Practise what you preach about religious literacy, Lady Warsi.

by - 24th January 2011

Sayeeda Warsi’s speech was brave, and also irritating.

Brave because the subject of religious illiteracy needs tackling, and such is the nature of British discourse about race or religion, it will only command a hearing when it comes from the underdog.  She grasped the poisoned chalice.

Annoying however because if this is the best we can do, after all the religious cataclysms of recent years, we’re in a terrible mess.

Brave because Warsi is a feisty woman who clearly feels able to tell the Pope what he should be doing.

But it’s annoying because it is illogical and intellectually reckless. 

Despite its calls for ‘leadership’, this kind of stuff can only lead us further up the gully into which the elites fled long ago, and around which the less schooled populations of Britain are circling with increasing menace. 

Why intellectually reckless?

Because it compares like with unlike – something Aristotle warned us against.  ‘Faith’ is not interchangeable with ‘faiths’.  God is not one, as the Boston University theologian Stephen Prothero showed convincingly in his recent eponymous book: that particular discursive ‘rabbit hole’ is a fantasy. 

You cannot argue for all faiths an approach, or rights, that might be merited by one or other of them.  Faiths are different.  Christianity is a religion of belief.  Islam is a religion of ritual and law. 

Where Warsi is brave is in her determination to get us to return to our natural hospitality as a nation that, in discriminating between good and bad, sees into the heart (as my Indian Muslim friends and relatives are particularly good at doing), and that accepts a person on the ‘content of their character’, as Martin Luther King put it, rather than the colour of their skin, or the length of their beard. 

Character is vulnerable, but also surprisingly durable, and so often manages to rise above circumstance and manipulation.

I believe we must learn once more how to take people as we find them.  We must retrieve the kind of ‘common sense’ clichés that we used to govern our social lives by, and not be afraid of our own thoughts. 

Neither must we be afraid to explore, discuss and if necessary denounce what different religions actually say about themselves.

And this is where Warsi is at her most irritating. 

For we’re not just talking about a few nutters or criminals when it comes to unacceptable forms of religion. There are in each religion centres of influence that exert themselves through structures that we barely know about, and to which no media correspondent is ever assigned.

The Islamic Fiqh Academy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for instance is a massive unifying force in Islam, a counterweight of medieval regression pulling back against the possibilities that life in the West is affording Muslims.  On family laws, and apostasy, it will not bend.

And what has Warsi to say about the Tablighi Jama’at, the 80 million strong Deobandi movement still seeking to build a 12,000 capacity mosque in East London to complement its other huge establishments around the country, that insists on the ‘black sheet’ – their translation – for women? 

How does this not signal repression, if, as happened to me, a woman journalist visiting the HQ in Delhi, you wish to interview a male authority, and are permitted to do so, only by sitting with your back to him?

Warsi quotes the Old Testament barbarisms of Leviticus and Deuteronomy without seeming to understand that Christians are taught in church, week by week, to judge all its sayings by the standard of the Christ of the New, who healed on the Sabbath and did not resist his judge and executioners.  Religions handle scripture differently.

When Christians pray their core prayer, the Lord’s Prayer or Paternoster, they ask: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.’  This is a blessing for society, albeit a counsel of perfection, repeated Sunday by Sunday.

Yet the most common Muslim prayer, the al-Fatihah, revealed to Mohammad, and recited up to 17 times a day, is fraut with a divisive interpretation that tradition enjoins, and which the faithful cannot ultimately ignore, because of what classical Islam is, and the way it works.

‘Guide us in the straight path, the path of those whom Thou hast blessed, not of those against whom Thou art wrathful, nor those who are astray.’

This is the best-known chapter of the Qur’an  –  ‘the Opening’.  It seems incontrovertible; an exhortation to goodness.

And indeed, the non-Arabic-speaking Muslim former editor of the Jakarta Post whom I met last year, believed he was thereby invoking a blessing on all people.   No doubt this is true of many Muslims especially in Britain.

Yet the fourteenth-century Syrian Qur’anic Commentator ibn-Kathir says otherwise, and this is where the problem arises for devout Muslims seeking to grow in orthodoxy, who must inevitably encounter the pull of tradition.

In Sunni Islam, the classical tradition, legitimated by the consensus of past scholarship has been normative.  While historically the Sunna or sayings, habits and tacit approvals of the Prophet has controlled the understanding of the Qur’an, the consensus of the religious scholars has over-ruled the Sunna.

‘. . . for neo-traditionalists in Sunni Islam, the consensus of the past is authoritative and overrules everything,’ writes Professor John Esposito in a Cordoba Foundation publication, Arches Quarterly (2:3, Winter 2008).

And there is a saying of al-Azhar, the prestigious university in Cairo: ‘Consensus is the stable pillar on which the religion rests.’

Those who, like the reformer An-Naim, bypass or ignore the classical tradition, fail to come to grips with the reality of Islam on the ground. 

That means the conservative or neo-traditionalist bent of many religious scholars, madrasas and Muslim populations.

How does this affect the al-Fatihah?  Ibn-Kathir is explicit about whom all Muslims everywhere should shun as misguided and objects of God’s wrath. 

‘These two paths are the paths of the Christians and Jews, a fact that the believer should beware of so that he avoids them . . .’

Baroness Warsi will only discourage Islamophobia by encouraging the reformers - and Britain’s young Muslims who look to them – in linking new interpretations to the ancient ways of conformity.