In a former church, my heart is a mihrâb,
Urging me to repent, the erasure of old but remembered sins.
|Wild talk of a new Islamic hermeneutic hatching in the Muslim communities of the West has been with us for some years, with sadly insufficient justification.|
This memoir is offered, at the persistent request of some Turkish friends, by a monotheist whose formative life was shaped by Anglican Christianity, but who has made his home in Islam. Like the kilisâ-camii metaphor in the old Ottoman poetry, which describes a church which has been made into a mosque, such a man is architecturally distinctive, but a symbol of undeserved improvement: he is the mühtedî, the object of guidance, at once a spiritual migrant and a symbol that Islam, battered by enemies on all sides, is still Refuge of the World (‘âlem-penâh). Richard Bulliet flatteringly believes that the vigour of Islam has always been secured by the mühtedîs, who bring the energy and the sometimes annoying zeal of the proselyte ‘on the edge' into the formalised traditional world of inherited religion. (1) Perhaps, he implies, such newcomers are like the desert dwellers who, in Ibn Khaldun's view of things, periodically invade the sedate, bourgeois citadels to establish a new, often rather puritanical, reconnection with God.
The reality, of course, is that the man whose qibla-niche lies cattycorners, at an angle to the larger temple, typically takes more than he gives. Particularly under modern conditions, the refugee into Islam, who crawls gratefully onto the lifeboat, brings rather little to those who are already aboard. In earlier ages, when the likes of Ibrâhîm Müteferrika, Ali Ufki, and Abdullâh al-Tarjumân joined the Muslim world (and should we not go back further still, to Salmân and Suhayb?), rival cultures were sacred cultures, and the Islamic neophytes had been trained in great civilisations whose purpose was the service of one or several Gods. Today, what riches, what energies can the Western mühtedî truly bring? For we are sons and daughters of Mammon, nurtured by an increasingly absolutist liberal capitalism to be that deadly modern type, the consumer, who wants to be flattered for his discriminating taste but whose taste amounts to nothing more than liking what will get him flattered, taking refuge in brand-names and high-end merchandise, much as the snob does in high-end people. A whole society looms where no one is or even wants any more to be ‘who one is' - another Nietzschean nightmare. (2)
|From my middle teenage years, I recall living in a deep alienation the modern condition, with a restless desire to be free of its brilliant mediocrity.|
Wild talk of a new Islamic hermeneutic hatching in the Muslim communities of the West has been with us for some years, with sadly insufficient justification. It is not clear how religiously fertile the Occident can be, when its crops grow in soil that has been so long polluted. The ancient trope of ex Oriente lux is perhaps more true than ever. For one British Muslim poet of the last age:
Thousands of years hath the sun rose,
In the glow of its Eastern hues,
Thousands of years doth the West close
It in gloom, and in tears, of its dews.
Even so, in the Orient morning,
Faith, true! - pure, of Allah, The One,
Rose, Earth, with its beauty, adorning,
And sank, Westward - and darkened, its sun.
O, Believers! Have faith in Faith's morning,
Know ye, Allah knoweth the best!
See, the Light of the Orient, returning
Pure Islamic beams, over the West. (3)
From my middle teenage years, I recall living in a deep alienation the modern condition, with a restless desire to be free of its brilliant mediocrity. This was the modernity which, as the sociologist Max Weber acknowledged, seemed to be trapped in a ‘shell as hard as steel' (stahlhartes Gehäuse), where the iron of natural limitations had been replaced by steel bonds of our own making, a terrible alienation which no mere political solution can release us. Pessimistically, Weber was sure that human happiness and fulfilment must be increasingly restricted in the machine-age, whose logic seeks to reconstitute the human subject as a consumer and producer, and nothing more. (4) The very principle of individuation which the West, since the Enlightenment, has taken to be the basis of personal fulfilment, has allowed us to view ‘the Other' increasingly as an object good only for manipulation, and the results have been disastrous. Family, neighbourhood and community are as inappropriate to those caught in the steel shell as are contemplation, prayer, and art which exists for any sake other than itself. Herbert Marcuse, in the 1960s, spoke of One-Dimensional Man, trapped by the very rhetoric of choice and freedom in a technologically-enabled totalitarian reality, the power of whose chains stems their ubiquity, technical competence, and invisibility.
|Certainly for me, there has always been a pleasing irony in the fact that the small church on Chapelfield Gardens in Norwich, in which my family worshipped, married and attended Sunday School in my grandparents' time, has been converted into a mosque.|
Mid-twentieth century pessimism in the face of science-based totalitarianism seemed paradoxically abated by the collapse of Marx's deterministic optimism (the idea that natural selection has a moral outcome), and for a short while there was a sense that the original dream of the Enlightenment might be realised after all. However the decay of the Eastern Bloc, already sensed in the popular culture of the 1970s, has simply underlined the aimlessness of the West's hi-tech pleasuredrome. The natural environment offers only one theatre in which our technology threatens us with the very cleverness developed to protect us. As Walter Benjamin concluded:
Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian Gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. (5)
And in our new, turbo-charged yet doubt-ridden millennium, who can deny that we live under the shadow of hazards more numerous and imponderable than those which worried Benjamin? Martin Rees, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, offers this assessment: ‘I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.' (6) Serious art, poetry and theatre reflect this persistent unease.
Why, then, ask the mühtedî whose story is Western to bring gifts? Spiritually, and indeed in terms of all of the accomplishments which once defined human flourishing, our ‘Abendland' has made itself infertile, having turned against the sources of its own flowering for the sake of an individualistic project whose consequences have turned out to be a trivialisation so extreme that we fear to consider its destination. Islam's ‘grand refusal' of the puerilization project is the great fact of our age; and the stubborn persistence of Muslims in respecting historic human normalcy in areas such as gender, sexuality, prayer, art and the meaning of nature, is an unmistakeable sign of God's ongoing favour. But the mühtedî communities have so far played at best a marginal role, a walk-on part in this gripping drama.
My ancestors, according to family lore, were always troublemakers. On my father's side, some Scots forebears allegedly fought against Julius Caesar, and another was executed by Robert the Bruce. Two sainted maiden aunts in my mother's family were proud of their descent Philip Doddridge (d.1751), a preacher and hymnwriter who rejected the Anglican church in favour of a radical Nonconformism. Like others in his day, he took the Reformation demand for a return to the beliefs of the first Christians to entail a serious reaction against received orthodoxy. His most famous hymn recalls the Hebraizing mood of his time.
O God of Bethel, by whose hand
thy people still are fed;
who through this earthly pilgrimage
hast all our fathers led:
Our vows, our prayers, we now present
before thy throne of grace:
O God of Israel, be the God
of their succeeding race.
My school chaplain, Willie Booth, who went on to be chaplain to the Queen, taught me to consider carefully the Jewishness of the early Christian church. Were the Anglicans, truly, the ‘succeeding race' to Israel's God? Booth, with immense fair-mindedness, accepted our cynical challenge to this notion. Jesus, clearly, had been Jewish. An honest reading of the Old Testament slowly forced us to see that the Trinitarian God we daily worshipped was something new.
|Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian Gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.|
We prayed as worried Anglicans, but Nonconformity was in my blood, and I grew up with fresh family memories of strict Sabbaths when children might only play games involving the Bible. Until my grandfather's time, too, the men of the family had ‘taken the pledge', swearing off alcohol for life. My grandfather was the last, until, in middle age, he found that occasional social drinking might be good for business. In his time that was still a momentous decision. His was a now unimaginable England of temperance hotels, deserted Sunday high-streets, and no kissing before putting on an engagement ring. To the Blair generation, it sounds like a far foreign place. Yet the mühtedi knows that there is a paradox here. Faced with England's desertion of its own identity, may one ask whether an English move to Islam is a farewell to one's heritage - or its unlooked-for revival? Certainly for me, there has always been a pleasing irony in the fact that the small church on Chapelfield Gardens in Norwich, in which my family worshipped, married and attended Sunday School in my grandparents' time, has been converted into a mosque. When I visit to pray, am I the last surviving upholder of the family tradition?
Booth weaned me official credal Christianity, and unintentionally helped me rediscover the Nonconformist legacy. This was reinforced indirectly by my sister, who was attending a school founded by the Unitarian minister William Channing (d.1842), whose influence remained strong in the school's ethos and worship. Channing was a hero of true Dissent, who wished to take the Reformation back beyond the manipulations of Athanasius and the political bishops of the fourth century, to discover and revive the beliefs of the earliest Christians. This was the way he thought:
we believe [...] that there is one God, and one only. We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other's society. They perform different parts in man's redemption [... none] doing the work of the other. The Son is mediator and not the Father. The Father sends the Son, and is not himself sent; nor is he conscious, like the Son, of taking flesh. Here, then, we have three intelligent agents, possessed of different [...] perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations; and if these things do not imply three minds, we are at a loss to know how three minds are to be formed.
We [...] protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity. To us, as to the Apostle and the [original] Christians, there is one God, even the Father. We challenge our opponents to [point out] one passage in the New Testament, where the word God means three persons.
This doctrine, were it true, must, its difficulty, singularity, and importance, have been laid down with great clearness [...] and stated with all possible precision. But where does this statement appear? From the many passages which treat of God, we ask for one, one only, in which we are told, that he is a threefold being, [...] So entirely do the Scriptures abstain stating the Trinity, that when our opponents would it into their creeds they are compelled to leave the Bible, and to invent forms of words altogether unsanctioned by Scriptural phraseology.
We have further objections to this doctrine, drawn its practical influence. We regard it as unfavorable to devotion, by dividing and distracting the mind in its comm with God. It is a great excellence of the doctrine of God's unity, that it offers to us ONE OBJECT of supreme homage, adoration, and love, One Infinite Father, [...] to whom we may refer all good. (7)
Channing also speaks passionately against the injustice implied in the Blood Atonement. This resonated with me also. I recalled how, as a schoolboy aged perhaps nine, I had sat in services at an Anglican church in Hampstead, gazing at an enormous and bleeding Christ. How small, and how guilty I felt! The message was, as the hymnal confirmed, that this suffering was the consequence of my own sinfulness. How ungrateful I would be, a voice would whisper, not to accept this heroic deed! Later, as a frank and turbulent teenager, I was able to call this kind of religion ‘blackmail'. The gruesome image was oppressing me into faith. But was there a God who could forgive directly?
1. Richard Bulliet, Islam: the view the edge (New York, 1994).
2. Robert B. Pippen, The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian aftermath (Cambridge, 2005), 328n.
3. W. Ubeidullah Cunliffe, “The Orient Sun of Islam,” The Crescent I (1893), 118.
4. Peter Baehr, “The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” History and Theory 40 (May 2001), 153-69.
5. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (repr. London, 1967), 244.
6. Martin Rees, Our Final Century (London: Heinemann, 2003), 8.
7. William Ellery Channing (ed. I. Bartlett), Unitarian Christianity and other essays (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957). Even today Sunday Schools may teach children the verse “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (1 John 5:7). However almost all scholars now agree that this verse was ed later into the Bible by Trinitarians. It has been removed many modern Bibles. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), pp. 716-718.