Friday, 16 June 2017


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What is the opposite of enlightenment? Darkness? Obscurantism? Superstition? Religion? Is faith contrary to the light of reason? The subtitle of Christopher de Bellaigue’s wonderfully thoughtful book, The Islamic Enlightenment, is ‘the modern struggle between faith and reason’. As much as I enjoyed his book, that puzzled me. Why has faith got to be irrational? Why can’t faith seek understanding, as St Augustine put it?

Too many Islamist terrorists and suicide bombers hog up the bad news. ‘This religion needs a reformation!’ panicky Western voices cry out. De Bellaigue’s heroes are the Muslim intellectuals who, from inside the faith of the Crescent, have been holding aloft the bright standard of rationality – after a fashion.

A Christian clergyman, back in 19^th century, had an idea. The Revd Isaac Taylor, de Bellaigue relates, proposed to merge Islam and Christianity. To make the two religions into one. Did he mean to dilute a ‘hard’ Islam into a soft, ‘reformed’, castrated version of Christianity? I fear Taylor was one of Christendom’s biggest fools. No wonder Muslims didn’t buy it. Although I wonder whether Anglican panjandrums like Archbishop Justin Welby, of Canterbury infamy, might wish to revive the loony project and give it a go. He is dumb enough for it.

Taylor’s nutty plan was put to Sheikh Muhammad Abdu, who replied politely but evasively. (I guess a bit of takiya, dissimulation? Abdu wasn’t naive.) I am fond of that worthy Egyptian scholar who died too early. A Mufti who wanted to wake Cairo’s famed al-Azhar University from its dogmatic slumbers. And a champion of ijtihad in legal matters. Ijtihad, a word meaning the use of independent reasoning to interpret the divine will. (He argued that talk of jinns in the Qur’an might have referred to microbes.) However, if he meant by that, as de Bellaigue suggests, that any Muslim with Qur’an in hand could do its own interpretation, I demur. The history of Protestantism is littered with the dismal results of ijtihad in the Bible. For instance, the moronic views of so-called ‘Christian Zionism’ are the misbegotten offspring of John Nelson Derby, a perverse clergyman who backed his imbecilities by ‘free interpretation’ of the Second Letter of St Paul to Timothy. Moral: authoritative
scholarship is imperative to guard against such disasters.

Abdu is one of the heroes of Islamic Enlightenment but there also demons. Sayyid Qutb is one. A leading light and a ‘martyr’ of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, eventually hanged by strongman Nasser. It may be cheap psychologising to conclude that his negative, unenlightened attitude to women (especially Western) resulted from his sexual inadequacy or repression but…probably! A tangle of contradictions – a friend of secular novelist Naguib Mahfouz, a bureaucrat, a poet, a mild racist, a conspirator and a Leninist – Qutb opposed philosophy and reason in religion. ‘Do not ask how Allah knows or does this and that’, he intimated. An obscurantist attitude, methinks. To be fair, a Christian theologian like John Calvin might have concurred: ‘Who are you, worm, to probe into God’s Will?’ he once inveighed.

The nasty game of declaring fellow Muslims unbelievers, and hence fair game for attacks, is called takfir – a verb related to kafir, infidel. Qutb believed that modern society is so steeped in ignorance of God and his laws that violence against it is permissible, even necessary. That makes some sense… But the problem is about the means of fighting ignorance – here I speak as a not-so-feeble Christian. Qutb’s ideas engendered much terror, murder and mayhem. Does that give Islam a bad name?

Qutb also contended that armed jihad ought to be offensive. Believers must take the initiative against unbelief and strike first. Of course, for Muslims the wars led by the Prophet must be normative. Were they defensive or offensive? Dictated by the need of self-defence? Protecting Muslims’ lands and property? Or also aimed at the spreading of the faith? ‘No compulsion in religion’: a Qur’an verse often quoted to rule out holy war. Qutb allowed for that, he did not ask for the forced conversion of non-Muslims in war. Still, military jihad cannot be confined to mere defence of borders, he insisted. History shows him right: the Turks who conquered Constantinople in 1453 were hardly fighting in self-defence. Difficult to disagree.

De Bellaigue has lived in Iran, has written two books on the country and is married to an Iranian. A good third of Islamic Enlightenment focuses on Iran. Writing recently in the New York Times, he contrasts Iran’s tolerant discourse towards Sunnis with the murderous theology of bellicose takfiris like ISIS. Although Iranians affirm the justness of their Shia’ version of Islam, they do not deny that Sunnis are Muslims. Moreover, the Shia tradition of high regard for reason and philosophy – I just wrote a paper about that for an academic conference – stands in encouraging contrast to the narrow, stifling fundamentalism of Qutb and his lot. And I have been welcome in Iran – unlike the unpleasant manner I would in the shrinking lands of the dreary Caliphate.

Faith and reason. Friends or foes? Partners, I would say. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown taught the same. There is a story in which the great priestly detective in a garden converses about theology with a fiendish villain, Flambeau, disguised as a priest. Fr Brown doesn’t know that but suddenly he unmasks Flambeau and has him arrested. ‘How did you know I wasn’t a priest?’ the startled criminal demands. ‘You attacked reason’, Fr Brown replies, ‘It is bad theology’.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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