Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I'm lying around the house with a mancold, feeling deeply sorry for myself, which is why this is taking a while.

But I'm determined to get this done and sign off for a break, so here we go. Sardar's methods. How does he seek to reconcile the irreconciliable opposites of secular liberalism and Qur'anic literalism? More bluntly, what does he do with the awkward bits?

Sometimes he just flat out ignores them. Take the murder of the calf worshippers. In spite of worshipping the golden calf, a cardinal sin in monotheism, they were forgiven, says Sardar.

Whereas the text says So turn (in repentance) to your Maker, and slay yourselves (the wrong-doers); that will be better for you in the sight of your Maker (2:54). In other words, they were only forgiven once they'd murdered the polytheists among them.

He hasn't actually lied, but it's a dishonest evasion, roughly comparable with a news report that said Dennis Nielsen had forgiven his victims. I pointed out the omission in the comments, but got no response.

Then there's the appeal to metaphor. He uses this about the constant gloating descriptions of unbelievers burning in hell. As yet, he hasn't explained what it's a metaphor for.

Alternatively, complaints about specific verses are brushed off with the remark that you have to read every verse in the context of all the other verses.

And most commonly recently, there's the appeal to historical context. Apparently half of it is only relevant to the time when it was written.

The appeal to context fails for the same reason as the appeal to metaphor or holistic reading. None of these approaches are supported by the text. At no point does it say it's all right, it's just a metaphor, or some of this advice has a sell-by date, or you'll need to cross reference this bit.

But there's another, more serious problem for all three techniques, which is that they're applied selectively. So one moment Sardar is telling you you shouldn't make too much of a single verse, the next he's making three posts out of one use of the word middle. Then he says the horrors are just metaphors, but lets the nice bits mean exactly what they say.

In recent posts, the arbitrary division between the global and the historically specific seems to be his main method. The second sura apparently jumps from the contextual to the general constantly, without ever actually saying it's doing so.

He's aware of the problem. At one point he says The test for those who aspire to become a middle community is to distinguish between the circumstantial, that which is specific to a particular time and place and the general principle which will always be applicable but which needs to find the appropriate form to serve the needs of another time and place.

It's nice that he's noticed the issue, but it might help if he brought some of his much vaunted scholarly skills to bear on it. He doesn't for instance try to establish general principles which would differentiate the one from the other, or highlight verses in the text which can be taken as symbolising the change from one mode of interpretation to the other. He just chooses the interpretation which suits his case.

So all the perfection claim means in the end is that you can defend the book by going through it and making a series of arbitrary decisions. This nice bit is literal, that horrid bit is metaphorical. This nugget of pre-industrial wisdom only applies to seventh century Arabia, that nugget is for all time. This verse should be read in relation to that verse, which stands on its own, and isn't affected by the first verse.

But if such techniques are allowed, then any book can be made to seem perfect. You could do a similar job on the Iliad, for instance, and when you'd finished it would look almost respectable. The courage and the piety of the participants could be talked up, and the war crimes written off as metaphor or context.

Which leads me to wonder why Muslims are prepared to settle for so little. Surely if a book was the work of God, the divinity of it would leap off the page. Why would you need so many arbitrary decisions? Why would God put in the bit about slaying calf worshippers? Or walling up lewd women? Or the right to beat your wife? Why would it all be written from the male point of view anyway?

When discussing slavery, wouldn't God feel the need to distance himself from it? Surely he'd treat it as a far worse crime than polytheism? When discussing homosexuality, why wouldn't he celebrate it as the public boon it so clearly is?

But maybe that's what happens when you tell people something is true from age six. The absurdity of it is made invisible to them. As Ed Harris says in the Truman Show, we accept the reality with which we are presented.

Monday, April 14, 2008


I'm going to have to take a short break, due to pressure of work. I'm currently involved in launching a distance learning website, at the same time as maintaining my existing teaching responsibilities.

I will finish the promised post on Sardar's methods. It will appear later in the week.

Monday, April 7, 2008

What did you think of him so far?

Yes, I was thinking of Morecambe and Wise.

We're a quarter of the way now (14 weeks done out of 55), and Sardar's goals and methods are becoming clear. To understand them we have to start with his central problem. His problem is this.

He's clearly a man with a moderate tendency in religion. He talks about the need for Muslims to be a 'middle' people, he makes the right liberal noises about women, holy war and so on. If he was a Christian, he'd be something like Madeleine Bunting, or the old Bishop of Durham.

But in one respect he's as fundamentalist as Sayyid Qutb. The Qur'an is the word of God, full stop. While Christians of his stamp are entirely happy to regard the Bible as flawed, full of good things but also error-strewn and prone to moral outrages, for Sardar there is no question of that kind of laxity with the Qur'an.

Which is a problem, because the Qur'an has just as many dodgy bits as the Bible. In fact it's arguably worse, because it combines Old Testament atrocities with New Testament hellfire.

So that's his problem. The option to write off the appalling bits as human error just isn't there. Instead, he has to find ways to maintain the pretence that they don't say what they clearly do.

So that's his problem. What's ours? Well, we don't really have an equivalent problem, because we've limited our goals to demonstrating that his problem actually is a problem. All we have to do is just pick holes in his analysis. Not all of it, because it isn't a problem for us if he's partly right. If we can find one verse in the Qur'an which fails the divinity test, the whole thing fails with it, because God's word has to be perfect. In point of fact we've found hundreds, but really we didn't need most of them at all. The rules of the game would seem incredibly unfair, if they weren't his rules.

Of course, one of his methods is to deny the implications of these rules, but we'll be talking about his methods in the next post.

What are his goals? Well, his main goal is to resolve this problem, but just to prove he can juggle more than one logical impossibility at a time he gives himself another one.

His other goal is to demonstrate that the Qur'an is the work of God, purely by showing how wonderful it is. The text itself, when examined, questioned by a doubting mind, leads to the conclusion its origin is not human but a revelation of the divine, he says, as if his job wasn't impossible already.

We can dispose of this fairly quickly, just by considering the number of hurdles you'd have to jump before any genuinely doubting mind could consider such a claim established.

Firstly, you'd need to refute any suggestion of contradiction, moral obscenity or historical inaccuracy in the book. The book would have to be visibly perfect from a scholarly point of view. This is just a restatement of his first goal.

But then, on top of that, you'd need to find some kind of measure of human capacity in the field of holy book writing. Perhaps you'd look for structural complexity, for thematic consistency, for nobility of sentiment. To be honest the mind kind of bounces off the question, but he's posed it so we can only do our best.

Once you'd come up with a set of criteria, you'd then have to show that the Qur'an met at least one of them. That it was more poetic than Ovid, more subtly structured than a Shakespeare play, more inspiring to the spirit than a Martin Luther King speech. And not just a bit more. So much better, so much more divine that it was beyond the bounds of mere coincidence.

That's what you'd have to do to convince the doubting mind. Of course, to convince the religious mind you'd just have to say how nice it would be. Especially if you'd had control of that mind ever since it was six.

He seems to have backed away from this evidentiary goal of late, and we've heard no mention of it for a while. He's still pursuing his first goal though. In fact he restated it in Answers to questions recently. I refer to the premise I stated at the start of this blog: namely, that for me the Qur'an is the Word of God. The whole function of this blog is to discover how Muslim believers relate to the Qur'an today.

Of course, it may just be that he doesn't use words as precisely as secularists. I was surprised to learn that finding out how Muslim believers relate to the Qur'an today was the whole function of this blog, because I'd thought it was mainly a personal view, rather than an analysis of the broad spectrum of contemporary Muslim opinion. I'm also not sure why the Qur'an should be the word of God for him. Surely it either is or it isn't.

I don't think he really means what that paragraph implies at all. I think he thinks the Qur'an is the word of God full stop, and I think this blog is a personal view rather than a summary of Muslim thought. I also think that our expectation that the words he uses should mean something coherent and consistent by our standards is irrelevant to him.

In my observation, religious people treat religion as if it was literature. There is no need for statements to be consistent with each other, as long as they have metaphorical resonance. Meaning is just a complex web of cross-references, and the kind of precision that for instance a scientist would bring to an analysis would seem limiting to them. Of course, they then go on to make factual claims which could only be sustained with a more rigorous methodology, but for them that doesn't seem to matter.

That's why they're so rubbish at proper argument. It's because they don't really care. Oh, they may write articles and comments with some superficial methodical intent, but on some level they're just humouring us. For them, unverifiable supposition is always where it's at.

So for Sardar, the use of the word whole doesn't imply any kind of logical exclusion. If we were to say that a particular goal was the whole function of a blog, we would mean that other goals weren't its function. He does not. To him the word whole is probably more of an emotional intensifier, meaning something like this next bit really matters to me. Similarly, how Muslim believers relate to the Qur'an today is code for how Muslims like me do.

So that's his goals. Our goals are simple. We don't think the Qur'an is the word of God, and we think Sardar's attempts to reconcile the text as written with his own liberal views do violence to the text. We seek to establish that the text is a plausible candidate for the kind of treatment that modern theologians give the Bible, but cannot be taken seriously as the word of God, because no conceivable deity would write such a book.

Let's not leave our real motive so ulterior, though. We seek to undermine the idea of revealed truth because we think it's a step towards a planet with no religion on it at all. We've seen it in Britain. True religion, true Book-bashing literalism, is powerful medicine. This new brand, this liberal religion, is more like some kind of homeopathic tincture. It looks like the real thing, but doesn't offer any protection against the epidemic of secularism at all.

So much for problems and goals. What about his methods? And ours? More on that later in the week.

The hajj

This week we're talking about the hajj, or pilgrimage. Sardar's writing about 2:196-203, and his remarks are a useful reminder that monotheists aren't always savage and cruel. Sometimes they're just banal.

It seems to me that in the hajj one of the great enduring philosophical disputes - the supposed contradiction between the collective and the individual that has divided societies and been responsible for some of the greatest atrocities of history - is dissolved or rather resolved as an illusory distinction. All people are individual and unique but necessarily and inevitably must live within communities, in human groupings among and with other people. We are faced not with a contradiction but with realities that must be balanced, and in being conscious of God, the creator and judge of all, we find the understanding and guidance to effect this balance. It is not just the mass of humanity gathered together that makes the hajj such a moving, humbling and inspiring experience. It is the profundity of the way of thinking about our relationship to God, to other people and ourselves it teaches.

So his religious contemplation has revealed to him, and he's revealed to us, that society is a balance between the needs of the many and the needs of the individual. Has he made plans to make this vital insight into human affairs better known? Will there be a press conference?

There's a bit at the end of the post which may come as a surprise to some people. During this second stay in Muna, the pilgrims sacrifice an animal. Say what? It's a remarkable thing, that such a seemingly pagan act should survive in the rituals of the most anti-pagan religion in the world.

A Muslim colleague once told me that children are also required to give animals up for sacrifice. Apparently they are encouraged to build up a relationship with a lamb, visiting it and feeding it, and the lamb is then slaughtered in front of them. This is supposed to teach the child about the importance of giving things up for God, and is associated with the story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son. It still amazes me that there are British children out there who are occasionally required to put down their Gameboys and go and watch a pet being killed.

There's nothing else here of note, so it gives me the opportunity to talk about an exchange in last week's comments.

It came up in the discussion of jihad. I didn't post, I was having a week off, but I did put in a comment. It was about one of my personal bete noires, the way that religious people talk about their religion's official version of events as if it was confirmed history. Sardar does this all the time, but this post was an adventurous foray into the world of the unverifiable even by his standards. I said this.

I ask again - is there any independent historical confirmation that any of these events even took place?

If not, you're judging these events based purely on victors' history. It's like trying to understand the Russian revolution when the only accounts you have are the ones written by Lenin and Trotsky.

So far so unremarkable, you might have thought, but it earned this reply from Rosalinda, which I think gives us a useful insight into the moderate religious mind.

Independent sources for history? You mean like any sources which bashed Muhammed and Islam from beginning to end? So if there are none then it means the entire Islamic history is a huge lie because it was written by the "victors"? In that case Muhammed and Muslims deserve unbounded admiration for managing this exploit that noone in history managed to do no matter how powerful and mighty they grew to become. What about the sources which bash Muhammed and Islam, why should they be more trusted? They could have been motivated by simple hatred, jalousy and meanness. History, like holy books, can be interpreted in anyway the reader feels "right" or suits their own subjective opinion. In any case, Muslims believe in the authenticity of their history and they have reliable sources they trust. If none of these sources can be singled out as giving them plenty of excuse for illegitimate violence (and that is a fact), then I don't see what the fuss non-Muslims are making is about.

I responded with this.

By independent sources, I mean any non-Muslim sources. It's a perfectly standard historical question. It doesn't mean that Muslim sources would be excluded, just that their bias (as well as the bias of other sources) would be taken into account.

I can imagine a communist asking me the same question about the Russian Revolution. "Oh, you mean sources attacking us, why would we listen to them?"

We listen to them because without a plurality of historical accounts, history cannot be considered firm. On any other subject than religion, the common sense of this would be obvious. No-one would interpret the English Civil War based purely on the accounts of Oliver Cromwell's official recorders, for instance.

In the field of religious history in particular, one of the main reasons why intellectual Christians have had to move away from a literalist interpretation of the Bible is that other historical data conflicts with it. The Christians may have made a tactical error in locating their source events in the middle of the Roman Empire, rather than an obscure desert backwater.

With religions like Mormonism and the south Pacific cargo cults, we can track the inglorious development of an actual real world religion in recent times. Extrapolating from this observation to history, we can see that religious belief in itself offers no guarantee of historical authenticity.

I've yet to receive a reply, but due to moderation my second comment only appeared this morning, and the discussion has moved on to today's post anyway. This is a problem with the structure of the blog, where the snappy discussion common to Internet debates is made impossible by the interval between comments being added and their appearing. This one went up inside 24 hours, but sometimes it's days.

The reason why I think the exchange is interesting is that it shows the contradictory relationship religious moderates have with the concept of evidence. On the one hand, Rosalinda criticises the (non-existent) alternative sources on the grounds of their bias against Islam, in other words their (hypothetical) failure to consider the facts objectively. She even says that History, like holy books, can be interpreted in any way the reader feels "right" or suits their own subjective opinion.

For religious moderates have taken on board a form of cultural relativism. Rosalinda identifies a problem with history, which is that it's hard to reach precise conclusions given that every historian approaches a problem with their own preconceptions, and uses that to undermine the very idea of secular historical scholarship.

But then she says In any case, Muslims believe in the authenticity of their history and they have reliable sources they trust. This is a direct contradiction of her previous sentence.

Having used relativism for the purpose she requires of it, she abandons it when it comes to analysing her own beliefs. The fact that Muslims believe, for her, is apparently enough to make a source reliable. As usual, belief becomes evidence for itself.

So this approach is contradictory, but it's also plain wrong. History isn't just about perspective. We know that Winston Churchill existed because we've got film of him. We know that Henry VII existed, because we've got a wide variety of sources that refer to him, written by friends and enemies. We can even claim to understand the broad historical facts regarding his divorce with Katherine of Aragon, again because they are commonly agreed by all factions.

We don't know that Mohammed existed, because we don't have that body of evidence. He could just as easily be a composite of various figures, united in one man by the famous posthumous committee. We certainly don't know anything about the actual historical relationship between the Muslims and the people around them, because we don't have external confirmation of any of it, and without a plurality of sources we can't assert reliable historical truth.

Not that historical truth seems to be a crucial issue for her. If none of these sources can be singled out as giving them plenty of excuse for illegitimate violence (and that is a fact), then I don't see what the fuss non-Muslims are making is about, she says.

This reminds me of abugaafar's remarks last week, enthusiastically picked up by his allies, including Sardar. I said my piece on that last week, but this is part of the same argument. History, like Qur'anic exegesis, isn't about propping up or undermining beliefs. It's about finding out the truth. To the extent that it's being done with the goal of proving a position, it's being done badly. If a historical account or a scriptural analysis is problematic, then those problems should be aired, and the question of motives shouldn't come into it.

For light relief, we turn to ummmahmed. Most of the Wars that Islam fought were for Defensive purposes and nver wars of Aggression, he says.

That's some defending, that is. Just think, they started in Arabia, they fought a series of defensive battles and by the end of it they had an empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Gobi desert. A thousand years later, the Ottomans were still fending off aggressors outside the gates of Vienna.

I just wish we'd had more Muslims at Dunkirk. We'd have defended our way to Berlin before the autumn.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I'm starting to find this whole thing a bit dispiriting.

Partly it's the appalling quality of argument. Here's an example, from abugaafar in the Comments.

It is a supreme paradox that liberal thinkers who are most determined to refute Mr Sardar's interpretations of the Qur'an are trying, in effect, to ram Islam into the same narrow mould favoured by the most illiberal Muslim zealots. It is as if they wish to agree with the zealots that the only true Islam is an illiberal Islam.

Now I'm sure you can all see the problem with this argument, apart from the misuse of the word paradox. The problem is that it doesn't refute any of our arguments. It simply describes our position, that Sardar's liberal interpretation of the Qur'an is contradicted by the text itself, in negative language.

If Sardar's version of Islam is reasonable, then we stand indicted. If on the other hand it's a gross distortion, however admirable his motives, then we do not. The argument is clearly about that, and questions about motive have no bearing on the central point. This is surely self-evident. Otherwise we would have to let him get away with basic errors just because he meant well.

One can hardly blame abugaafar, who is just a visitor adding a comment, but Sardar apparently entirely fails to notice the paucity of the argument as well. He quotes the comment approvingly, and adds that some bloggers here insist in framing the Qur'an in a particular way. Notice the dread word framing. It's a useful device where close textual analysis can be written off as just an interpretation. He's previously said that he doesn't have time to respond to our analysis in detail, yet he's quite happy to waste time on an argument that isn't an analysis at all.

Honestly, Guardian Editor. We realise you had to use a Muslim, but couldn't you have found an intellectual? Sardar says he has a scientific background - didn't they teach him how to reason?

But that's not the main problem. The main problem is that the whole exercise forces me, week after week, to drag myself back to the Qur'an.

I think it's starting to have an effect. I can feel my spirits drooping as the drip, drip, drip of horror corrodes my higher faculties. The same thing happened with The Bonfire of the Vanities, although Tom Wolfe was doing it on purpose.

So I'm having a week off. I have a backlog of stuff to do for work, and there are plenty of people to carry on the struggle. David Pavett, atr007, Dr Jazz, Miskatonic, they'll all carry the argument just fine without me.

When not working on session plans and handouts, I shall go and read some Ovid. He's ironic where the Qur'an is pompous and subtle where the Qur'an is banal. Also his cheerful brand of promiscuous polytheism will make a refreshing change. I think I might start offering Ovidotherapy classes to Islam survivors, to help them with the recuperative process.

One quick quibble, though. How do you square Islam's supposed opposition to religious violence with the murder of the calf worshippers (2:54)? Sardar skipped this appalling judicial murder when we passed that way a few weeks ago, presumably hoping we wouldn't notice. We did though.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Rosalind addresses me in the comments. She says this.

@jonecc: not sure if you'll get this, but you made a good point in the thread about slavery. I think you are right to say that had the Qur'an been a bit more explicit about banning slavery instead of giving slaves more rights (i.e. had Islam adopted a revolutionary rather than a reformatory approach to slavery), it may not have lingered on for 12 centuries. But I am not so sure to be honest and here's why. I think that slavery was more or less an inevitable stage in human quest for progress, it is no more than a primeval way to acquire labour in exchange of social/economic security in some form. I realise it sounds horrendous and I find slavery revolting, but if we try to look at it impartially, we may be able to recognise that were it not for industrial revolution and progress in machinery, the need for slavery would have never ceased, because human societies need labour.

In old times, people bought not the human being (at least I don't think it registered in their heads quite that way, although of course there were exceptions), but their services, but they did it in a strange way - they paid upfront and shared their homes and food with the servant. It was like a contract, except that the rights of the servant differed from society to society.

What Islam did was give servants quite a number of interesting rights. Many slaves or servants went into slavery by choice and many were not inetrested in being free, although it does sound very strange. The way the pharaoh described Moses to his wife for example was more or less how you'd describe a slave or a servant, Joseph was also a slave/servant (Chapter 12). I do think that if we deconstruct the meaning associated with the word slave or servant and fit it within the social, economic and cultural time period, we'd find many parallels with modern labour markets, especially in conjunction with technological advancement of the era which I think is quite a crucial factor. I'd be interested to hear your viewpoint on that.

I replied with this.

You say that slaves often chose their status for themselves. I wonder how many, and whether it was a free choice or the result of debt and destitution. Slave owners in the west used to say the same kind of thing.

You also say that low technology mandated slavery. There is no reason why that should be true either. The simple fact that the economic development of a society requires a great deal of manual labour to supply the basics is no justification for making some members of that society do the work, while others enjoy the return of their labours.

The problem with the way the Qur'an handles subjects like slavery is not that it is worse than other human institutions. The problem is that it is like them. If I thought a book was written by God, I would expect more from it. I wouldn't expect to have to hunt round for muddy compromises to mitigate its association with shameful human practices. I would expect it to at least rise to the moral level of say a Martin Luther King.

In general, the Quran's defenders in these debates are constantly being forced to equivocate, to invent ever more complicated ways of explaining away the actual text as it is appears on the page. You argue that certain passages were only meant to apply in the past, despite the absence of any indication of this in the text. You dismiss gloating descriptions of posthumous torture as mere metaphors. You dig out obscure alternative meanings of Arabic verbs. You insist that every verse must be read in the context of the whole, then use the most benign verses to set that context, forgetting that the reverse could just as easily apply.

You, Rosalind, you set to with a will. When David Pavett offers detailed refutations of Sardar's arguments you come back with arguments, while he merely whines and sneers. I rarely agree with you, but at least you're prepared to argue properly, and if I was the Editor of the Guardian I would give you authorship of the whole blog. I just wonder if you ever think "Why is it this much work?"

Monday, March 24, 2008


The latest blog is about fasting in Ramadan, as outlined in 2:183-189.

I've fasted. Not for religious reasons, obviously, but I've done 24 hour fasts. When your belly is empty, your mind is sharper, perhaps as an evolutionary adaptation, which seems to account for the general religious interest in the subject. A physical sensation, the ability to synthesise meaningful experiences in your mind, and you're away.

I'm with Sam Harris on this, if not on everything. It's important, and feasible, to bring the rational mind to an analysis of hyperconscious states, and the only real way in is to experience them for yourself. Any returns will obviously be compromised by the impossibility of excluding the placebo effect, but that doesn't mean that the attempt shouldn't be made, just that any results shouldn't be allowed to override other results derived more vigorously.

Muslims only fast during daylight, but they do it for a month. Because Ramadan is tied to the cycles of the moon rather than the sun, it can fall at any time of the year, so Muslims in Britain might be required to fast for ten hours a day in the freezing winter while we all celebrate Christmas, as happened to the Muslims where I live a couple of years ago, or to go without drink or food for eighteen hours on a baking hot June day.

Now here's a conundrum. How do Muslims manage in the Arctic Circle? There are for instance many Somali communities in Scandinavia. If Ramadan falls in winter, it must pass them by almost entirely, whereas summer Ramadan could go on for weeks.

If you know, add a comment. I'm not taking the piss, I'm genuinely curious.

I'm reduced to general enquiries because of the paucity of any actual claims to pick apart. Credit where credit's due, though. We get through an entire week without the Qur'an feeling the need to threaten anybody. There is one passing reference to the virtue of fearing Allah, but no graphic descriptions of the consequences of not doing so at all. It may only be seven verses, but still.

One slight caveat. Verse 187. Which begins, Permitted to you, on the night of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. All very generous and everything, but like so many passages in the Qur'an it's written from the male point of view. If the book was written with gender equality in mind, as Sardar keeps claiming, it could so easily have said approach to your wives and husbands. But it doesn't, and as in so many cases it's clear who the intended audience is.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Interpreting the law of equity part 2

I wanted to focus on the final section of the last blog, because I think it gives an insight into the author's method, and foreshadows the coming debates on women and Islam (or homosexuality and Islam, or slavery and Islam - not scheduled, but extensively covered in the comments).

We're talking about inheritance rights for women, and in particular about 4:11-12.

4:11 Allah (thus) directs you as regards your Children's (Inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females: if only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance; if only one, her share is a half. For parents, a sixth share of the inheritance to each, if the deceased left children; if no children, and the parents are the (only) heirs, the mother has a third; if the deceased Left brothers (or sisters) the mother has a sixth. (The distribution in all cases ('s) after the payment of legacies and debts. Ye know not whether your parents or your children are nearest to you in benefit. These are settled portions ordained by Allah; and Allah is All-knowing, All-wise.
4:12 In what your wives leave, your share is a half, if they leave no child; but if they leave a child, ye get a fourth; after payment of legacies and debts. In what ye leave, their share is a fourth, if ye leave no child; but if ye leave a child, they get an eighth; after payment of legacies and debts. If the man or woman whose inheritance is in question, has left neither ascendants nor descendants, but has left a brother or a sister, each one of the two gets a sixth; but if more than two, they share in a third; after payment of legacies and debts; so that no loss is caused (to any one). Thus is it ordained by Allah; and Allah is All-knowing, Most Forbearing.

As any one can surely see, it's a sexist statement of inheritance rights. And yet Sardar says this.

Paradoxically, in terms of inherited wealth, the system worked in favour of women for a simple reason. When a man married, he took financial responsibility for the whole family as patriarchy and honour demanded - and his inheritance would be spent on all the family, wife and children. But when a woman married, her inherited wealth remained solely her own property; and her husband, or indeed her children, had no rights over it.

But this is precisely the issue at stake. Gender relationships in the Qur'an go something like this. Men run the economy, and women are dependent on them. Because of this, women are subservient to men, but in return for the obedience of women men are 0bliged to protect them, and treat them with respect.

By the standards of the time, this was a comparatively reasonable arrangement. The problem comes where Sardar takes his next step.

It is not only the case that in our time, gender roles are understood in different ways. The very nature of work as paid employment is vastly different, as are the needs of providing a sustainable way of life: therefore the law of equality has to be interpreted in a different way. If both men and women work, and carry equal financial burdens, the law demands that a daughter and a son get equal shares. Failure to admit such change would miss the implication of the idea of balance. A balance is something that shifts to ensure we remain within the boundaries of the law of equity.

So what's the problem? The problem is that nowhere in the Qur'an does it actually say anything like that. It certainly gives no indication of it in sura 4. The next two verses say this.

4:13 Those are limits set by Allah: those who obey Allah and His Messenger will be admitted to Gardens with rivers flowing beneath, to abide therein (for ever) and that will be the supreme achievement.
4:14 But those who disobey Allah and His Messenger and transgress His limits will be admitted to a Fire, to abide therein: And they shall have a humiliating punishment.

If you wanted rules to be regarded as temporary, able to be changed when society changes, would you add a suffix saying that disobeying them was punishable by fire?

And if you were some kind of seventh century proto-feminist, would you immediately follow up with this?

4:15 If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, Take the evidence of four (Reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way.
4:16 If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, Leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful.

What a clear statement of inequality. Unignorable, one would have thought. There's interpreting a text, and then there's rewriting it in your head to make something you can live with.

As always, Sardar's preferred reading is the one we'd prefer in the book. It just isn't the one that's there. And to avoid doing violence to women, gay people, slaves, polytheists or unbelievers, he is obliged to do violence to the text.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Equitable law part one

This week they're talking about verses 2:178-182. They seem to have given up spelling this out, but it tells you if you check back to the weekly plan. The part one in the title refers to mine, not his.

And once more we're back on the same question, which Sardar phrases like this. The test for those who aspire to become a middle community is to distinguish between the circumstantial, that which is specific to a particular time and place and the general principle which will always be applicable but which needs to find the appropriate form to serve the needs of another time and place.

In other words, how do you decide if a Qur'anic edict is aimed purely at Mohammed's audience of the time, or if it's meant to apply to us as well?

It's not a bad question, but Sardar seems reluctant to really address it. Instead of setting up any clear guidelines, he simply chooses. The verses that support his case, at least if they're read the way he wants to read them, are eternal, standing sentinel to God's people on their long journey to the Last Day. The verses that don't are less important, somehow, more relative to their time, more metaphorical.

And sometimes he just plain misrepresents. The Qur'an insists on absolute and total respect for human life - as emphasised in 5:45, 6:151, 17:33, and 25:68, he says. And yet if you check those verses, they clearly endorse the concept of the death penalty, in their reference to just cause.

And in any case, the contents of those verses echo today's extract. Why are those verses absolute and total, when today's extract comes with a date stamp? Because, in some frankly rather limited way, they support his case.

Remember, the fact that these verses contain an ethical element isn't good enough, because the claim isn't that the Qur'an is improving in parts. The claim is that it is perfect, written by God, and in some weird spiritual way extant with God, before the universe was made.

Today's extract from the book of the universe is short, so I'm just going to quote it.

2:178 O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude, this is a concession and a Mercy from your Lord. After this whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave penalty.
2:179 In the Law of Equality there is (saving of) Life to you, o ye men of understanding; that ye may restrain yourselves.
2:180 It is prescribed, when death approaches any of you, if he leave any goods that he make a bequest to parents and next of kin, according to reasonable usage; this is due from the Allah-fearing.
2:181 If anyone changes the bequest after hearing it, the guilt shall be on those who make the change. For Allah hears and knows (All things).
2:182 But if anyone fears partiality or wrong-doing on the part of the testator, and makes peace between (The parties concerned), there is no wrong in him: For Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

It's pre-industrial morality, pure and simple. Sardar says this. The verse "the free for a free" (178) can, of course, be read literally. And leads down the familiar cul de sac Madeleine identifies. But uncritical literalism, the kind that does not reason with the specific and the universal, would be a gross error. He hates it when you point out what the book actually says. There are two principles of equality being advocated here. The first is that the law is to be applied equally to all men and women, free or not: the social status of the murderer or the victim makes no difference. The second is that punishment should be equal to the crime.

Well, no it just doesn't say that. If there's one thing you could never accuse him of, it's uncritical literalism. Or uncritical accuracy, or uncritically embracing any scholarly virtue at all. But then, if you're stuck with a book that's permeated through and through with moral horrors, like for instance a verse which clearly differentiates between the social status of men, women and slaves and requires revenge in the absence of compensation, you're bound to have a pressing need to re-interpret things.

Like this. These verses have moral import and universal implications; we can apply the general principles to our own circumstances. The term "brother" used here to mean the victim's tribal family, could be interpreted to mean society in general.

Well yes, you could, but then you're making up new meanings that aren't in the book. Which is a brilliant idea, but one begins to wonder what work the book is doing for us.

For if the author had intended that, he could very easily have said so. There is no need to use the word brother on its own. The text could have written so as to explicitly establish the role of society as a whole in the prevention of a crime. Instead, it talks about murder as an offense, not against the community, nor against the victim, but against the patriarchal authority figure - the husband, the brother, the slave owner.

Which is hardly surprising, and considering the context it was written in it's not without merit. It's just not - well, perfect.

Friday, March 14, 2008


I think we may have pushed him over the edge. He's been the perfect liberal so far, but now the worm has turned.

What is important from the viewpoint of the Qur'an is the certainty of judgement, he says. We should prepare ourselves for our own death and our own judgement - whenever the last day comes!

I thought we weren't in Kansas any more, but I was wrong. To those who are upset with the iconoclasm of the Qur'an, I say: Yes, the Qur'an does threaten the unbelievers with hell - why shouldn't it?

Is this the same man who, just a few short weeks ago, was telling us that it is only our actions which will earn us the reward of our sustainer - the very point on which this passage concludes - not arguments about theology which ultimately reside with God alone who knows all, or that the fundamental question a Muslim will ask is not how many time fire is mentioned in the Qur'an, but why is the Qur'an using the metaphor of the fire?

It's a real transformation. He used to think it was just a question of different strokes for different folks, and love would conquer all, but since then he's had this time in our company, and now he thinks we're all going to hell.

That's not what iconoclasm means, of course. Iconoclasts smash images, they don't burn people. We aren't upset with iconoclasm, we're upset because we're sick of reading gruesome descriptions of our own posthumous dismemberment and immolation. It might work as a metaphor for smashing the graven images of the polytheists, but we're the atheists, we don't have them.

But I don't begrudge him this minor lapse. He's just upset. He's trying to square the unsquareable circle of modern liberalism and the Qur'an, and all the people who realise they aren't actually the same thing are pulling at him from both directions. It must be a strain. I expect he'll perk up again in a bit, and it'll be all sweetness and light again.

Not today though. The final paragraphs degenerate into incoherence.

Now, I do think that the complaining athletics are right to be upset with what the Qur'an says about them. The term kufr, or atheism, as used in the Qur'an is the antithesis of Islam. Those who commit kufr do much more than simply deny the Divine - they also consistently and perpetually deride those communities who believe in God and wish to live by God consciousness. The denial of God for some dogmatic atheists than emerges, as Bishop Kenneth Cragg, a celebrated Christian scholar of the Qur'an, notes, not as "metaphysical scepticism" but as a practice aimed at undermining the very existence of faith communities. Not surprisingly, the Qur'an, as a Divine text, condemns this attitude. And so do I.

I'm going to assume it means what I think it means, and isn't actually about athletics at all. I think he's saying that we're being a bit rude. He's got it the wrong way round though. The Qur'an doesn't threaten atheists with hell because of a combative atheism in the modern world. When the Qur'an was written, no such views existed, and from a historical point of view they represent a minute fraction of the history of unbelief. In fact, atheism in the modern world has become combative because of the horrors in texts like the Bible and the Qur'an.

And there's the usual can of worms hidden behind the phrase faith community. Because you're in a faith community, does that mean it's OK for you to start telling your kids what they're going to think about religion when they're six? Because you're in a faith community, if we attack your beliefs are we attacking your community? What does deride mean in this context, and when did it become OK to muddy those waters?

We believe in atheism, and we argue our case. We don't want to compel anyone against their will, but there is no-one that we don't want to persuade. In the sadly distant eventuality that we actually succeeded in persuading everyone, every single faith community in the world would cease to exist. Are we supposed to wish failure on our project, just because you're in a community? Speaking as a member of the community of people who are about to be burned, I entirely fail to see what gives you the right to be so touchy.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Balance and spin

It's taken me a few days to do this, due to busy times at work. Also, the spirit wilts at times, especially when you find yourself spending precious leisure time ploughing through this kind of thing.

The first half is about the power of faith in the face of adversity. Obviously being an atheist the slightest breath of an adverse wind has me entirely flummoxed, so I'm in no position to comment on that. Fortunately he moves on to the love of knowledge, which happens to be something I do know a little about.

I would suggest that the transition from patience to prayer to the virtue of the love of knowledge in verse 164 is crucial to realising how the fortitude and endurance derived from faith becomes an active, hopeful and liberating aid - and something quite distinct from and with no connection to fatalism.

He's done it again. He's tied his comments to a particular section of the Qur'an. He should know better by now. All we have to do now is quote it, and compare and contrast.

Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they Trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth;- (Here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise.

In what way exactly is this about the virtue of the love of knowledge? At first glance it seems to be the old argument that God exists because stuff does, and where else did it come from? The last time I checked it wasn't considered one of philosophy's most convincing arguments, but that's by the bye. The point is it doesn't mean what Sardar says it means.

But perhaps it's the context. So, let's see what the context is. Again, I paraphrase, so refer to the original if you want.

2:159 Those who conceal the clear proofs and the guidance that We revealed are cursed.
2:160 Unless they repent.
2:161 Surely those who disbelieve and die while they are disbelievers are cursed.
2.162 Their punishment shall not be lightened nor shall they be given respite.
2:163 There is only one God.
2:164 See above.
2:165 Some people worship objects besides God, whilst some only worship God, and guess who's in trouble.
2:166 Oooh, they're in trouble.
2:167 And they're gonna be so sorry.
2:168 Only eat the stuff you're allowed, and don't follow Satan.
2:169 He wants you to be indecent, you know.
2:170 Do what God wants, not what your fathers did.

Lo and behold, when you see it in context, you will notice how far it is from any kind of exhortation to a genuine spirit of intellectual enquiry. In fact, there is no suggestion that these are subjects worthy of study in their own right. They are simply offered as evidence for the existence of God.

Not that you're ever going to slow him down with close textual argument once he's hit his stride, and before you know it he's throwing inverted commas round like confetti. The middle community consists of people "who use their reason" and study the natural world and think about the physical and material laws of the universe.

People "who use their reason"? Where's that a quote from? Not the second sura of the Qur'an, for certain, unless my text search is playing up.

Then he's back to fundie-bashing. I don't mind him doing this, but I can't see why he thinks the text is with him. This is what he says.

The "men who take for worship others beside God" (v165) are not just idol worshippers in the prophet's Medina. They are also those, I would argue, who have idolised their leaders, religious scholars, and the ways of their forefathers (v170). These are the people referred to in the next two verses (166-167) as "those who are followed" and are "falsely adored".

And yet it's entirely clear from the context that the bad guys in these verses aren't Muslims. Apart from anything, they can hardly be Islamic religious scholars given the time when this was written.

But that's the interpretation game, isn't it? Does it say something vile? Oh, it was only about the historical situation, you can't apply it to today, don't be so naive. Oh, but this bit, which I happen to like, this bit is timeless. If anyone tried to get away with that in the context of a proper subject, they'd be laughed out of the conference hall.

Especially with twisted quotes like this to bolster your case. "Do not follow blindly what you do not know to be true" (17:36), he says, as if the verse was a paean to iconoclasm.

Well, let's see what the online translators made of it.

YUSUFALI: And pursue not that of which thou hast no knowledge; for every act of hearing, or of seeing or of (feeling in) the heart will be enquired into (on the Day of Reckoning).
PICKTHAL: (O man), follow not that whereof thou hast no knowledge. Lo! the hearing and the sight and the heart - of each of these it will be asked.
SHAKIR: And follow not that of which you have not the knowledge; surely the hearing and the sight and the heart, all of these, shall be questioned about that.

I challenge anyone to point to a more dishonest rendering of a Qur'anic verse in anything I've written. It just doesn't say what Sardar says it says. This is cheating.

He then goes on to talk about the dietary rules in verses 172 and 173, which by the standards of religious practices are quite reasonable. It does exclude pork for no good reason except that God apparently says so, but it also says that you're allowed to eat it if there's nothing else to eat and you're in dire necessity. Just in case we get the wrong idea, though, it gives the next two verses over to hellfire.

At one point he has a go at burgers. Ostensibly, the burger is lawful; but given the fact that it is bad for one's health, it ought to be unlawful.

I'm not sure if he's complaining that Islam doesn't have enough rules about food, or if he means it should actually be illegal, but him and Gillian McKeith can stay the hell out of my kitchen either way. If I want to eat fatty food I damn well will.

In this context, he defines halal and haram, and attempts to connect them with everyday concepts of good behaviour. The problem with that argument is that you have to ask why we need separate, religious rules. What work do they do for humanity that a simple, rational ethical system doesn't do?

When the rules coincide with a reasonable ethical position, as with prohibitions against cheating or murder, they are no better than the ethical position itself. When they are simply pointless, as with the prohibition against pork or shellfish, they are annoying but perhaps trivial. When they are morally offensive, as with the injunction to lock up 'lewd women' until they die, then humanity is massively worse off as a result.

Then there's some stuff about the poor, and an outright lie about slavery which I will return to at a future date, but after many, many paragraphs of this witless drivel my spirit has finally wilted altogether. I'm off for a triple cheeseburger and some Ovid.

Monday, March 10, 2008

How many hells?

I've been meaning to do this, but Rosalind B has beaten me to it. Her email is the last one, just before the comments.

She asks why many commenters are disturbed by the constant hellfire, and to make her point she crunches some numbers. She counts all the verses which mention Hell, and all the verses which mention fire. Then, with admirable logic, she subtracts all the verses which mention both, and all the verses which mention fire but not in the context of burning people. This gives her a total of 238 references to hellfire - rather more than the 170 uses of the word fire I identified in my first casual search.

She then searches for references to Heaven and/or Paradise by the same method (I assume), and comes up with 250. This means about 4% of the Qur'an is devoted to hellfire, and perhaps a fraction more to Paradise. A total of between 8% and 9% to punishment and reward.

I can see an arithmetical problem with her method. Some of the hellfire passages run over several verses, and not all verses have the words hell or fire in them. For instance, 7:44-7:51 has eight verses which are all about punishment, in which the word fire appears three times only, and the word hell not at all.

Still, at least someone from the opposing camp, if not the author of the blog, has engaged with the seamier side of the Qur'an. I have to say I'm surprised by her conclusions, though.

Therefore the conclusion I draw is that the Qur'an seems to give at least equivalent consideration to punishment and reward. And these themes seem not to even occupy ten per cent of the total themes covered in the Quran. I am none the wiser as to why so many people have found it so threatening. Even a horror movie would leave a good feeling when the end is happy, the Qur'an seems to fail to do that for some mysterious reason.

Let's start with the reference to horror films. The main difference between horror films and the Qur'an is that everyone realises horror films are made up. The whole point of Qur'anic video nasties is that they're meant to describe actual forthcoming events. Sardar waves the word metaphor at them without explaining how that mitigates their horror or what they could possibly be a metaphor for, but no-one suggests they're a kind of medieval Day of the Dead.

That isn't half as strange as her other argument, though, which is that the threat of hellfire is mitigated by being limited to only 4% of the book. I don't know about you, but I manage to get through most days without going around threatening to put people on a bonfire anything like 4% of the time. Even the Old Testament isn't as gruesome as this.

In fact, in the Christian tradition hellfire derives from verses ascribed directly to Jesus, and occupies a comparatively small percentage of the text. When it is used it's gruesome, but that's hardly surprising, given that he's threatening to burn people on a big fire. Old Testament punishments are inflicted in this life rather than the next one.

Well, they do say the Qur'an is based on the work of the prophets, and old Mohammed certainly picked up on Jesus' eschatological Bonfire Nights.

So just to spell it out, Rosalind, the problem I have with the text is that it tells me that I'm going to burn in hell about once a page. I'm not immediately seeing why that should seem mysterious. As you may have noticed in your research, the majority of the threats are explicitly aimed at unbelievers, and that's me. Sometimes they are just passing references, sometimes they are joyous paeans to the glorious nature of my future agony.

The one thing I cannot comprehend is that, having promoted a book which does this, Sardar then feels able to accuse us of being rude. If I ever tell him it would be a wonderful thing and a sign of the mercy and wisdom of God if he was burnt in a fire until all his skin came off, then the skin was magically regrown so he could continue to taste the chastisement, then he might have some kind of complaint.

But such is not my way. In my modest way, in my own little corner of the Internet, I stand with the Oscar Wildes and the Jonathan Swifts against the Mohammeds and the Jesuses. Compared with them I have much to be modest about, but I can still find a bon mot or two for the tyrants of hellfire.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Face to Faith

In today's Guardian Pete Tobias, the rabbi at the Liberal Synagogue in Elstree, wrote this piece in the Face to Faith column.

Being perhaps slightly relieved to have the opportunity to explicitly criticise a different religion for a change, I sent in this letter.

Contrary to Pete Tobias's whitewash, the central message of the story of the burning bush is not about slavery. In fact, whilst God is speaking to Moses he goes into some detail about the rules for the correct treatment of slaves, in which the manifest inequality of the master-servant relationship is abundantly clear.

The story could just as easily be read as a paean to the bloodlust of the monotheistic God. First he hardens Pharaoh's heart to stop him releasing the Israelites, then he murders a large slice of the population of Egypt in punishment for a crime they bear no responsibility for. After that, he slaughters an Egyptian army presumably mainly consisting of conscripts, and when Moses comes down from the mountain God has him murder three thousand of the wandering Jews for worshipping the wrong God. This hideous massacre is central to the story, and is picked up in the Qur'an, where it is described as necessary for the Jews to earn divine forgiveness.

The simple fact that these events very probably never happened may mitigate our outrage, but their terror lives on in the mind and the actions of those from all the Abrahamic traditions who are inspired by them to commit horrendous acts in the world today.

The book of Exodus is not entirely devoid of virtue - theft is generally to be discouraged - but to come away from it feeling on balance cleansed and edified would require a strong stomach and a highly developed ability to look the other way when necessary.

At some point, monotheists have to address the vicious psychotic savagery that runs through their tradition, parallel to the struggle for a recognisable ethical system. To be fair, many have, and I suspect that Pete Tobias is one of those. However, reinventing horror stories as morally uplifting tales suitable for inclusion in diversity training programs is not helpful.


Madeleine Bunting has been stung. Someone implied that she only appreciated Islam's tolerance of diversity because I was a Christian and the Qur'an explicitly recognises this as an Abrahamic faith of the book, as it does Judaism. The post argued that mine was a sort of - "I'm alright then" response. That was a complete misreading of what had impressed me.

She doesn't say who this someone was, or provide a link to their remarks, so it's impossible to comment on the specific remarks, but I posted this in the comments on the general subject.

One clear demonstration that the Qur'an doesn't extend its (limited) endorsement of diversity beyond Jews and Christians is the praise offered for the judicial murder of calf worshippers, for no other crime than following a different religious practice (2:54).

The text specifically says that this murder was required by God before he would forgive the Jews for worshipping an idol. If Mohammed (or God, the hypothesised author, or the seventh century collating committee) had had any intention of distancing himself from that bloodstained Jewish and Christian tradition, he could easily have rejected it there, yet he did not.

Alternatively, one can compare 2:62, 5:69 and 22:17. The text in these verses is very similar. The difference is that 22:17 is the only one of the three which also refers to polytheists, and it's also the only one where the reference is to God's judgment, not God's forgiveness.

With regard to the imagined forgiveness for atheists, one only has to point to the simple fact that the much vaunted 2:62 limits the divine dispensation to 'any who believe in Allah and the Last Day’, combined with the many, many vitriolic descriptions of the torments awaiting for unbelievers in the afterlife. Despite attempts to argue to the contrary, a close reading of the text shows that in most instances it is the twin 'crimes' of polytheism and unbelief that require the human bonfires.

I think you are influenced by the fact that it would be wonderful if the Qur'an was on Sardar's side, because his version of religion is so much more humane and thoughtful than the illiberal alternative.

Unfortunately it is not, or at least is not so unequivocally. It is fact a mixture of the sublime, the banal and the horrific, like the Bible. It may be possible to draw inspiration from specific sections of it, but the perfection claim is only tenable by stepping carefully through the text, clinging to the ennobling verses whilst stepping carefully round the moral atrocities like a computer game of Minesweepers.

Which analogy works on another level. Because the claim is that the book is perfect, by definition that means it should be defensible in detail as well as in total. Step on one unexploded verse, and for the perfection claim it's game over.

That would be a great result for secularism, but also for religion. There is actually no hypothetical reason why world religion has to be disfigured by misogyny, homophobia and the stench of burning flesh. Many religious people are working very hard to move away from those traditions. It’s just that the ancient grimoires stand in their way.

All that’s needed is a little perspective. Simply redefine the books as humanity reaching out to God, rather than God handing perfection down to humanity, and there is no problem. The sublime bits remain sublime, whilst the mines are defused by historical perspective.

Those of us who disbelieve would still disagree, but the discussion would no longer be about defending civil rights and basic human liberties.

It kind of turned in the typing, from a specific discussion of the post into a more general statement on the whole topic. Although that wasn't my original goal, I decided it worked in the situation, and left it as it was.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Questions, but no answers

Yesterday, in his misleadingly titled Answers to Questions, Sardar addressed the vexed problem of rude atheists. They are motivated not by any notion of rationality - although they mistakenly think they are great rationalists - but by the irrational force of hatred and their own arrogance. They are convinced that their ideology has all the answers and everything else in the universe is utter nonsense.

As is usual with this kind of sweeping statement, he apparently feels no need to back his accusations up with any kind of evidence. For instance, he cites no arrogant statements, and offers no explanation why arguments offered here by atheists deviate from the standards of rational argument.

It's also a strange argument to hear from someone engaged in a detailed analysis of Sura 2 of the Qur'an, the very first line of which reads This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt. How that's more rational than a school of thought which emphasises the role of evidence is a mystery to me. But that's by the by.

It's not the first time he's done this.

But I have another problem with your analysis: I think you assume, as many atheists do, that your own position is rational and objective while those who believe in God are by definition irrational and subjective. Moreover, even if they are "intelligent and educated", there must be something wrong if they believe in nonsensical things as "sacred texts, divine beings, heaven and hell". I think this position is more than slightly arrogant.

Whatever that may be, it clearly isn't an argument. This is because it simply describes a position and then acribes a negative personality trait to it, without trying to refute it in any way. Unless, to the religious mind, ascribing a negative personality trait to an argument is refuting it.

However, given that these people are part of the diverse landscape of human opinion and folly, I think, Heather, we have to learn to endure them!

The Heather in question is Heather Plant, who I wrote about before (Unhappy). They seem resolved to tolerate us, which from a historical perspective comes as a relief.

Tolerate us, but not apparently debate us. Many of us have submitted detailed arguments, which are simply brushed off or ignored. David Pavett's thorough (and entirely courteous) demolition of the blog before last has received no answer. My own experience annoyed me so much it made me start this blog.

The brush off goes like this. You're taking verses out of context (in what context exactly is it OK to murder lewd women or calf worshippers?). This from a man who builds an entire philosophy from the word middle.

You're taking it literally, when it's just a metaphor (again, for what? What is burning the skins off unbelievers a metaphor for? Fairy dust?) .

You can't just focus on the horror, you have to read it in the context of the Qur'an as a whole. Yes, except that every time he tries to establish a context, the verses he himself quotes are chock full of horrors. There are so many horrors that by his own argument horror becomes a crucial part of the context. In other words, you have to read any statements about religious diversity in the context of the judicial murder of the calf worshipping religiously diverse. You have to read the references to God's mercy in the context of the many, many posthumous human bonfires. When you find positive references to the role of women, you have to remember that's not including the lewd ones, who have all been locked up and left to die by now.

And my personal favourite brush off, a direct quote against my argument, If that were so, it would have been refuted by now - not least by great Muslim thinkers and rationalists themselves. The simple fact that they claim things somehow becomes evidence in favour of the claim.

David Pavett, in the comments, is annoyed. This post by Ziauddin Sarder seems to reveal an approach to discussion that is unhelpful, he says, later adding, I sincerely hope that this Qur'an Blog can move away from this sort of ad hominem stuff and try to stick to the real issue which is to consider ways of understanding the Qur'an.

I sympathise with his annoyance, as he's always put his argument in an entirely reasonable way, but personally I don't really care about the ad hominem stuff as such. If you spend time arguing with the religious on the Internet, it often goes that way. He hasn't suggested that we should be killed and our bodies stripped down for transplantable body parts, so as far as I'm concerned he'll always be among our milder critics.

No, what I mind about the ad hominem stuff is that it's offered, on its own, as the argument. He's dismissed us without feeling the need to address our arguments in detail. If you refer back to my original debate with him, a crucial part of my case was that because the claim of perfection is an extraordinary claim, therefore it requires extraordinary evidence, and that every verse has to be defendable in detail, to the point where it cannot be said of any verse that a minor tweak would have made it obviously better. I am still waiting (though not with bated breath) for a proper response to that. All I got was the usual stuff about metaphor, and some remarks (also ad hominem) about my failure to engage with the Qur'an properly.

Since then, I've taken great pleasure in analysing his remarks about the Qur'an in as detailed a way as I can possibly make the time for. When they've really annoyed you, don't get personal, get analytical.

Not that I've entirely avoided the ad hominem myself. I've always done it positively, though, trying to differentiate between the positive qualities of the man himself and the mediaeval horrors of the book he defends. I also back such remarks up with detailed argument, rather than throwing them out in the world on their own.

And there's another important difference. I'm talking about one man, he's talking about an entire group. I would never generalise in that way about Muslims.

Still, we should take pleasure in small mercies. At least he seems to have given up on metaphors borrowed from chaos theory and quantum physics. He may not argue properly on his own turf, but at least he's stopped mangling other people's.

A middle community part two

In my previous post, I talked about the claim that verse 148 was a celebration of religious diversity. Now I want to move on to the main substance of Sardar's blog, which is the word middle. It appears here.

2:143. Thus We have appointed you a middle nation, that ye may be witnesses against mankind, and that the messenger may be a witness against you. And We appointed the qiblah which ye formerly observed only that We might know him who followeth the messenger, from him who turneth on his heels. In truth it was a hard (test) save for those whom Allah guided. But it was not Allah's purpose that your faith should be in vain, for Allah is Full of Pity, Merciful toward mankind.

Having told us over and over again that we shouldn't build dramatic conclusions on the basis of one verse, Sardar then does exactly that. The qibla (the direction of prayer), he says, isn't the essence of Islam. The real spirit of Islam lies elsewhere. It lies in the Qur'anic description of Muslims as "the middle community".

Based on what? Based, apparently, on the one reference in this verse, which is in itself ambiguous. He claims that there are other references in the Qur'an, but fails to cite them.

He also claims that this means a moderate approach to religion, but there is no evidence of moderation in the surrounding verses, which call other religions foolish, assert that the Qur'an is beyond doubt and praise the murder of polytheists. There are other, more popular Islamic interpretations of of the reference to the middle. It is interpreted either as referring to the central geographical position of the Islamic world, poised between Europe, Africa and Asia, or as a mark of superiority.

As usual, Sardar justifies his liberal, moderate interpretation on the basis of his own previous interpretation of other parts of the Qur'an in that way. It emerges from the Qur'an's frequent reminder to Muslims to be modest and moderate, he says. Say what?

And what a tower he builds on this single brick, on this one, highly contested and ambiguous verse. It suggests moderation in our approach to religion per se so it does not become the sole marker of our identity, a totalitarian obsession that undermines common human values, and eventually leads to self-destruction. It points towards a balanced approach to reason and revelation, science and values, ethics and morality. It argues for a more respectful and humble approach to nature, how we look after and preserve the environment for future generations. It demands fair play, equity and justice in our economic activity and moderation in our politics.

He has to say it suggests it, because it certainly doesn't come right out and say it. And when set in context it doesn't really suggest it either. The suggestion comes not from seventh century Arabia, but from Sardar's private life in the modern, secular world, where such sentiments are more generally admired.

But now we're back to the circular argument. All that we learnt about diversity and its continuity in the last blog is relevant and continues to apply to reading this passage. I understand that. In particular, I'm remembering that the judicial murder of calf worshippers, for no other crime than following their own religious choice, is an integral part of the Abrahamic faiths, and that the Qur'an, far from distancing itself from this bloody heritage, describes these atrocious acts as required for God to forgive the Jews.

Of course, our outrage is mitigated by the complete lack of any historical evidence that the Jewish flight from Egypt, the revelation at the burning bush, and therefore the judicial murder ever actually happened. Fortunately for the Jews of the time, Moses very probably never existed.

But the horror show lives on, thousands of years after it probably didn't happen, in the minds of those who celebrate it and the actions they base on it.

While we're here, have a look at this.

2:145. If thou after the knowledge hath reached thee, Wert to follow their (vain) desires,-then wert thou Indeed (clearly) in the wrong. In other words, once you're in the Muslim community it's a sin to leave it.

And this isn't leaving it to be a polytheist or atheist. This is leaving to become a Jew or (more likely) a Christian. And it's especially problematic when you consider what a low percentage of Muslims become Muslims as a result of adult decisions.

For when you're considering Islam, it's crucial to remember - you're mainly dealing with people who have been told what to think about metaphysics since they were five or six. Once they grow up, they do the same to their own children, in the belief that it's the correct thing to do. So it's not like membership of the Muslim community is something decided on after a mature, considered weighing of the facts.

And there are penalties in Islam for leaving the faith. Yes, I'm referring to the death penalty for apostasy. And yes, I know it's not as simple as that. For instance, there is no reference to it in the Qur'an - it's all in the hadeeth - and scholars disagree about whether women should be murdered or just locked up, and so on. A few even argue that there is no such proscription, although to the mainstream that's considered lunatic.

But the whole subject would never have arisen if the Qur'an wasn't so full of references to the wrong of Muslims changing their mind about their religion. And you will notice that this is not because it makes them less ethical, in the sense that they treat other people worse, but simply because they've changed their belief.

It's this idea, that to abandon your religious belief is inherently a sin (and the Qur'an is extremely vocal about the posthumous torments awaiting such sinners) which makes traditional monotheism such a problem in secular pluralist societies. There are two million Muslims in Britain, and given the massive turning away from religion in Britain as a whole it's very likely that many thousands of these would abandon it altogether if they felt themselves at liberty to do so. I certainly know from private conversations with official Muslims who don't believe in any of it that the threat of coercion is uppermost in their minds. Although not actively proposing acts of violence against such people, the Qur'an bears a heavy responsibility for creating the climate in which such violence takes place.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A middle community part one

It turns out I've got so much to say about this that I'm splitting mine into two as well. Both my sections refer to both of Sardar's, though.

In this blog (A middle community part one and part two) he doesn't precisely specify the verses he's talking about, but it seems to be roughly verses 2:142-150.

Madeleine Bunting draws our attention to verse 148. To each is a goal to which Allah turns him; then strive together (as in a race) Towards all that is good. Wheresoever ye are, Allah will bring you Together. For Allah Hath power over all things.

They both interpret this as a message of religious tolerance. It doesn't matter which religion you follow as long as you do good things, that kind of thing. Sardar justifies this on the basis that the preceding text (which he analysed last week) said exactly that, which might be reasonable if it actually said anything of the kind.

I poured scorn on that idea in a previous post (Diversity and difference), and one of his regular correspondents, David Pavett, dismembers his argument with admirable thoroughness. Pavett is to date unanswered, yet the assumption of Qur'anic diversity continues here.

The verses immediately preceding verse 148 don't help him much either. Let's summarise them.

  • 142. Pray my way, not the Jewish way.
  • 143. I've made you a middle people, without apparently feeling the need to explain that in any way, so there's something else for you to bicker about.
  • 144. You've still got to pray my way, not the Jewish way.
  • 145. If you turn into a Jew or Christian, you're a sinner.
  • 146. Some of those Jews are a right bunch of liars, anyway.
  • 147. There's no doubt I'm right.

What do you make of the verse now? When viewed in context, does it sound anything like a statement of religous tolerance? Does it even sound as if it's addressed to all monotheists? Or is it actually aimed specifically at Muslims, telling them Allah has different goals for each of them?

As Bunting points out, the next two verses appear to contradict the interpretation they are trying to put on verse 148.

2:149-150. From whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque; that is indeed the truth from the Lord. And Allah is not unmindful of what ye do. So from whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque; and wheresoever ye are, Turn your face thither: that there be no ground of dispute against you among the people, except those of them that are bent on wickedness; so fear them not, but fear Me; and that I may complete My favours on you, and ye May (consent to) be guided.

Oh look, we're back to the usual monotheism. God is great, do as he says, which means do as I say. There's nothing here that David Koresh would be nervous about.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The authentic voice

Here's someone who finds no contradiction between the Qur'an and his own ethics at all.

o I think all those people who do good without believing will also get their just reward from the Merciful God.

if that what u believe zia - then the whole point of faith and religion is a futile exrcise -
what is the point of faith if god will reward u anyway if u believe or not ...

zia i have given u the benefit of the doubt throughout this blog - but it appears u wish to present a apologetic view of islam -

for me there is clear distinction between faith and disbelieve - if disbelieve receive the punishment in hell and burn there i have no problem with that - it is a consequence of their own descisions.

the real sin in islam is arrogance - that is why inspired soul do not have faith in god and think they are morally superior.....

my only caveat is before people are judged by god they have both innner and outer dimension fufilled if this condition is met they deserve their punishment...

btw i lost my father at a young age and lost my faith in god - however i subseqently read everything on islam available to me and regained my faith - i am constantly tried with adversity and emotional pain but maintain my faith in god.

theendarm (Guardian comments)

theendarm's interpretation of the Qur'an is clearly much more accurate than Sardar's, which is to say that Sardar is a better man than he is. Lots of us lost parents young, but most of us have less fanaticism and more capitals.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Diversity and Difference

In part 1 and part 2, Sardar moves on to verses 2:40-141. Once more, he seems to be talking about some parallel version of the Qur'an, where everything in the garden is lovely.

Yes, Madeleine, I think you have got it exactly right - this passage is emphatic that the overarching duty of religion is the same for everyone, and therefore provides a means for people of faith and good conscience to work together.

And therein lies the clue. Remember, the religious talk in code. Faith and good conscience means something precise. It means them, and not us.

This supposed ringing endorsement of diversity is nothing of the kind. The key to the passage is the retelling of the story of the golden calf. As you probably remember from school, while Moses was away talking to God, or epilepsy as we know it, some of the Jews made a statue of a golden calf and worshipped it. In spite of worshipping the golden calf, a cardinal sin in monotheism, they were forgiven, says Sardar.

He's omitted a rather crucial bit of the narrative, though. So turn (in repentance) to your Maker, and slay yourselves (the wrong-doers); that will be better for you in the sight of your Maker (2:54). In other words, once the Jews had murdered the calf worshippers, then and only then were they forgiven.

Right there. The savagery at the heart of pre-industrial, desert-born, Abrahamic monotheism. Standing out on the page to those with the eyes to see, and mocking Sardar's attempts to tiptoe round it.

I know another name for calf worshipping. Religious diversity. The same quality Sardar claims is respected in the Qur'an.

In fact, when Muslims conquered large parts of polytheistic India they mainly ruled with tolerance, by the standards of the time. There was the odd mad monarch (Islamic societies have been as plagued by them as any other), but despite militant Hindu claims to the contrary most of the communal violence which still plagues the subcontinent is rooted in the British era.

Which is a neat reversal of the usual claim. Far from falling short of the Qur'anic message, the Moghuls defiantly rose above it. Faced with millions of golden calves, they turned a blind eye. Most Jews and Christians are much better than their books, as well.

Now there is some religious tolerance in this passage, but it falls within carefully defined boundaries. Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve (2:62). Which is nice for some. I don't seem to be on the list though, and neither are two thirds of my fellow citizens.

Sardar tries to claim that verse 62, and the whole passage, amount to some kind of general amnesty for different beliefs. It is a timeless summons to an open, tolerant approach not just to Islam but to living with diversity and difference in a multifaith society, he gushes. The examples from history, it seems to me, cannot be read only as admonitions to Jews and Christians, for that would be to repeat the exclusivist failings the Qur'an is at pains to point out, he says, referring to the moaning about other faith's shortcomings that makes up most of the text. Having defined the text as pluralist, he then uses his own definition to refute the text itself. This is circular reasoning, and not in a good way.

In fact, the text clearly spells out God's limits on acceptable diversity. Any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, it says, plainly enough. It says it again in sura 5 (5:69), and nearly the same in sura 22 (22:17).

That last reference is slightly different, though. Let's quote it in full. Those who believe (in the Qur'an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists,- Allah will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for Allah is witness of all things.

Did you spot the difference? This is the one version where polytheists are included, and look, it's the one version where forgiveness isn't promised. There's no on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve here. Instead, Allah will judge between them on the Day of Judgment.

A clearer refutation of Sardar's claim couldn't be found.

And even for the other monotheistic faiths, it's not exactly complimentary. Nay, Allah's curse is on them for their blasphemy: Little is it they believe, it says (2:88). I've been on diversity training courses, and I don't remember that bit.

Here's one for all of us.

Whoever is an enemy to Allah and His angels and messengers, to Gabriel and Michael,- Lo! Allah is an enemy to those who reject Faith. We have sent down to thee Manifest Signs (ayat); and none reject them but those who are perverse (2:98-99).

Perverse? Really, it's hard not to feel slighted.

And as usual, there's the flames.

And they say: "The Fire shall not touch us but for a few numbered days:" Say: "Have ye taken a promise from Allah, for He never breaks His promise? or is it that ye say of Allah what ye do not know?" Nay, those who seek gain in evil, and are girt round by their sins,- they are companions of the Fire: Therein shall they abide (For ever).

Not that the passage is entirely bereft of good advice. After a fashion.

Quite a number of the People of the Book wish they could Turn you (people) back to infidelity after ye have believed, from selfish envy, after the Truth hath become Manifest unto them: But forgive and overlook, Till Allah accomplish His purpose; for Allah Hath power over all things.

Apparently religious debate proceeds from selfish envy. Jews and Christians are to be forgiven their disputatiousness, though. I'm sure they're duly grateful. Sardar seizes on the bit about forgiveness, and rather skips over the imputation of selfishness and envy.

Sardar's grabbed hold of all the positive bits in an attempt to spin the passage into something a modern liberal could live with, and you can see how it's a step up from the Bible. It's just that it's still ten steps down from Bertrand Russell.