Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Akbar was obsessed with exploring the issues of religious truth"

[I think I may have tried to put too much into one post.  This material is related, but may be pushing the patience of surfers looking for a quick hit.  So, if that fits you, read the material from Aslan this time and from Dalrymple in a second visit later.]

I'm getting a lot of education on Islam these days.  My book club discussed Reza Aslan's No god but God tonight.  And last week I heard Nihad Awad at APU.

Additionally, I have a Pakistani friend who regularly sends me interesting things to read.  I got a three year old article from The Times by William Dalyrimple yesterday.  An American friend of Indian descent has recommended Dalrymple as one of the best writers about India.  So he comes recommended from both a Pakistani and an Indian. 

What's become clear to me in all this recent dipping into Islam, is that like Christianity (and all other religions), Islam, the ideal, and Islam, as practiced, is not always the same.  Reza writes how problems began after Muhammad's death. When he was alive, questions not addressed in the Quran could be brought to him for clarification and after his death the followers of Islam relied on people who had known Muhammad. 

As the first generation of Muslims - the people who had walked and talked with the Prophet - the Companions had the authority to make legal and spiritual decisions by virtue of their direct knowledge of Muhammad's life and teachings.  They were the living repositories of the hadith:  oral anecdotes recalling the words and deeds of Muhammad. . .

. . . [I]n less than two centuries after Muhammad's death, there were already some seven hundred thousand hadith being circulated throughout the Muslim lands, the great majority of which were unquestionably fabricated by individuals who sought to legitimize their own particular beliefs and practices by connecting them with the Prophet. . .

Thus, when the Quran warned believers not to "pass on your wealth and property to the feeble-minded (sufaha)," the early Quran commentators - all of them male - declared, despite the Quran's warnings on the subject, that "the sufaha are women and children . . and both of them must be excluded from inheritance" (emphasis added) [emphasis added in the original].

When a wealthy and notable merchant from Basra named Abu Bakra . . . claimed, twenty five years after Muhammad's death, that he once heard the Prophet say "Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity," his authority as a Companion was unquestioned. (from pp. 67-69)
The last one is particularly ironic because Muhammad's life was changed by his marrying a wealthy independent woman 15 years his senior, and he consulted her and his later wives about his business affairs constantly. 

I offer this because the original Quran, as it is portrayed in the book and in last week's talk, has ideals in it that many US citizens could readily identify with.  Yet, it is clear that people over the centuries have interpreted the Quran to suit their needs as Aslan writes.  (Of course, I always have to question whether Aslan isn't doing the same himself.) 

I also can't help but think of the many religious leaders in the US who interpret the Bible in ways that benefit their financial and political power.  Nothing new here. 

But I also mention it to put this piece (below) about Akbar into some context.  It's not hard to find examples of people who misuse Islam.   In fact that's mostly what we are exposed to because the US narrative on Islam seems to be that it is a barbaric, if not evil religion and the media write stories that project the image they expect to find and their audience will believe. 

So it is useful to have examples of enlightened Muslims as well who can just as easily be contrasted to bad examples from the West.  So here are a few excerpts from the Dalrymple piece this post begins with. 
About 100 miles south of Delhi, where I live, lie the ruins of the Mughal capital, Fateh-pur Sikri. This was built by the Emperor Akbar at the end of the 16th century. Here Akbar would listen carefully as philosophers, mystics and holy men of different faiths debated the merits of their different beliefs in what is the earliest known experiment in formal inter-religious dialogue.

Representatives of Muslims (Sunni and Shi’ite as well as Sufi), Hindus (followers of Shiva and Vishnu as well as Hindu atheists), Christians, Jains, Jews, Buddhists and Zoroastrians came together to discuss where they differed and how they could live together.

Muslim rulers are not usually thought of in the West as standard-bearers of freedom of thought; but Akbar was obsessed with exploring the issues of religious truth, and with as open a mind as possible, declaring: “No man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to any religion that pleases him.” He also argued for what he called “the pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on the marshy land of tradition”.

All this took place when in London, Jesuits were being hung, drawn and quartered outside Tyburn, in Spain and Portugal the Inquisition was torturing anyone who defied the dogmas of the Catholic church, and in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Campo de’Fiori.
 Dalrymple wrote his piece in response to
. . . Douglas Murray, a young neocon pup, who wrote in The Spectator last week that he “was not afraid to say the West’s values are better”, and in which he accused anyone who said to the contrary of moral confusion: “Decades of intense cultural relativism and designer tribalism have made us terrified of passing judgment,” he wrote.
Dalrymple's piece is intended to demonstrate that actually, most of the ideals of the West had precedents in the East.
Murray named western values as follows: the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equality, and freedom of expression and conscience. He also argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the ethical source of these values.

Yet where do these ideas actually come from? Both Judaism and Christianity were not born in Washington or London, however much the Victorians liked to think of God as an Englishman. Instead they were born in Palestine, while Christianity received its intellectual superstructure in cities such as Antioch, Constantinople and Alexandria. At the Council of Nicea, where the words of the Creed were thrashed out in 325, there were more bishops from Persia and India than from western Europe.

Judaism and Christianity are every bit as much eastern religions as Islam or Buddhism. So much that we today value – universities, paper, the book, printing – were transmitted from East to West via the Islamic world, in most cases entering western Europe in the Middle Ages via Islamic Spain.

And where was the first law code drawn up? In Athens or London? Actually, no – it was the invention of Hammurabi, in ancient Iraq. Who was the first ruler to emphasise the importance of the equality of his subjects? The Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, set down in stone basic freedoms for all his people, and did not exclude women and slaves, as Aristotle had done.

I recommend both Aslan's book and Dalrymple's short article.  If you are already a defender of different religions, but don't really know all that much about Islam, (I'd put myself in that category and thus can't guarantee the accuracy of these authors) reading up on this important world religion - and boogey man of US politics - will help make you a better spokesperson when you do encounter ignorance.

If you think Islam is a backward evil religion, then I merely ask you to consider whether your knowledge of Islam comes from people who love or hate Islam.  Then consider whether you would recommend Muslims around the world read books about Christianity and the West written by lovers or haters of Christianity and the West. 

I don't see it as about us or them, about winning or losing.  The religions are even besides the point.  History shows us (as in the examples quoted above about early Islam) that people who want to dominate others, use what they can to get that power - whether it is physical might, economic might, or ideological might, such as using a religion to get people to comply. 

The challenge for humankind is to keep those among us who lean towards competition and physical battle from dragging the rest of us into their wars.