In a 1989 edition of "The Pilot", the Reverend Tony Keogh (then Rector of Trinity) looked at Islam. This was in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, and the Iran / Iraq war, but before the more radical forms of Islamic extremism expressed in 9/11, and the London Bombings.
Nevertheless - despite being written in 1989 - it is a very informative and in many ways prescient piece of observation, especially with regard to the distinction between political systems which change over time, and religious systems, which can all to readily become ossified, and coupled with a degree of certainty among their adherents, cam be a positive danger in a way that political systems can not
As Jacob Bronowski remarked in "The Ascent of Man", standing at Auschwitz:
"This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.. "
And nowhere is such arrogance more likely to surface than in religion. As C.S. Lewis noted (in "The Four Loves"), it is the highest aspirations, the higher loves which are capable of greater perversion, of a greater fall.
That is something which should be always guarded against, the arrogance which not only knows, but proceeds to dictate to others, and cannot consider that it can be wrong. This is probably something which is found more in contemporary Islam than Christianity, which has become more diverse in tolerating differences of opinion.
In Islam, for example, the majority of scholars still take the traditional view that apostasy is punishable by death or imprisonment until repentance, at least for adult men of sound mind. A recent excellent documentary on BBC Radio 4 by a British Muslim highlighted that this view is even held by numerous Muslims in Britain, although it is not given such a high profile as we see in Malaysia, where death threats are commonplace. Identity cards in Malaysia and Egypt state religion, requiring formal procedures to alter religious status, ensure that much more control by a climate of fear.
Tony Keogh writing on Islam in 1989 in The Pilot
During the 1960s and '70s, a phrase which was often heard, when religion was discussed, was, "All religions are the same really," or "We all worship the same God, really!" The 1980s and the creation of various Islamic republican states, has surely killed that myth.
I remember in the early '60s a university lecturer prophesying that it would not be the super powers of east and west who would threaten world peace in the future but it would be man's diverse views on religion which would constitute the greater threat. It is clear that my former teacher's words are coming true and it is easy to see why.
Political systems, by their amorphous nature, are subject to change, so each new generation has to operate them in the light of contemporary conditions, and as people in one political system learn more about their opposite number, so they borrow ideas from each other.
However, in religion, we are not primarily talking about systems but about the hearts, minds and spirits of people. If religion is not to cause a cataclysmic end of the world as we know it, we need to take a leaf out of the politicians' book and try to understand other people's faith. I believe that this issue ranks alongside ecology and nuclear arms as a potential for the disaster of mankind.
The first thing that needs to be understood about Islam is that, of the great world faiths, it is the baby. It was founded by Mohammed (c.570-629). According to the Islam calendar, Moslems are in the 15th century, or Middle Ages. Many of the attitudes which we see in the Islamic world would he easily recognised and, more importantly, accepted by medieval Christians.
Islam did not invent the execution of heretics; Christian history is full of such practices from the Crusades to present-day Northern Ireland.
I cannot, in the space available, do justice to the whole history and beliefs of Islam. Let me instead take just one aspect which is probably more misunderstood than any other by the Christian west: this is the Islamic concept of `jihad' or `The Holy War'.
It is essentially divided into two. The `Great Jihad' is fighting one's lower nature, it is internal rather than external, striving in the path of God to overcome one's evil tendencies. Man shares with the animals certain characteristics which, if let loose, would make him a very dangerous animal. To bring those passions under control, that is what the `Great Jihad' means. Man, so say Islam, has a tendency to over-estimate himself' and to under-estimate his spiritual potential. He has a tendency to control and exploit his environment and other human beings. The `Great Jihad' is essentially against such tendencies.
For the Christian, there is no great problem. The internal war between good and evil is a constant topic in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St Paul (Ephesians Chapter 2). It is with the `Lesser Jihad' that we have our greatest problems as Christians.
The `Lesser Jihad' is fighting, not internally but externally, on behalf of the community and because of its visual impact in the media, the west has had a tendency to think this is the sum total of Islam Jihad (the Holy War). There is one very important proviso about waging a Holy War and that it has to be in self-defence -- hence the problems in the United Nations about ending the Iran/Iraq war. The negotiations broke down over who had started the war, hence which side was practising the Islamic law on self-defence and which was not.
Like all great movements in history, to the followers of such movements, it is not what actually happened in the history of that movement which is important but what the present day followers want to believe happened; this is as true of Christians as it is of Muslims. It is a fact that Muslims have waged war - wars of conquest, wars in the ordinary sense, and as often as not all related to religion or faith.
It is also clear that some Muslims, in this respect, have not exercised the Great Jihad.
It is at this point that Christians and Muslims part company for Muslims have no sense of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness and it is at this point that we have to stand by the Cross of Christ or throw it overboard. Hence in the Muslim world, they have the brutal mutilation of the body as a punishment and as a restitution to grace; the Muslims have a greater sense of Allah's mercy in the afterlife than in the present one.
A brief world about the Koran; it is a grave mistake to call it the Islamic Bible, it would be much nearer the mark to call it the equivalent of Jesus Himself. The Koran - the book itself, its writings in which not one mark or dot can be changed, re-translated or modernised - is the living word, the logos of Allah. In it, Islam recognises the great prophets of the Old Testament; it also recognises Jesus at the penultimate prophet, before Mohammed, although the' Koran has its own versions of Jesus and His teaching.
For example, when Peter cut off the ear of the temple guard at the arrest of Jesus, instead of Jesus healing the ear, the Koran quotes Jesus as saying, "Not yet, Peter". Islam would have problems justifying the Lesser Jihad ifs they followed the Bible's account of the event.
One of the great ironies in all this is that both Islam and Judaism claim Abraham as the father of their people. It has its own poignancy to think that the conflict in the Middle East is basically a civil war among people who stem from the same source.
Bearing all this in mind, it is important, I think, to try to understand the faiths of other people and I would recommend the following books to you - "The Faith of Other Men" and "Islam in Modem History", both by Wilfred Cantell Smith, published by Mentor; also "The Religious Experience of Mankind" by Ninian Smart, published by Collins. This last book I can thoroughly recommend. Professor Ninian Smart was one of my teachers and was a superb teacher and writer.
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