The importance of context revisited

30 Oct

NOTE: Very relevant to much that follows: Truth and Truthfulness, yesterday’s Encounter on Radio National. See also Truth and Truthfulness in Uncertain Times. The lecture on Gandhi was outstanding.


Well, context is in part what this entry is about. In his latest entry Deus Lo Vult performs a valuable service for all of us who have been unduly influenced by media representations of the Pope’s alleged bagging of Islam earlier this year. I stand corrected, and would encourage everyone, including the Kashmiri Nomad, to reconsider the facts as well. I say this as one who simply does not accept, and never has accepted, the primacy of Rome in the Christian church, let alone the absurd (to me) doctrine of papal infallibility. (As a Catholic priest said to me in the 1970s, Pius IX was “round the twist” when he came up with that one.) I have on the other hand a proper appreciation of the importance of the Catholic Church in the story of Western civilisation in terms of art, music, philosophy, and so much else, and respect the Church’s many good works and acknowledge its great diversity, the last being a fact many overlook.

Deus Lo Vult simply quotes the Pope’s remark in its full context. The result is a no-brainer, by which I mean (lest that expression is misinterpreted) DLV is right: the Pope was quoted out of context, the whole thing was a beatup, and the extreme reactions in the Muslim world were very silly. Go to Deus Lo Vult’s site and read it for yourselves. Unfortunately, here in Sydney Cardinal Pell actually muddied the waters by saying a few gratuitous things of his own at that time.

I fear though that Deus Lo Vult is on shakier ground when it comes to freedom of speech, thorny as that issue is. Both he and I would agree this is a concept not honoured in North Korea or Iran or Saudi Arabia (which funds many an Islamic school in Australia), and in fact hard to find in much of the world, but it is also one of the things the so-called war on terror is actually about.

We need to be aware of the diversity of the Catholic Church, and have a nuanced view of Christianity in general, even of American evangelical Christianity which ranges from Sojourners on the one hand, which I regard as particularly healthy and enlightened, to real-life versions of Landover Baptist Church on the other, which deliver bigotry, parochialism and hate by the bucketful. (The current issue of Sojourners magazine features Senator Barack Obama on the cover.) We need to develop a similarly nuanced view of Islam, which ranges from things like the Wahid Institute on the one hand (and I notice Ahmad Shuja links to that) through a whole array of often conflicting positions and traditions to, well, you-know-who on the other. Or, putting it another way, there is a world of difference between even the conservative Islam of Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the one hand and the kind of Islam represented by the Lakemba Mufti on the other. See also a very thoughtful American, Charles Notess with whose approach I have much in common; he also does his homework.

I have to hand, in fact, a tract called Understanding Islam, Basic Principles — that’s it there, but my copy is stamped “not for sale” and ultimately came from Lakemba Mosque — which sets out to “provide accessible and direct information about the basic principles of Islam as seen by Muslims themselves in order to facilitate the understanding of Islam by non-Muslims”. It is, compared to Nasr, a sad book. For a start, it recycles a great piece of nonsense about the so-called Gospel of Barnabas, assuming in best Da Vinci Code style it was meant to be in the New Testament, which conveniently has Jesus proclaim we should all keep our eyes out for the advent of Muhammad, who it names in some post-Muslim versions. The Qu’ran seems to have been aware of such a tradition (Sura 61:6), but the truth is the Gospel of Barnabas exists only in highly corrupted and suspect very late translations, and whatever its ultimate origins, it is far less attested than the recently publicised Gospel of Judas or the much more authentic Gospel of Thomas or the heaps of other gospels that The Da Vinci Code gets so excited about, and all of them are far less well attested than the four that made it into the New Testament, dubious as even they are as history in our sense of the word. The Gospel of Barnabas as we know it has almost certainly been doctored by someone under the Spanish Caliphate. Wikipedia notes:

Some Islamic organizations cite this work in support of the Islamic view of Jesus; in particular, the noted Muslim thinkers Rashid Rida in Egypt and Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi in Pakistan have given it qualified acceptance (though the latter rejects its naming of Muhammad as an interpolation). While some Muslim scholars also agree that this Gospel of Barnabas is fabricated or has been changed over time, others believe that Barnabas himself wrote the Gospel, whereas the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by followers of Paul long after the events they describe, and that therefore the Gospel of Barnabas is more authentic than the other Gospels. Some Muslims take a position between these poles, suggesting that, while the work contains “Muslim interpolations”, it nonetheless consists mainly of early material that contradicts Christian traditions and confirms Muslim beliefs.

Although the Gospel of Barnabas is, in several respects, inconsistent with Islamic teaching, some Muslim scholars cite this as evidence of the genuineness of the gospel by arguing that no Muslim would fake a document and have it contradict the Qur’an. They believe the contradictions of the Qur’an in the Gospel of Barnabas are signs of textual corruption (which Muslims already ascribe for a majority of the Bible), but that the Gospel of Barnabas would not be as corrupt as other religious works, and would still maintain the truth about Jesus not being crucified and not being God or son of God.

Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi is another name to conjure with, along with Sayyid Qutb, whom I mentioned a few days back. They are both in their way very much twentieth century and very much part of postcolonialism. They are also arguably among the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, and we have only heard of them lately because some of what they have inspired has got up and bitten us very badly, and continues to do so. People like Karen Armstrong and Malise Ruthven have been able to tell us quite a lot about them for some time now, if we care to look.

One very significant aspect of the situation we are now in is an ongoing struggle within Islam, which is after all the cradle of some 1.3 billion people. In our own interests, if for no other reason, we need to avoid sweeping generalisations about Muslims, and politicians need to be very measured in their response to provocateurs like al-Hilaly. Heavy-handed tactics, or tactics that could be described as following double standards, or that unfairly generalise, or derive from fear or suspicion or discomfort with difference, may serve simply to drive people further towards an extreme position, and I am not talking here only of Muslims. The advice Isis offers (see yesterday’s entry) is very, very apt.

As Abdelwahab Meddeb says in this interview:

Could you outline the development of fundamentalist Muslim ideology?
This ideology originates from a combination of three things. For the first, you have to look at the text of the Koran itself. There is, for example, the infamous “verse of the sword” which gives the order to pursue and kill all polytheists. The fundamentalists argue that this verse cancels out all the nuances of tolerance found in the Koran. The second element refers to the literalist thinking that developed over the centuries, and which found a spectacular incarnation in Ibn Hanbal (780-855), the founder of one of the four schools of orthodox Islam.

This theologian fought against the mu’tazilites, the rationalist current supported by the Baghdad authorities in the 9th century. He was imprisoned and persecuted for his hard-line beliefs. After his death, his disciples radicalized his thinking. For example, fundamentalists today, who claim to have their roots in Hanbalism, often evoke takfir, even though Ibn Hanbal challenged this notion.The second key figure in this traditionalist trend is the Hanbalist thinker Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). Within his monumental body of work is a little book entitled As-siyassa ash-Shar’ia (“Politics in the name of divine law”), which is like a bible for the fundamentalist. In his time, Ibn Taymiyya was criticized, even from within the Hanbalist school, and spent part of his life in prison. But today, he is a central reference point for fundamentalists.

The third pillar of fundamentalist ideology is a figure called Ibn Abd Al Wahhab, who called for a radical return to the most literal interpretation. Taking up the theory of Ibn Taymiyya, he refused any form of intercession between God and man. He was responsible for the disappearance of all the tombs of saints on the Arabian Peninsula and the destruction of the rites of popular Sufism, which were very rich from an anthropological point of view. The ideas of Abd Al Wahhab (1703-1792) were decried while he was alive, but later became the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia.

And what are the external causes?

They go back to Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt, and the momentous encounter with the West. The people of the Middle East discovered that Europe was powerful and that henceforth they themselves would occupy a position of weakness. The first reaction, around 1830, was Muhammad Ali’s plan to modernize Egypt. The intellectual Rifaa Al-Tahtawi (1801-1874) represented this school of thought. He undertook the huge job of translating scientific manuals. In the politico-theological sphere, sheikhs Al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) then created what we call the salafiyya, a form of fundamentalism, not to be confused with Muslim fundamentalism.

What is the difference?

Afghani and Abduh were defeated historically but their approach was wider. What were they searching for? They wanted to return to the foundations of Islam and adapt them so that Muslim societies could rebuild themselves, taking Western contributions into account, particularly democracy and parliamentary government. Their plan was to use these concepts to fight against the hold of colonialism and local despotism. In fact, they used to meet in a cafe in Cairo called Al-Barlaman (the Parliament).

How did we get from this modernist fundamentalism to Muslim fundamentalism?

It was a gradual process. Rashid Ridha (1865-1935) served as an intermediary link in the ancestry of this form of fundamentalism. He began by taking up the ideas of Abduh and criticising Wahhabism, making a name for himself in the early 20th century, and eventually taking power on the Arabian Peninsula in 1932. But towards the end of his life, Ridha changed his opinions and wrote a text supporting Wahhabism, which was not as opportunist as it sounds. He pointed to the evolution of man at a time of colonial conquest which sparked the rise of anti-Western feeling.

So fundamentalism was born in the 1920s…

Yes, with Rashid Ridha’s pupil, Hassan Al-Banna (1906-1949), who remains famous for creating the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun) in Egypt in 1928. Next came a virulent wave of anti-Western sentiment, with democracy portrayed as trickery and an ideology of domination. If democracy existed, Hassan Al-Banna asked, how could there be colonialism? He concluded that Muslim countries do not need the West but instead need to renew their political systems in their own way. You could say that there was a move from a watchword of modernizing Islam to another, which preaches an Islamization of modernity. For example, instead of defending the parliamentary system, we turn to the Koran and substitute the word choura for the word barlaman. But choura has nothing to do with parliamentarianism. It is not founded on elections or equality, but is simply a matter of consultation, to guide the prince in making decisions.

How were these ideas received?

At first, the Muslim Brotherhood experienced repression, nationalist tyranny and the emergence of the post-colonial totalitarian State. Despotism has traditionally taken place where there is little State intervention. But in an age of technical progress, all Arab countries have moved towards maximum state intervention. The model of the party-State has triumphed. And the fundamentalists have gained ground as this model has reached its limits. They benefited from the failure of Arab nationalism, the defeat by Israel in 1967, the failure to develop and from the elimination of any form of political expression. The rise in power of the Saudi rulers after the 1973 oil crisis added a new element. Petrodollars helped the spectacular spread of a hard-line form of Islam, founded on a single orthopraxy: the strict observance of prayer became the basis of social censure and wiped out local practices in favour of a uniform Islam.

But how did we veer towards terrorism?

The end of Nasserism and the arrival in power of Sadat in Egypt saw a migration of semi-literate Egyptians to Saudi Arabia, where the Muslim Brotherhood had married their ideas with those of Wahhabism. Then there was a second, explosive, encounter in Afghanistan. Egyptians, Saudis and Pakistanis joined together in the jihad, orchestrated and supervised by the United States to fight against the Soviet invasion. You know what happened next.

How do you see the future?

Today, the Muslim world is in a state of civil war. But internal criticism is growing. The French revolution of 1789 was preceded by two centuries of intellectual effort. Faced with violence, critical thought is spreading, particularly in the Shi’ite world. In Iran, the concept of vilayat e-faqih introduced by Khomenei has been criticised by theologians. In Iraq, the idea of spiritual caliphate, which presupposes a separation of religion from politics, seems to be gaining ground among the Shi’ite majority. As for Saudi Arabia, if it does not want to implode it must resolve the contradiction between its religious discourse, which leads to anti-Western sentiment, and its geo-political alliance with the United States.

And which way is public opinion likely to lean?

Since the 1970s, a diffuse fundamentalism has developed in Arab-Muslim societies. But that may be beginning to ebb away. The terrorist attacks in several Muslim countries have shocked the public. The challenge now is to separate Islam from Islamism. We must make sure that Islam plays a role in the war against fundamentalism.

We need to know much more than we have cared to so far.

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One response to “The importance of context revisited

  1. Clayton Northcutt

    October 30, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    Great to see a little disagreement still can be the catalyst for healthy discussion in this day and age.

    I would agree with you, 100%, that North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia do not honour freedom of speech, and I ask this question: how many Sheikhs do they have preaching the ‘justification’ of rape? [Probably quite a few in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Clayton, and none in North Korea! 😉] And another question: how many Cardinals do they have saying just as offensive things? Then again, how many people are actually speaking in those countries with as much freedom as us?

    But if it meant me giving up the ability to offend another person at the benefit of another offending me, I’ll be honest, I’d be happy with that. I don’t agree that everyone should be gagged, but there should exist some form of censorship. It’s almost as if that word’s double meaning is socially offensive. But looking at it objectively, there could be rules and regulations that apply and prevent someone from saying bullshit like the two cases brought up here, while still being able to exercise (not as) free speech. Critiquing government, discussing politics, debates and the like do not offend people if done correctly. It is only when someone actively seeks out to offend another that it goes wrong.

    And, as a side note, if anyone, the Sheikh, an adviser, a contemporary, thought that saying the shit he said wouldn’t offend anyone, or wasn’t sure, he shouldn’t have said it, or cleared it with someone. Anyone. And the same goes for the Cardinal. It is a simple fact of society that you cannot say those sorts of things. The sad fact is, however, that some people do and some people continue to get away with it, which is testament to how much of a disgrace mass media, politics, and societal views have become.

    Anyway, all this is a tad long for a comment, and not long enough for a post, so perhaps I’ll extrapolate on my views of freedom of speech so that the (thought) context I am writing in is much more clearer, and anything I might say here (that possibly offends anyone, which is sincerely not my intentions, otherwise that would make me a hypocrite (a title, though, I am much accustomed to)) is understood to its fullest extent.

    And a side not to balance out both sides, you did something pretty close to a miracle Ninglun. Welcome back (for what such an illustrious link on my blog is worth). [Thanks, Clayton.]

    Clayton Northcutt.

    Footnote from Ninglun.

    Go to Planet Irf (Irfan Yusuf) who finishes his latest post with this quote:

    Perhaps the most colourful comment comes from one Canberra Muslim who e-mailed this to me: “Hilaly with two similar sphincter muscles at either end and nothing but **** comes out at either end I don’t whether to laugh or cry at his outburst; who needs enemies when we have this loose cannon on board. He should be reprimanded by Muslims first then others.”

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