Sunday, 19 September 2010

Religion and historical realism

I’m still thoroughly absorbed by the Blair book. I've just ploughed through the dense and closely-argued chapters about Iraq, which are a must-read for those who refuse to allow that there were any legitimate reasons for going to war. For the most part, I find myself sympathetic to the narrative, but one or two sentences have jarred. It could be me being nit-picky, but I believe these things matter.

In the course of a long explanation of the background to 9/11 and the rise of jihadi fundamentalism, Blair offers a thumbnail sketch of the history of Islam, charting how in the 7th century the new faith was seen as a reform movement when Christianity had become corrupted by sectarianism and power. Apparently, Islam ‘was in part an attempt to take the Abrahamic faiths back to their roots and develop them into a principled, rational and moral way forward for the world.’

Fair enough. But then the next sentence reads: ‘The message of the Prophet was given to him by the angel Gabriel from God – the Koran therefore being the direct recital of the word of God.’ Notice how that sentence is not prefaced by the phrase ‘Muslims believe that…’ or ‘According to Islam…’ Rather, it runs on from, and is given the same credence, as the preceding historical narrative. Now, as I say, I could be accused of over-sensitivity here. You could argue that the style of A Journey is populist, informal, switching between registers and that the ‘Muslims believe…’ bit is implied.

But I’m not so sure. The author does, after all use the term ‘the Prophet’, and earlier writes about ‘the Prophet Mohammed’. The Christian equivalent would be describing Jesus as ‘the Saviour’ or using the term ‘Our Lord’ or ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. And later in the book, Blair states that the fundamentalists have perverted the ‘truth’ of Islam. Truth? But I thought Tony Blair was a Christian? What does he mean by saying that Islam is ‘true’: does he believe that Mohammed really was sent by God, and that his message (which, as I understand it, contradicts that of Christianity in important respects) was somehow divinely inspired?

As regular readers will be aware, I’m a huge Blair fan. I didn’t always agree with his domestic policies (academy schools would be a case in point): in fact, I must be one of the few people who admire him more for his foreign than for his domestic achievements. One area in which I’ve often found myself in disagreement with him is the matter of religion. I don’t mean his decision to become a Catholic. I regarded that as a genuine and legitimate choice, and loathed the mean-spirited and ignorant media commentary that accompanied its announcement. But where I part company with him is in his pro-faithism and multi-faithism, his support for the notion that any faith is better than no faith, that all faiths are somehow ‘one’ and are preferable to the supposed empty secularism of modern society.

It’s this kind wishy-washy attitude that seems to lie behind the uncritical statements about Islam in A Journey (not that Blair isn’t severely critical of the fundamentalist forces that he sees as perverting Islam’s ‘truth’). I remember detecting a similar attitude when reading Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, where (once again) the supernatural ‘events’ of Mohammed’s life were treated with the same historical realism as wars, population movements, etc. It was rather like reading a history of Europe that gave the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection the same credibility as the fall of Rome or the Hundred Years War. Or a history of America that accorded Joseph Smith’s reception of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon a similar status to the Boston Tea Party or the Battle of Gettysburg.

Whether writers fall into this way of writing about Islam out of plain fear, or just fear of offending, I wouldn’t like to say. Given the likely outcry, or worse, if they were to suggest that the Koran might be a human creation, or the story of Mohammed partly legendary, perhaps they are just opting for an easy life. Maybe they just want to make sure their books get published (rather than burned) in the Middle East and Asia. It occurs to me that a sign of real progress and reform in the so-called ‘Muslim world’ would be if a book that treated the history of Islam in the same way that Christianity has been treated in western books for the past two hundred years - as one belief system among many - could be published and sold openly in those countries.

I may be wrong, and maybe such publications are already available in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran. If so, do let me know, and I stand to be corrected.

1 comment:

peter said...

Well, as a Roman Catholic, TB should believe in the Archangel Gabriel. It's only a small step from that belief to believing that said Gabriel dictated the word of God to a human emissary. Most Catholics, of course, don't believe Mohamed to have been that emissary.

In other words, another explanation for TB's wording is that he believes things very similar to the beliefs of orthodox Muslims, and so writes about their beliefs as if he was writing about his own, without any of the weasel words or verbal distancing whose absence you note. His text, might therefore, be evidence of courage in discussing belief rather than of nervous accommodation to Islamic terror or a venal desire for more sales in the Islamic world.