Thursday, July 24, 2014

Liberal Islam

I have just listened to a Humanitas lecture by Prof. Abdou Filali Ansary where he suggests some very interesting things about Islam today.  I had to follow his lecture in bits and pieces as having a full hour uninterrupted is a rarity for me, and if I can find a free hour in the future I will hide somewhere and listen again. He makes important points, not heard much today in the roar of radical Islam that fills the western media, and dare I say, the Islamic media also. 

He begins by looking not so much at European reactions to Islam, but at Muslim visitors to Europe as long ago as the 16th century.  He begins there as this talk carefully circumambulates modernity. Modernity is, of course,  a very slippery term when you dig below the surface, but is useful as clearly something changed in European, and today’s child of Europe, the West with the advent of ‘modernity’.  Prof. Ansary does mention here and there in his talk western perceptions of Islam, but what interests him more are Islamic reactions to modernity and therefore the West.  He details the reactions of some Muslim visitors to Europe as modernity takes hold and notes their surprise at the profound changes in world view  and mentalit√© that are intrinsic to modernity.  

He goes on to speak about the nature of modernity in the Islamic world.  Where in the West, the enchanted world (to borrow from Charles Taylor) is replaced gradually by a scientific outlook, which reaches its climax with the birth of social sciences in the late 19th century, in the Islamic world modernity means something quite different.  Modernity there is a search and movement to restore ‘normative’ Islam. Muslim intellectuals, many affected by the primacy of logic, reason and the use of observed social evidence see an Islam that had departed from the pure teachings of the Prophet and the ‘golden age’ of the Rashidun.  They see an Islam that had syncretically melded Islam with local cultural practices and beliefs, a mongrel and hybrid form, not pure. 

Syncretism is a term that is under attack and often rejected these days, but I have yet to find a workable replacement for what it signifies.  In the university course I teach on Religion and Society in the modern western world, I have students consider such things as Tequitqui in the former Aztec lands, or the very individual case of an Oji-Cree Anglican priest active in his northern Ontario parish in the 1950s, 60s and 70s who also functioned as a traditional medicine man. Of course his Anglican bishop knew nothing of his parallel track job, but there it was.  This fact of syncretism, whether it can be defined as a melding of beliefs and local cultural practices, or an acceptance in some locales of parallel belief systems existed also for any other religion that spread beyond its original socio-cultural setting.  

Modernity then, for Islam, was not the rejection of religion as in the West, and its replacement by the secular religion of Science (I use the term religion here stressing its etymological roots as a social apparatus that provides a common worldview for a society, that is in functional rather than substantive terms). Modernity for Islam was a move by intellectuals and activists (often the same persons) to restore a normative Islam and scale away the syncretic accretions attendant on expansion over the centuries.  The way this is happening dominates the media:  ISIS currently in the news with its claim to restore the Caliphate; the Muslim Brotherhood, a much older organization battling within Egypt; Wahabbism the first of these, still  in control in Saudi Arabia. 
Abdou Filali Ansary is none of these.  He points to a different path to Muslim modernity, one little noticed, but perhaps needing to be so noticed.

He refers to this path as Liberal Islam.  It is found in  a handful of individual scholars who reject the traditional approach to the Qur’an, which is to regard it as a set of discrete laws, where each Surah is sealed off from the other and applied to modern situations.  These thinkers argue that true Islam resides in the spirit, the holistic spirit of Islam that should guide Muslims in the modern world. Ansary is not hopeful that this will happen, as the purveyors of apologetics - the conservative and traditional interpreters of Islam, control education in the Muslim world and each new generation of teachers is trained in the same system.  Also he notes that they use language that appeals to the masses, either to fight against despots in the Islamic world, or to fight against the West. The Liberal Muslim intellectuals do not translate their ideas in such a way as to appeal to the  masses. 

A good place to start an exploration of Liberal Islam can be found in this book:

and here:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

50 Years

50 years ago I wrote my first essay, and my first exploration into the nature of religion. I was 13 years old and was in Grade 8 at a school that contained grades 1 through 8. It was a semi-rural school board  outside Windsor, Ontario and did not have the money to establish 'middle schools' or 'senior public schools'.  I was approaching the end of two years of a hellish experience of being an outsider and bullied by the other denizens of this place.  But there were two points of light for me then.  One was my confirmation in the Anglican Church of Canada, and the other was a teacher at this school.

This teacher, Norton Mansfield was also the school principal (Head Teacher to Brits).  He was a tall, spare Englishman with a loud (when needed) and precise (always) voice and manner of speaking.  The year before we all had heard his loud form as that was a year with a coterie of violent and angry young boys in the school. Corporal punishment was normal then, but only in extreme cases and only administered by the Principal, which in this instance he did so and with gusto.   Anyway, I was a bit nervous as I entered Grade 8 as my teacher - this school still placed all students into a single room with a single teacher for the academic year by grade - had been the second in command for discipline.  The teacher,  George Hinch, turned out to be a wonderfully kind and gentle man.   Norton Mansfield was the same.  But, what mattered here was Mr. Mansfield's love of the English language.  He taught us English literature every Tuesday morning from 9 to noon.  From him I learned of  my own passion for writing. Writing is two things to me:  it is thinking in an organized and permanent fashion and it is  also and now mostly for me, a feeling/experiencing in a way to communicate either ideas or feelings. We read poetry, a novel, short stories and essays under Mr. Mansfield's tutelage and he made them live and breathe for me.  I was a reader already, but he opened new worlds of creativity and profound thought in my heart and in my mind.

Because of him I wrote this first essay.  Its genesis was in my local Anglican parish church.  After confirmation at age 13 that winter,  I began to attend church services rather than Sunday School.  This was St. Matthew's Anglican church in South Windsor.  As I sat in the pew with my family, I began to argue mentally with the sermon. Many times I wanted to jump up and shout NO, WHAT ABOUT .... X or Y.....

As this was rather frowned upon, I began writing passionately after my family came home from church.  I had a desk and I had a pad of yellow, lined paper and a pencil in my bedroom. While my mother made 'our Sunday egg' as she called it (eggs in those days made me mildly nauseous, but I was always a good son, or at least I was rarely caught). I would sit for the half hour or so until called up to eat lunch,  furiously writing my essay on the relationship between religion and society, for such it was.  I focussed my 13 year old mind on science and religion.  I came to the conclusion that as science advanced, religion would decline.  I have seen this opinion again many times in student discussions in the university courses I teach in the History of Religions, especially the one that focusses on religion and society.  My wiser (I hope) and more mature (less likely) self has mostly rejected this early conclusion as clearly religion is not going anywhere, though its form and practice are altering profoundly.

The next year I entered High School in Grade 9 (for my American friends, we do not use the terms 'freshman, or junior or senior and so on, but the grade you are in - and for my British friends, although we used American 'grade' terminology the Ontario High School system was modelled on the British 'forms' - High School went either to 12 - 5th form for those not going on to university, or Grade 13 - 6th form for those going to university).  I polished and worked on my essay, but was in an agony of wanting someone else to read it.  I did not want to show it to my parents as they had the habit of finding anything I did worthy of great praise, whether it was worthy or not.  That Fall I had made a friendship of sorts with another student, whose elder brother was the school genius and also President of the Student Council. My friend and I used to do homework together in a spare room - much of that time was spent fooling around, but we did some work.  I knew also that my friend often had his brother help him with his homework.  So I hatched the plan of slipping my pencil written document 'accidentally' into my friend's homework at a time when I knew he was going to get help from his brother.

This happened on a Friday and I waited over the weekend hoping, wondering.  On Monday, we met as usual in this room and my friend looked rather oddly at me, as though he had never seen me before.  He pulled out my essay and handed it back and said, 'This got mixed up with my homework. 'My brother read it while helping me and said "This would get an A grade in Grade 13".  I had my answer. I was a writer and a thinker from that time on in my life.  This was the Fall of 1964, 50 years ago.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The History of the Middle East in Maps

No comment here, except that Christians appear to be omitted (though I have only skimmed these and may have missed this component)

The History of the Middle East in Maps

Friday, July 11, 2014


I am grading final exams for one of my summer courses.  One question I require all students to answer requires them to compare the state of religion and religious faith in 1500 to the present day, using a quote from Charles Taylor's A secular Age.  Many of the responses discuss science as a leading factor in this change.  I don't intend to debate this idea here - the very first thing I ever wrote was an essay for myself on the relationship between religion and science.  I was 13 years old when I wrote it and I came then to much the same conclusion my students of today do in their answers. My thoughts have changed since that essay of 50 years ago.

What interests me at this moment, however, is science.  That is, what is science to these students? Most of their answers suggest that science is the answer to all questions, or to those questions worth asking.  Questions worth asking are those where there exists a concrete impact on human life, sometimes direct as in disease or pain, and sometimes indirect as in food supply or weather.  Unspoken is any consideration of what might come after life.  Morality is assumed to be 'natural', or 'logical', that is, morality is not something that needs to be discussed or thought about in any deep way, it is merely obvious.  All 'real' things and morality are not connected in any direct fashion to religion.

I am not sure what to make of all this.  I would have thought, or hoped at least, that a study of different religions as integral components of societies across time and space would have changed this meme.  Apparently not.