigrants, above all their God-given Sharia. As the distinguished Arabist Philip Gordon has stressed, they may not apply the criminal law to their own kind, or the marriage and divorce rules of the Sharia within their own community. They cannot flog those who drink, stone adulterers, behead apostates, or amputate the hands of thieves. They cannot, usually, break into classroom schedules to go off and prostrate. They cannot with any ease conduct the month-long daylight-hours comprehensive fast of the month of Ramadan. Parents may no longer assume the right to pick their daughter’s future husband. Yet every Friday their imams preaching in the mosque will insist that their entire raison d’être is as Muslims, who need nothing but what is prescribed for them in the Koran or Hadith, and to whom the temptations and choices encircling them are haram, forbidden.
Let us be clear-sighted as to this unresolvable unease throughout the immigrant Muslim communities. Their Islamic credentials cannot but be compromised by letting go into the civilization they have landed among, accepting its western rule of law with its juries and independent judiciary, its built-in tolerance, its democratic premise and processes, its equating of the sexes in education, income, and choices of profession. Their identity is threatened, and such a threat is devastating. Of the host community’s deeper civilisation they will neither seek nor discover anything. They will come to know nothing of its music or its creative arts – nothing, say, of the Promenade concerts, our engagement with nature, our literature, our rooted heritage and history. They will be largely untouched by our sporting festivals, adventure holidays, footloose gap years, by the discovering of another over a pint in the pub. The preservation of their Islamic identity is in perpetual hazard; and without that identity they are lost. Even the spokesmen of the implanted Muslim communities are self-evidently compromised since, by definition, their true spokesman cannot be other than their imam, who has nothing to offer but the Koran.
So what will transpire?
There are those among of the Muslim conviction whom we surely admire and who are articulate on behalf of their faith. But here I say without equivocation that what they are upholding and speaking for is Sufism; and Sufism rides above the collective identity of the lumpen submissive. I think of Mona Siddiqui, professor of ‘Islamic and inter-religious studies’ at Edinburgh University. How eloquently Mona speaks, yet it is of Sufi experience, not the Hanbali mosque’s injunction. She can and sound to me frequently indistinguishable from an elevated Christian. As I find myself often saying, at the bald peak of religious experience, all experience is one.
There are, however, those of Muslim provenance who have attuned to Western precept and have become pioneers and leaders in science and sometimes the arts. I wonder if any of you saw that recent Malian film Timbuktu by Abdurrahmane Sissako – a film of compelling effect and sensitivity, essentially on an Islamic theme – made for a cross-cultural audience yet of mostly Western, non-Muslim provenance speaking French or English. Now, this cross-cultural trend is significant. Of such as the writer-director I used the word Islamic provenance when I might have said allegiance. Ever more frequently we see those of Muslim names and birth who have risen to prominence in professions where secular disciplines and methods must take precedence – in economics, in the media as reporters and analysts and commentators, in areas as diverse as medicine to high fashion. I have already mentioned science. They are still rare in mainstream law and education. But those accommodating to Western mores at depth are the conspicuous trend.
The bold French have banned the hijab. We have been less decisive: perhaps we assume, here in Britain, the hijab will slowly disappear on its own: so my own instinct supposes. The liberties of the Hellenic-Christian inheritance are too enticing. The allure of personal temptation is precisely matched by the lure of personal enlightenment. Bit by bit, our seemingly impervious Islamic communities will fissure and flake. A secularisation will erratically ensue.
What we of the host community have to do is not gratuitously add to existing ghettoes and to stop upholding the merit of multiculturalism. We must stop attempting to equate our so-called faiths: we disparage the word ‘faith’ by doing so. They are not equate-able. They may be routes to a single truth yet inescapably compromising that truth by the manner of its practice. To teach a rack of ‘faiths’ on such a basis in schools is insulting to each and every one of them. To teach thus without comparing the respective merits of the preacher is ridiculous; to do so impossibly invidious in the climate of the times. Such teaching should be abandoned. That is for the church, the mosque and the synagogue; cross-faith evaluation cannot but remain extra-curricular.
Yes, we may come to meet spiritually, but that will not occur at the level of ritual and doctrine: it will happen in prayer or shared meditation, on the plane known to Sufis, and of a common mysticism in the Christian or Jewish tradition. I would dare no more than to suggest that a person of Sufic experience may more readily descend by the scaffolding of doctrine and ritual into the daily management of life in the global village, honouring God through the mediation of the Jesus figure than of the Koranic text.
Islam as a workable religion is under vivid strain not only in its implantation in the non-Muslim West but on its home ground worldwide, in the global village we are ineluctably becoming. Virtually every Islamic country you can call to mind is in jeopardy, hazardously volatile, in disorder, or tyrannical. The prayer-list is long and familiar: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan … even Indonesia and Malaysia.
In various of those countries, jihadist or fundamentalist groups of one stripe or another are at work as terrorist organizations or actual contenders for power, or both – most vividly Isil in Iraq and Syria, Taleban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qai’da in Yemen, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Caliphate in Libya. The common characteristic of all such extremism exemplified by savagery, terror and sacrificial suicide, is its desperation. Desperation at what? At the loss of the ingrained identity: as to what constitutes the collective and personal being.
Throughout my own long and intimate acquaintance with worshipping Muslims in Arabia and Pakistan I have met an unmistakable sense of threat presented by the dominance of the so-called Western civilization they do not belong to and cannot handle, yet which unarguably runs the show globally. In Saudi Arabia, they ban not only bibles and churches and Sufism too, but also the satellite dishes which might open the eye of a television viewer the daring and freedom and allures with which the outer world’s civilization are occupied and can, inexplicably, learn to handle. Banning the dishes won’t keep the world out. And even Saudi Arabia’s hydro-carbon income is by way of dwindling.
An impalpable dread lies in the heart. Driving an airliner to New York’s iconic skyscrapers or blowing up a London tube train are evidence, in my judgment, of the thrashing tail of a dying dragon. The dying dragon is Islam in any form workable in the global village. Whether the dragon knows it in a mind conditioned not to think for itself, or merely senses it in inchoate alarm, and whether that dying will take one century or two, or even three, the dread is there. So the tail thrashes.
Among the few, myself included, the devotional evidence of the Sufis will endure, and the discipline of prayer and self-negation which union with God calls forth in any context. Those of our Judaeo-Christian and Hellenic heritage, in contrast with Islam, will not lose their structures of church and hierarchy. We do not live in fear of the loss of cultural identity.
In my assessment the incarnational metaphor of Christianity will prove enduring in a community among which an irreducible but influential minority will maintain its time-tested rituals of worship. The metaphor informs so pervasively our culture to this day. The intellectual fashion for atheism has peaked. Western man is close to stupefaction at the pointlessness of being defined as essentially an entity of economic purport – as a consumerist or hedonist subject to the sales skills of traders and bribes of competing politics. The new gravity is at hand, and maybe it will come about without another global war.
Mr Chairman and friends, let us pray. But you may applaud politely first.