Book Review: The Quran: Epic and Apocalypse by Todd Lawson

What is an epic and what is an apocalypse? After reading this book, it seems that Todd Lawson, an Emeritus Professor of Islamic Thought at Toronto university in Canada, is arguing that an epic provides a narrative about human origins, about self-identity, social structure and our relationship to the supernatural. In that sense, the Qur’an does indeed appear to qualify as an epic. And the apocalypse? Apocalypse is the Greek work for Revelation, Lawson informs us, and reveals secrets about the heavenly world and Divine judgement. So, the Qur’an would qualify on that count too. Great, now – what?

Well, according to Lawson, the situation the world finds itself in means that everyone should better acquaint themselves with the Quran.

“No book has had a greater impact on the history of humanity and the development of world culture. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that to make it part of the educated global citizen’s reading – what used to be thought of as “soul formation” – is a desideratum of some urgency.” (p xii)

I try and keep an open mind with all books. After all, an author – especially a university professor – has often spent years carefully thinking about various issues and their arguments deserve to be heard respectfully before we come to a decision on whether they sound reasonable or not. Here, Lawson, made an argument that I found intriguing:

“If read in the tanzil order of revelation, the Quran sounds like an apocalypse; if read in the order of the mushaf, the Quran sounds like an epic…As sacred epic, then, the Quran is concerned not with a particular ethnic group (unlike previous epics), rather it is concerned with forging a new group for which it is providing a universal narrative. The new group is humanity. This is not a mere literary achievement; it is an epoch-making shift in religious consciousness.” (p xvi-xvii)

Does viewing the Qur’an as epic and apocalypse aid our understanding of its message and power. Lawson claims that it does:

“To recognise the Quran’s apocalyptic and epic voices and their contrapuntal relationship is to observe something quite essential about the way in which the Quran commands and grips an audience, the way it teaches, and the way in which its readership, its audience, develops its attachment to the book.” (p24)

There may perhaps be something in this. I recall reading somewhere – I can’t remember where – of a religious bookseller in a Muslim country who said his best-selling books all concerned topics about the Last Day and the Divine Judgement. But that is hardly conclusive.

I think Lawson is on surer ground when he contrasts the Qur’an with some other epics (think of the Old Testament or the Hindu scriptures):

“…the epic voice of the Quran also offers a critique of other competing, more narrowly ethnic or national epics. The Quran thus calls forth a universal human identity through its insistence on the originary Day of Alast, on the certitude that all human communities have received divine guidance from the same unique and only God, and that all humanity is participating, consciously or not, in a process of civilisation, an epic journey from ignorance to knowledge or enlightenment.” (p 169)

I have read much of the Old Testament and have always found the narrow focus on Israelite history to be somewhat off-putting. The Qur’an by contrast in its very first surah says that it is a message from the “Lord of the worlds” and its final surah calls on us to “seek refuge in the Lord of humankind”. It is an avowedly universal message.

Lawson’s book also includes a Chapter on “Joycean Modernism in Quran and Tafsir” which in practice contains an extensive discussion about the views of the “Iranian Prophet” Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi (or the Bab) – one of the central figures of the Baha’i faith. The chapter seemed out of place in a book about the Qur’an until I learned that Professor Lawson was himself a Baha’i. The chapter seemed a bit forced and would have been better published separately rather than in a book about the Qur’an.

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Standing Up To UK Government Extremism

Yesterday, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javed, gave a speech in London on “Confronting Extremism Together”. At a time when nationalist attitudes are on the rise in Europe and we have a US President whose open bigotry and stoking of white nationalism could quite conceivably lead to the assassination of Muslim Congresswomen such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, it is all the more crucial that all of us who seek a better and more tolerant future work together and challenge those who seek to undermine our freedoms and shared values.

Firstly though, how can we define extremism? The Home Secretary, offered the following definition:

“At its heart, extremism is a rejection of the shared values that make this country great: freedom, equality, democracy, free speech, respect for minorities, and the rule of law.”

That isn’t actually a bad definition and it is quite likely one that – hopefully – all decent minded people would be able to subscribe to.

The Home Secretary singled out two groups by name for criticism yesterday – both Muslim led organisations: CAGE and MEND. Are these groups really extremist? The Home Secretary did not say why he believed that they fall foul of the above definition of extremism. That was a very curious omission especially when he went to the length of specifically singling them out in his speech.

Both organisations have done some valuable work. MEND has focused on challenging anti-Muslim bigotry in the media and successfully campaigned to ensure that police forces throughout the country record incidents of anti-Muslim hatred, just as they were already recording incidents of anti-Jewish hatred. CAGE has done us all a service by shining a light on the area of government funding and creation of supposedly “community-led” Muslim groups. Quite a number of Muslim groups that have come into being in recent years try and portray themselves as being independent whereas they are actually creations of the Home Office and its secretive Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU). No doubt such disclosures are embarrassing to the Home Office and especially to the groups that are trying to portray themselves as being “independent”, but the government should not have tried to conceal this information from taxpayers in the first place. Sadly, honesty and transparency are qualities that quite a few people in government have issues with upholding.

This is not to say that CAGE and MEND are above criticism. I think both CAGE and MEND made a major mistake in failing to support the government’s counter-terrorism programme PREVENT. There is no question that mistakes have been made with PREVENT but that does not mean that the programme as a whole should be scrapped. No government facing a terror threat can afford not to have a counter-terrorism programme seeking to unify communities against the very real threat of violent extremists be they of the al-Qa’ida/ISIS or far-right variety.

Still, let’s get back to the government’s definition of extremism. Is it one that the government itself would pass? Let us take a look at some of the actions (not mere words) that we have seen in recent years from our government:

  • The government provides £13.4 million/year in funding to the Jewish Community Security Trust “to ensure the security of Jewish faith schools, synagogues and communal buildings following concerns raised by the Jewish community.” Which other minority faith group organisation receives this amount of funding? There are over ten times as many UK Muslims as Jews. Do you think that a UK Muslim group receives £134 million or even the same annual £13.4 million to ensure the security of Muslim schools and mosques etc? Of course not – and incidentally I would not want them (or the CST) to. We fund the police to ensure the necessary safety and security of all communities and the money should surely be given to them instead. See here for my previous blog on this issue. The government is clearly failing to treat minorities equally. Is the government therefore extremist by its own definition?
  • Is the government really a promoter of freedom and free speech? It has allied itself and maintains very friendly relations with highly repressive Arab regimes in the Middle East. Are the peoples of those countries not deserving of freedom and free speech? How would they regard our government’s policies in the region? As being extremist perhaps?
  • This week, David Lidington confirmed that the UK would not be establishing a judge-led inquiry to look into the UK’s involvement in the cases of rendition and torture that took place following 9/11. Amnesty International has branded the government’s failure as “disgraceful” and pointed out that a parliamentary committee had said ” it had been blocked by the Government from accessing all the necessary evidence and prevented from conducting a credible, thorough inquiry.” Bearing in mind that the overwhelming number of the victims of rendition and torture following 9/11 are Muslims, do the UK government’s actions demonstrate a “respect for minorities” and “the rule of law” as they require in their definition of extremism?

One of the foremost teachings of the Qur’an is that this life is ephemeral and a test and that the life Hereafter is the real home. It should enable Muslims to resist the allure of government positions and salaries at the expense of speaking the truth to power and seeking justice and fairness.

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WuduMate – Coming to a Workplace Near You?

During the course of helping set up the network infrastructure for a large new building in London I went for a wander – curious git that I am. On one of the floors I saw two rooms marked “Male Contemplation Room” and “Female Contemplation Room” respectively. I have often come across these types of rooms in other buildings and they are very often utilised by Muslim members of staff to perform their daily prayers.

However, this was only the second time I had seen facilities specially installed to allow Muslims to perform their ablutions prior to saying their prayers. At a previous site in Milton Keynes I had seen actual wudu facilities as you would find in a mosque and I was very impressed. Admittedly that was at a very large employer and they could well afford to provide such amenities. Anyway, I took the above pic at the new building of something called “WuduMate” and it wasn’t half bad. The water gushed forth quite forcefully as soon as you placed your hands near the spout and there did not unfortunately appear to be any type of manual control so it all made a bit of a mess around the contraption and you would need to clean up afterwards to avoid inconveniencing others or causing a slip hazard. Nevertheless, it was a lovely gesture in the middle of the city of London.

I wonder how widespread such facilities are? It has to be good for the mental health and well-being of staff to be able to take a few minutes out of their working day to say their prayers so it is surely in the interests of employers to provide such facilities.

Anyway, with the month of Ramadan now underway I wish you all a blessed month and may we all use the opportunity to grow spiritually stronger. Amin.

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Review: “Islam in the West” Special Report in the Economist

The Economist has this week published a special 12-page report on Islam in the West. The report seeks to look at “how Muslim identity has been moulded by external and internal pressures since the mass migration to the West began in the 1950s.”

As you would expect from the Economist large parts of the report appear to be factual, carefully researched and where editorial views are provided, these are on the whole sensible and liberal-minded.

For instance, when acknowledging the challenges posed by what appear to be regressive religious views and practices amongst some sections of Muslims in the West, the Economist argues that:

“Rather than intervene in doctrine, it is better to deal with social conservatism through argument and persuasion.”

It argues against the forced banning of burqas that we have seen in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Hungary and Bulgaria.

“To many Muslims and Western liberals, such policies seem counterproductive. Muslims feel stigmatised, alienated and defensive.”

It calls on the West to continue to uphold its enlightenment traditions of religious tolerance and freedom of belief:

“Having settled in the West…Islam seems destined to stay. The journey so far has not been easy. But a third generation of Muslims now seems set to become a permanent part of a more diverse, more tolerant Western society – as long as that society continues to nurture those virtues.”

The Economist appears to be correct when it observes that an Islamic identity was especially appealing to those second-generation Muslims that were not comfortable with Western norms or with their parents’ more traditional norms.

There are reassuringly few obvious errors in the Economist report though the “brief glossary” provided does seem to be a bit misleading when it provides the following elaboration concerning Ahmadis:

“Ahmadis: A Muslim sect considered heretic by many Sunnis for proclaiming its 19th-century founder in India, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, as the Messiah.”

I am pretty sure that the Shi’a – and not just the majority Sunnis – also consider Ahmadis to be a non-Muslim sect.

The Economist identifies what it sees as four main strands amongst Western Islam: Salafis, political Islam, liberals and lapsed Muslims. The Brelvis are unlikely to be happy about this (though to be fair, many Salafis would probably agree to place them in the “lapsed Muslims” category anyway!).

The phenomenon of – an admittedly tiny number of – Western Muslims engaging in acts of terrorism and brutality has clearly shaken the Western public and has led to a lot of soul-searching about how best to integrate the now 26 million Muslims in Europe. The Economist has surely done the right thing by standing up for religious plurality and tolerance.

Still, having said that, I would have liked to have seen more written about the impact on Western Muslims of the West’s policy of effectively turning a blind eye to ongoing Israeli crimes and brutality in the Occupied Territories, and the nod and wink given to Algeria’s military rulers to launch a coup to prevent the democratic victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1990/1991 by arresting the FIS leaders and crushing all dissent. More surprisingly for a report on Western Islam there appears to be nothing said about the genocide of Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 and how that affected European Muslims.

As a third generation of Muslims in the West now prepares to take the helm, many interesting challenges face the Muslim communities in the West. In a West where the role of religion has been very visibly declining, will Islam follow the same course and be largely confined to the private sphere as the secularisation thesis asserts? Will Muslims accept that universal human rights must trump the restrictions advocated by conservative interpretations of ancient religious texts if human societies are to achieve greater equality and opportunities for all?

The editorial in the Economist is hopeful about the future:

“If today’s varied and liberal form of Islam continues to flourish, it may even serve as an example of tolerance for the rest of the Muslim world.”

Insha’ Allah.

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Independent Review of Prevent – An Opportunity To Raise Concerns

Almost a year ago, I wrote a short blog looking back at 15 years of the Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy and raised some concerns that UK Muslims had about Prevent and said that “the government and authorities should be seen to be engaging with those concerns [of UK Muslims] seriously with a view to improving the effectiveness of the Prevent strategy.”

Last month, in welcome news, the government announced an independent review of Prevent. We have all heard appalling stories about alleged Prevent-related interventions but on closer inspection, I have personally found that quite a few of these stories have been presented in a less than balanced way with important contextual and relevant information often missing. So, let’s be grown up about this. As I stated in my earlier blog:

“Let’s be frank about what a referral to Prevent actually means. It means that your case – if it is deemed to be a cause for concern – will be assessed by a panel which will include local police officials and local authority figures and they will discuss whether your case may benefit from intervention in the form of mentoring etc that might perhaps be useful to you. It is hardly waterboarding, right?”

So, this review should be seen as an opportunity for UK Muslim groups that have been critical of Prevent to come forward with their case and provide recommendations for what can be done to improve matters. And for their part, the government needs to ensure that the review is indeed really independent. The MCB’s Secretary-General, Harun Khan, raised a valid point and will have spoken for many when he said:

“We welcome the government’s support for a review. However, those tasked with its implementation must have the independence, credibility and trust required to deliver it.”

In my experience, the Prevent brand was unfortunately badly tainted by the then Labour government’s decision back in 2008/9 to cut off relations with large community led groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain while funding (and promoting) new outfits such as the Quilliam Foundation which were widely disliked by UK Muslims because of their leadership’s support for the illegal war against Iraq and their attempts to whitewash the dispossession and terrorisation of the Palestinians by the Israelis.

In addition, a number of new Muslim outfits that emerged around this time under the Home Office/Prevent umbrella and claimed to be “independent” but were to UK Muslims evidently anything but independent.

Having said this, the government obviously must have a counter-radicalisation strategy. Bearing in mind that the government has strategies to tackle knife crime, gun crime and drugs, it would be clearly untenable if it did not also have a strategy to try and prevent people, be they Muslim or non-Muslims, from being drawn towards violent extremism.

I have heard some pretty unconvincing arguments against Prevent. One of the most common arguments that is repeated online is that a disproportionate number of those referred by Prevent to the Channel programme (which seeks to provide mentoring and support for vulnerable individuals) are Muslim. For example, the Guardian reported last month that:

“The Home Office said that since 2012 more than 1,200 people had been supported by Channel, a mentoring programme that is part of the Prevent strategy. Of the 394 people who received Channel support in 2017/18, 179 (45%) had been referred for concerns related to Islamist extremism and 174 (44%) for concerns related to right wing extremism.”

As Muslims currently constitute between 3-4% of the UK population, these critics say that it is a clear example of discrimination that 45% of those referred to Channel are Muslim. But is it really? If a significant part of the current domestic terror threat to the UK is from al-Qa’ida or ISIS-inspired terrorism – as it clearly is – then the laws of mathematics make it rather likely that a significant percentage of those referred by Prevent for possible mentoring will be UK Muslims. To argue that this constitutes discrimination is a bit like claiming that Christmas discriminates against turkeys or Qurbaani against sheep.

I very much hope that UK Muslim groups will actively contribute to the independent review and put forward their concerns about Prevent. By helping make Prevent more effective they will be contributing to the safeguarding of our country and its people. And there can be few better ways to demonstrate the genuine teachings of Islam in action than by cooperating with others to safeguard innocent lives.

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Best TV Programme This Xmas? The Royal Institution Xmas Lectures

What was the best TV programme shown over the Xmas period? Not the BBC’s adaptation of The ABC Murders with Poirot played by John Malkovich. Nor Bandersnatch – the gimmicky Black Mirror ‘interactive’ episode that was really a humourless rip-off of – the much more entertaining – The Truman Show. No, the best programme on TV this Xmas was the three part Royal Institution Christmas Lectures shown on BBC4.

Presented by the anatomist Professor Alice Roberts – who some years back also presented the wonderful series Origins of Us – this year’s lectures were on the theme “Who Am I?” The series discussed our kinship with all other living things including plants and animals in a very entertaining and informative way designed to appeal to a younger audience. If like me you are not a science graduate – (I did Computer Science, but it was not really science. Computer Engineering would have been much more accurate, but our head of department told us that many more students enrol if they called it Computer Science.) – then the annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures serve very well as a kind of Dummies Guide to Science.

If you have ever wondered why babies wrap their hands tightly around your finger, or why some people can wiggle their ears or why some people are left-handed or why human embryos have tails in the earliest stages of their development, Alice Roberts offered some ingenious explanations based on our latest knowledge.

You can still watch the series on BBC iPlayer for the next 25 days – after that I assume they will be available on the website of the Royal Institution where you can watch the lectures from previous years.

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Book Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, comes with an impressive recommendation from no less a figure than the principal founder of Microsoft and noted philanthropist, Bill Gates, who describes it as “my new favourite book of all time.” For my part, my spirits were lifted when I saw a familiar quotation right at the beginning of the book from the physicist David Deutsch: “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.” Deutsch happens to be the author of one of my all-time favourite books, The Beginning of Infinity.

The quotation from Deutsch is certainly very apt as it underlines a major theme of this book whose full title is “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”.  At a time when populists and demagogues appear to be on the rise, Pinker’s re-affirmation of the values of the Enlightenment and his insistence on spelling out in detail via no less than seventy-five graphs how the human condition has improved in recent centuries is very welcome and for believers – and I include myself in this category – contain a number of passages that will prove very challenging.

Pinker gets into his stride right away and draws our attention to the facts about how major progress has been made due to science in the areas of life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality and reducing deaths due to disease. Pinker estimates that 177 million lives were saved due to the discovery of the benefits resulting from the chlorination of water alone. He notes how smallpox killed 300 million people in the 20th century and then asks us to now look at a dictionary definition of the disease:

Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola Minor. (p64)

Look at that again. “Smallpox was.” The last case was diagnosed in Somalia in 1977 after the World Health Organisation set itself the task in 1959 of eradicating the disease. It was a tremendous achievement and it was due to an increase in our knowledge about vaccinations. There has also been major progress made in the fight against measles, diphtheria and whooping cough with vaccines having been discovered for each of them.

Deutsch’s quote suggests that there should be many more victories in the future against disease if we continue on the path of reason and science. Pinker agrees and stresses that “It is knowledge that is key.” (p67)

For Muslims, this may serve as a reminder of the Qur’anic prayer “My Lord – increase me in knowledge” (Qur’an 20:114).

Yet, for Pinker, religion is not the answer. He makes the, by now, familiar humanist case that religion has served more to hinder than facilitate progress and asks why we now need religion at all? Did the God of the Bible not command “the Israelites to commit mass rape and genocide, and prescribed the death penalty for blasphemy, idolatry, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath, while finding nothing particularly wrong with slavery, rape, torture, mutilation and genocide.” (p429)

By contrast, Pinker refers to the progress made when we think about maximising human happiness and freedom. He contrasts the religious penalty for idolatry with the words of Thomas Jefferson.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (p417)

The choice is a clear one. Which form of government, religious or secular, will grant more freedom to human beings and prevent more discrimination? When we look at some of the most self-professedly religious states in the world today, whether it is Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan or the Vatican city, Pinker’s argument does seem to have considerable force.

So, if we go along with the argument that reason and science and increasing our store of knowledge are all key to making progress then one has to ask, as Pinker does, “How to build a society that cultivates rational thoughts?” (p27). Pinker argues that a secular and rationalistic approach to education is the key to growth (p234)

“…education exposes people in young adulthood to other races and cultures in a way that makes it harder to demonize them. Most interesting of all is the likelihood that education, when it does what it is supposed to, instils a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdote, and emotional demagoguery.” (p339)

Pinker insists that allowing vigorous open argumentation and reasoned critiques (which interestingly the Muslim societies mentioned a couple of paragraphs above notably do not seem particularly keen on) will lead to good ideas prevailing and bad ones being rejected.

“…as people are forced to justify the way they treat other people, rather than dominating them out of instinctive, religious, or historical inertia, any justification for prejudicial treatment will crumble under scrutiny. Racial segregation, male-only suffrage, and the criminalisation of homosexuality are literally indefensible: people tried to defend them in their times, and they lost the argument.” (p221)

Will we see this progress in the Muslim world? Pinker is optimistic.

“…in every part of the world, people have become more liberal. A lot more liberal: young Muslims in the Middle East, the world’s most conservative culture, have values today that are comparable to those of young people in Western Europe, the world’s most liberal culture, in the early 1960s.” (p228)

Since Pinker’s book was published at the beginning of 2018, this year has seen Muslim organisations protesting in Tunisia – a country with a relatively free press and more liberal attitudes compared with much of the rest of the Arab world – against laws that would grant women equal inheritance rights with men. Maybe it is just birth pangs – because the growth of enlightenment values in much of the Muslim world is very much needed.

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