Friday, 30 November 2007

Scottish Interfaith Week: Crescents and the Cross

Left-Right, Margot Rhead, Me and Father Kenny at St Augustines Church

I was kindly invited to present a public lecture at Saint Augustines Episcopal Church in Dumbarton on the invitation of Father Kenny and Mrs Margot Rhead. I was not quite sure what I should highlight in the short time allocated to me as there was so much that I wanted to talk about. I began my discussion with an enquiry into the term 'believer'. A believer in monotheism is one who believes in God and so in my view this includes Jews, Christians and Muslims. When Muhammad turned to the believers of his day with the message of Islam they turned to him and said 'truly we were Muslims (believers) before it' (Qur'an 28:52-55) This brings up the issue of God incarnate. In my view it is not such a stumbling point of unity between the faiths. It's pretty simple really, God becomes flesh (Jesus) or God becomes the word (Qur'an). The central and key point here is that God is central to everything and one must submit to God. The key historical figures we find in religious scriptures, the Bible, Qur'an or Torah all move us towards the blessings and mercy of God so why are so many taking part in this rat race in the battle for God?

For me then the term believer bears no box of Muslim, Jew or Cristian for these terms all fall at the wayside when we all try to uphold good and prevent evil. It is then essential to understand that no one faith has a monopoly on the truth and Islam, Judaism and Christianity all need one another in order to clarify their positions. There are stories in the Qur'an which make more sense when you complement them with biblical readings and vice versa. The most important point is that one must move away from the 'this is right' and 'that is wrong' mentality. John Hick states, 'we have no reason to restrict ourselves to the spiritual resources of our own traditions.' I couldn't agree more.

I am sad to see that we are so caged in our boxes that we need an Interfaith Week to be coerced to find out about the other. Could it be that that pluralism is the biggest threat to religion in the modern world? This question was once raised by one of my inspirational teachers, Mona Siddiqui, and it is a question that has been buzzing around in my head for a very long time. It saddens me that the love and mercy of God is lost through the political ambitions of man, using and abusing each other using God as their weapon. When we stop to do this will we ever realise our shared humanity and then appreciate the liberating and progressive force that God truly wants us to experience.

I found this quote quite refreshing, 'The disciples asked Jesus, "Tell us, which man is the most devoted to God?" "He who labors for the sake of God without seeking praise of mankind", replied Jesus. "Which man offers sincere counsel for the sake of God?" they asked. "He who begins by fulfilling his duties towards God before his duty to men (and prefers) the duties of God to the duties of men. When faced with two choices, worldly matters and matters of the afterlife, he begins with what concerns the afterlife and then turns his attention to this world." (Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak (d181), al-Zuhd)

Finally, I want to promote a book which I think is going to be essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Islam and Interfaith. This is a booked edited by two key figures within the department that I work, Professor Perry Schmidt-Leukel who is professor of Systematic Theology and Religious Studies and the Chair of World Religions for Peace and Dr Lloyd Ridgeon whos is senior lecturer in Islamic Studies. Ok, Ok, I am bias a bit because Lloyd is my phd supervisor and my guiding light these days, he is an amazing guy, so humble and scholarly. The book is called 'Islam and Inter-faith Relations', see at This is an edited collection of papers that were presented in a series of lectures at the University of Glasgow jointly by the Centre for Interfaith Studies and the Centre for the Study of Islam. Five Muslim theologians discuss issues of interfaith with scholars of Christianity, Judaism , Hinduism and Buddhism, a must read!

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Postcard from California!

West Hollywood, November 2007

Yes, they let me in!

The eleven hour flight was made all the more enjoyable on Air New Zealand with my own personal TV screen with movies on demand. I watched Angelina Jolie's movie, A Mighty Heart, This was a moving account of the Daniel Pearl case which sent shockwaves throughout the world. Jolie played the role of Daniel's wife superbly. The movie showed that amongst all the nutters in Pakistan who have no respect for life and death there are still some good people, it is the same good people that made Mariane Pearl bear no hatred towards Pakistan or Pakistanis.

So why was I off to the States? I was in San Diego for the American Academy of Religion conference, The AAR hold the world’s largest conference where scholars of religion gather to present papers and hold stimulating intellectual conversations, well, nearly always. San Diego is a lovely city with much to offer, especially the weather. The first day I walked to the convention centre from my apartment and quickly learnt why nearly everyone in California has a car. There is so much space that roads just don't seem to end, from one block to the other is like walking the whole of Glasgow’s west end, ok ok, a tad exaggerated but you get the idea!

One thing about this conference was that everyone was trying to impress everyone. If not through their academic papers then through their networking schmoozing. "Let's do coffee later", "Let's do breakfast tomorrow" or "How about dinner the day after". I skipped a dinner and a breakfast I was invited to because I knew it was going to be too much like work than just eating! A senior academic once said to me that those who are good will not need to network and so true it is. And you would think that religion scholars would be humble and modest, ye right, they are all out to promote their own ideas better than anyone else’s. As for those in Islamic Studies, hmmm, it seems that every Tom, Dick and Muhammad (just don't call your Teddy that name! Oh one word on the subject 'ridiculous'!) in Islamic Studies wants to be the Muslim Martin Luther, calling for this reform and that reform. There are some progressive scholars out there who are working their butts off in order to keep the study of Islam as fresh, appealing and most of all fun. I am forever going to be critical but credit where credit is due so hats off to the organisers for putting it all together, a place where in between all the egos there was some intellectual buzz, that is what makes me return year after year. I met Ghazal Anwar there who seems to have gone through a very difficult time in Pakistan, I believe wholeheartedly in academic freedom, no one has the right to try and silence anyone.

Next stop LA! After the conference I decided to take a few days off and spend it in West Hollywood. I stayed at a beautiful resort and met some really wonderful people. I read the book 'Ode to Lata' by Ghalib Dhalla ( last year and decided to contact the author. Ghalib was pleasent yet earnest in his response as he told me that his book was being made into a movie directed by the bollywod genius behind movies such as Devdaas, none other but Bharat Shah. A daring movie, 'Ode', which would be based on Ghalib's book about a homosexual Muslim living in LA. So I met up with Ghalib and I spent thanksgiving with his family which was sweet. LA was everything I imagined it to be. Bright lights, the movies, the faces, the attitude, the plastics, the add ons, the add offs. In amongst all the dazzle and glitter I could not help but notice that a lot of people are sad in that part of the world. Their lives are full of the most expensive things on the planet but some of them have only these things to keep them company at night. Everyone wants to be a movie star too! I met a young boy aged twenty two who has already had his first nose job and is at acting school. “Waiting for that big break, you think I will make it?” he said to me. I was not quite sure what ‘making’ it really meant. We all have ambitions and goals I guess but I stopped to wonder if these were really this boy’s goals or were they being enforced upon him. I was on vacation so I had to stop making every experience an academic enquiry! So I shopped in Beverly Hills and dined at Sunset Blvd. I have to confess I did try the little attitude in the Armani and Gucci stores, ok, didn't quite work but at least I tried! Guess who has the latest Gucci bag? Not me!

You are wondering where I am going with all of this, right? Well, I'm just trying to say that sometimes jumping out of our comfort zones and moving into zones that we may already be reluctant about are sometimes good experiences for us. I am tired of all the anti-American (and anti-Israel) talk that exists. In amongst all the wicked people in America there are a lot of good people too and we have must focus on the good in order to enrich our own lives. So I would recommend California to everyone!

On the way back I watched an interesting movie called the Tattooist, This was a movie about a guy who wants to learn the ancient Samoan tradition of tattooing but as he begins to learn he awakens the evil spirits which aim to kill. Tattoos are a big no no in Islamic tradition because they change the natural appearance of the body. I'm sure this has not stopped many Muslims from getting a tattoo though. It depends what the tattoo means to the person getting it done and I believe that there are many other ways that human beings disfigure their 'natural' bodies!

So here I am back in Glasgow! Trying to overcome jet lag and getting used to our cold and wet weather. Ah well, home is where the heart is :)