PART II: My journey to Islam
When, in 1976, a Hayward Gallery exhibition unveiled the arts of Islam, I looked for an equivalent to the penitential moods of Christianity. Not one religious painting in the National Gallery offers a smile (unlike the pagan gods, who reappear, apparently amid much relief, at the Renaissance). But in Ottoman miniatures, of religious or profane subjects, everyone smiles. The calligraphy, too, the arabesques, tessellations and vegetal curlicues of Muslim decoration, all recall the fact of a benign creation and a merciful God. The world is woven the true signs of God, and that God is smiling! Such were my discoveries, as I attempted, crudely but intensely, to compare the aesthetic spirit of the two worlds.
Evening classes in Arabic, at London's Morley College, followed. I was a lone schoolboy in a class of pensioners, and stood out as an eccentric. The mosaics and the arabesques I had seen were clearly submissive to the mysterious writing above: but the art historians hardly bothered to translate it. What was its secret? What was the formal message of this art, which breathed the presence of a loving God, Who told us of His presence and beauty more than of evil and of sin?
It was, of course, the Koran. In that still insular age, the Koran meant Rodwell, or (the copy with which I began) Zafrullah Khan. Sir Zafrullah's sectarian leanings veiled the text grievously: Surat Yasin began ‘O Perfect Leader', and worse was to follow. In fact, the Koran, that ‘shy bride', would take years to unveil herself. At the outset, she seemed to dazzle me with her unworldly strangeness, and the purity of her ego-less diction. Much of the Bible comprised stories whose purpose seemed ambiguous or even absent, punctuated by occasional flashes of pure light; the Koran was giving me the light alone. Even after joining, I found the text ‘hot', and some suras too challenging to recite often. The early Meccan sequences, commonly learned before the rest, are absolute in their demands. Total sincerity, monotheism, love of the poor, denial of the self. How can one recite such words, presenting them to God, when one's heart and habits deny them? The one who ‘pushes away the orphan', Sura 107 s, ‘calls religion a lie.' Who has the courage to repeat such a line? While facing God, without the comfortable defence of a pew? Why is God so absolute?
A lonely search through the shelves of Foyles yielded few guides in that still insular age. Maxime Rodinson's paperback Life of Mohammed gave the view of a confident French Communist. No less than medieval monks, Rodinson was committed to reducing and explaining away the figure he portrayed. And yet the drama and heroism of the story shone through. The Prophet, wholly and uncomplicatedly human, changed his world forever, while living as a prayerful pauper. Rodinson shut out the supernatural, and stressed class and economics; yet the sheer magnificent suspense of this story, so successfully concealed young people in my culture, was itself a revelation, astonishing even where it was apparently mundane.
|Religious searching always seems driven by a consciousness of sin and alienation.|
Reading Rodinson, trying to find God between his lines, I found myself thinking about forgiveness. Religious searching always seems driven by a consciousness of sin and alienation. Which forgiveness is higher, I was obliged to ask: the forgiveness of one crucified, who has no power in his hands, or the forgiveness shown by the Blessed Prophet at the Conquest of Mecca, at the highest moment of his political life, when his ancient enemies were in his hands and he forgave them? This, I discovered, is the virtue of al-‘afw ma‘a al-qudra: to forgive when in a position to punish. It is the virtue of Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest of modern moral icons, who forgave his tormentors despite being in power. To this, I also learnt, there is to be a coda at the end of time. Who is the more merciful: the Pantocrator-Jesus of the Book of Revelation, who wrathfully judges and consigns people to hell, (1) or the Muhammad of the Hadiths, whose entire work at the Judgement will be to intercede for sinners, thus showing Islam as, finally, the religion of God's forgiveness and mercy? As I came to see it in my teenage years, the Cross is not a symbol of forgiveness at all: on the orthodox view, it denotes the repayment of a debt, as the infinity of Original Sin is atoned for by the infinite sacrifice of God's own temporary death. What humanity urgently needs, as we contemplate our long record of disobedience, is a model of true forgiveness by a God who does not calculate, who gives bi-ghayri hisâb (‘without reckoning', in the Koran's idiom), who imposes no mean-spirited ‘economy of salvation' worthy only of accountants and bookkeepers. The letter killeth - the spirit giveth life.
On this stage of my wandering, I came across Matthew Fox, a Catholic priest and theologian who had left the church in protest at its doctrines of blood atonement and the ‘fallenness' of creation, to found an influential Centre for Creation Spirituality. He emphasised joy rather than guilt, and gratitude for the body, rather than sexual anxiety. Fox urges that in the light of our moral rejection of the ungenerous idea of ‘full repayment' for sin, we let go of the ‘fetish' of the Cross, which is ‘profoundly linear', in favour of the more open symbol of the empty tomb. (2) That symbol, I thought, might resemble the Crescent, which is open, and also cyclical, in distinction to the Cross, which seems to diminish God's providence with its symbolic insistence that over the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, full salvation has been made available only once, a doctrine which true religion, insisting on the divine love and mercy, should surely regard as tragically inadequate. Later I was to discover the words of Ruqaiyyah Maqsood: ‘God does not need a sacrifice in order to forgive anyone. The split-second of turning Christianity to Islam is the realisation of the truth of the parable of the Prodigal Son.' (3) In the parables, God is loving enough to forgive directly. That was the whole glory of the Judaism which Jesus upheld.
Once, when still a student, I visited an Anglican church with a Turkish friend. Seeing the cross on the altar, he spontaneously exclaimed: ‘No!' In my ignorance I assumed that he was expressing a prejudice. But he explained to me that his idea of a loving God made the whole notion of a single once-and-for-all salvation seem monstrous. ‘More than once!' was what he passionately believed.
None of my discoveries was at all original. The growing number of theologians who, overcoming an allergy to ‘Semitism', are prepared to set ancient misunderstandings aside and acknowledge the integrity of Judaism (and now, more slowly, Islam), is a source of real encouragement, and a historical shift of immense importance. It seems to reflect some deep sea-changes in the way Christians perceive virtue. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred pastor of Berlin, was so horrified by his hierarchy's insistence on Luther's doctrine of non-intervention in politics that he issued his famous call for a ‘Christianity without religion'. And I myself, growing up when memories of the war were still all around me, often heard of the martyred Stauffenberg's attempt to kill Hitler, but could not name a single German bishop who was remembered for rebelling against the Reich. (4) Certainly for my own spiritual journey, the old images of Christ, solace of pacifists and ineffectual dreamers, were less impressive than the new icons of a truly socially responsible human being drawn by Bonhoeffer and, more especially, the liberation theologians. Sometimes I believe that there is significance in the fact that I was baptised by Father Jack Putterill (1892-1980), best known of all radical priests in his day, who insisted that true religion is not pacifist or apolitical, but must be a revolutionary challenge to the rich and the autocratic. (5) Putterill, to my knowledge, went to his grave without knowing the Prophet whose Lord was Lord of the Poor, who actively championed their cause and adopted their way of life, who challenged great empires instead of meekly submitting to them. That Prophet, hailed by the socialist Bernard Shaw as ‘a princely genius', (6) turns out to be a spiritual type close to the urgent but hidden needs of a comfortable, bourgeois consumer culture, which in its heart yearns not for faint chanting in distant oratories, but a willingness to engage in a virile way with the real issues of poverty and injustice. Such, of course, was the motivation which drove Roger Garaudy, whose Communism was of the empathetic kind, and who therefore broke with Stalinism and entered the free, non-hierarchical space of Islam. For Garaudy, like Putterill and Shaw, secularity could only produce freedom within the confines of the ‘cage of steel'. True freedom lay beyond, but it had to be promote itself, and therefore incorporate a willingness to challenge those who degrade God's earth and His servants. Faced with radical evil, preaching and witnessing alone are tragically inadequate.
Liberation the cage, whether that cage be capitalist or Marxist, should be a real liberation for society as well as for the spirit. At the age of sixteen I heard my history teacher, a devout, celibate Catholic, heaping praises on the Ottomans as authors of the most tolerant and religiously-diverse society in Europe before modern times. Coupled with my religious agitations, this helped me to see that the growing acknowledgement of Judaism and (slowly) Islam by European theologians has had much to do with the sense that Latin Christian thought historically produced societies and intellectual systems characterised by a massive exclusivism. The radical division of humanity into saved and unsaved, being coterminous with the frontiers of the Church (extra ecclesiam nulla salus), seemed to engender a world which, unlike traditional China, India and Islam, could not tolerate internal diversity. (7) It is not surprising, then, that the first explicit appreciation of the Prophet in the English language was by a Puritan who saw the Ottoman system as more open to diversity, and also to religious sincerity, than the England of his day, with its established church and insistence on religious conformity. This was Henry Stubbe (1632-1676), whose book An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, with the Life of Mahomet, and a Vindication of him and his Religion the Calumnies of the Christians could hardly be published during his lifetime, but indicated a subterranean philo-Islamism that is deeper than images of an islamophobic Britain will admit. (8) Several Muslims have pointed to some of these possible precursors for British Islam in Unitarianism and allied forms of Dissent. Goethe's fragmentary Mahomets Gesang is a hymn to the radical freedom and purity which, Goethe believed, Islam brought its desert origins. In fact, many great advocates of freedom who were also in love with God seem to have been attracted to Islam. Here, for instance, is a neglected passage in Rilke, whose Duino Elegies were, as he later acknowledged, inspired by Islamic angelology:
Muhammad was immediate, like a river bursting through a mountain range, he breaks through to the One God with whom you can talk so wonderfully, every morning, without the telephone called ‘Christ' into which people constantly shout, ‘Hallo, is anyone there,' and no-one replies. (9)
|Certainly for my own spiritual journey, the old images of Christ, solace of pacifists and ineffectual dreamers, were less impressive than the new icons of a truly socially responsible human being drawn by Bonhoeffer and, more especially, the liberation theologians.|
Certainly I was receiving no answer to my phone calls. Daily I would choose a Person of the Trinity to address. The ‘person' of the Holy Ghost was most alien of all. But to address the wandering Messiah, now back ‘at his Father's right hand', also burdened me with impossible conundrums. It seemed much more natural to pray only to ‘God', or perhaps God the ‘Father', and when I did this there was certainly an awareness that He was watching and waiting. And as months and years went by, I could not help but recognise the ‘conscious' nature of the Absolute, as I played chess with Him. I would advance an argument, and He would show me an answer. All events acquired a religious meaning; as I entered what the Sufis call the ‘hidden game.' In gently liberating me the Greek web of the Trinity, He certainly showed me His existence.
The quest for information also continued, and, unsurprisingly, I sought it in my heritage. I found that the questions I was asking were none of them new.
1. “And a sharp sword with which to smite the nations proceeds his mouth, and he will rule there with a rod of iron; and he treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of Almighty God.” (Revelation, 19:15.)
2. Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1979), 111-7.
3. Ruqaiyyah Maqsood, The Mysteries of Jesus: a Muslim study of the origins and doctrines of the Christian church (Oxford: Sakina Books, 2000), 60.
4. For the myth of one bishop´s active opposition to Nazism see Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Bishop Von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); for his collaboration with the Nazis see especially pp.96-135.
5. Fr. Jack Putterill, Thaxted quest for social justice: the autobiography of Fr. Jack Putterill, turbulent priest and rebel (Marlow, 1977).
6. Dan H. Lawrence (ed). Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters 1926-1950 (London, 1988), p.305.
7. Islam is “a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity” (Karen Armstrong, in The Guardian, Sept 18, 2006).
8. Reprint Lahore: Orientalia, 1954.
9. Minou Reeves, Muhammad in Europe (Reading: Garnet, 2000), 275.