Rant Number 309 29 March 2008
When King James the First knighted the swashbuckling Sir Kenelm Digby he was so nervous that he would have thrust the sword’s point into the new knight’s eye, had not the Duke of Buckingham interposed.
I wonder whether the Sovereign may not have been just a little bit diffident last week when she dubbed writer Salman Rushdie, saying ‘Arise, Sir Salman’. She can hardly be a fan. But it is Her Majesty’s job and she is most gracious to take the rough with smooth.
The priest has met Rushdie in the flesh only once. Four years ago, near Hammersmith. Lucky for him I did not carry a blade – I might have been tempted to earn a large sum of money from that old fatwa...aargh! Worry not folks. Only a bad taste joke. Holy Orders forbid a priest to shed human blood - except of course his own, in martyrdom, for the sake of Christ. Salman was never in physical danger from me. Although, in hindsight, I would have rather enjoyed telling him how much his books bore me.
‘Services to literature’. The ostensible reason for knighting Rushdie. Was there a hidden agenda? An intended slight to Islam? Certainly it is difficult to imagine any pious followers of the Prophet rejoicing over the event. Only a fly on Downing Street’s wall would be privy to the PM’s real reasons for this bizarre award. Bet British Muslims are probably far more concerned about the grave decision to extend detention without charge to 42 days than about flogging a dead horse. Yet symbols matter. If it was worth stripping that distinguished statesman, Bobby Mugabe, of his knighthood, the honouring of Sir Salman must mean something, too. What could that be?
Three years ago our Salman wrote in The Times that Islam needs a ‘new Reformation’. (Note, pray, the capital ‘R’.) One that would bring Muslims ‘into the modern era’. No doubt that line won him many friends in Downing St and amongst the cultured despisers of religion, aka the voluble chatterati of Mayfair and Manhattan. Well, if Sir Salman is going to play Martin Luther, and cause comparable upheavals in Dar al-Islam, his utterances deserve a little scrutiny.
‘Reformation’ in English is synonymous with Protestantism. A strand of Christianity that rejects church tradition and authority in matters of faith, while insisting on the supremacy of the Bible. Indeed, giant Prots like Luther and Calvin were adamant about biblical inerrancy. And not all that keen on religious tolerance. John Calvin at Geneva set up a theocracy and had theologian Michael Servetus burnt at the stake as a heretic. Calvin would interrogate even his barber as to his theological views. Luther, for his part, did not speak kindly about the Jews. Later on, Protestantism spawned countless odd sects, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Seventh-Day Adventists. Some even dissolved into atheism. Today the protestant scene is hardly uniform. From wishy-washy evangelicals to hard-line traditionalists and to so-called Christian Zionists (la samaha Allah!). Muslims may well discover a lot in common with conservative evangelicals. On matters like abortion and personal morality, for example. Surely no believer who reveres his Qur’an should object to a Christian who reads and values and follows his Bible. Such as the faithful Anglicans who just gathered at Jerusalem, to affirm their loyalty to Scripture and the Prayer Book. Conversely, I know many Muslims who despise the manner in which some ever-so-liberal churches have forsaken the faith of their fathers. I only doubt that was what Sir Salman had in mind when he advocated a reformation in Islam…
The Qur’an. Ah, yes, the Qur’an. Rushdie wrote of situating al-Kitab within history, not beyond it. Maybe that’s a brave thing to say for a Muslim. Who am I, a poor Christian, to rush in where angels fear to tread? But a sceptic might observe that no amount of brute historical facts could ever logically warrant the conclusion that a book is literally God’s speech. Nor indeed – here I speak as a Christian – that a particular human being is literally the Son of God. Factual truths and divine truths aren’t the same - they belong to distinct universes of discourse. Anyway, if Salman knows anything about his religion, he will know that Islamic law and doctrine do not rest on the Qur’an alone but also on the ahadith, the Prophet’s sayings. And surprise-surprise, there is already a sort of historical-critical science of the ahadith. Turkish Muslims are about to dig deeper into that. Hope that pleases our knight in not-so-shining armour.
The Qur’an should be read ‘as a plea for the old matriarchal values in the new patriarchal world’. Thus spoke Rushdie-Zarathustra. That made me grin a huge grin. As a ploy to win favour with the ladies it is a little too brazen. But that shows up the trick. Sir Salman speaks for very few Muslims, if any. Instead, he speaks for the West, where matriarchy is already a reality. Muslim women however are a bit more discerning. I daresay they are proud of their religion. So they wear the hijab voluntarily. Chattels they are not. Far from it. They are real women. If I had talked of matriarchy to the dignified women of Doha, in the Arab Gulf, when I lived there, I would have made them laugh. Those fine ladies no more give a hoot about matriarchy than they do about patriarchy. Only westernised obsessive ideologues care about such clichés. Most Muslim women, I submit, do not. Why should they? They can be the real thing, the real McCoy: mothers.
There is a joke about a bloke who announced he was going to found a new religion. ‘Good’, a wag told him, ‘now all you have to do is to get yourself crucified and rise again after three days and your religion will be up and running.’ To expect Sir Salman to perform something like that would be unreasonable. But what if his ‘reformed’ Islam looked so different from the Islam of the faithful to be tantamount to another, new religion? Would he then have the pluck to suffer martyrdom for its sake? To make it flourish?
I just don’t believe it.
Unless of course the knight proves me wrong.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli