Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Faith, Reason and the Qur'an

It’s been a while since I’ve added any personal reflections to my blog so here I am about to bore you all. Over the last few weeks I’ve been rather busy with all sorts of activities. Where do I start…

I was in Berlin a few weeks ago where I met Professor Walter Homolka who is the Rector of the Abraham Geiger College, Germany's only rabbinical seminary which was founded in 1999, Rabbi Homolka is Chairman of the Leo Baeck Foundation and an Executive Board member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We had an interesting discussion about progressive values and theology. Rabbi Homolka came across as a courageous man who rose up against a wave of regressive attitudes in the Jewish communities. I learnt much from this discussion but most of all that changing attitudes and seeing progress takes time. I wonder if our world is ready for a World Union for Progressive Islam? Jewish-Muslim discussion took place at a lovely French restaurant in the west end of Berlin. I stand by my previous assertion that the best and most fruitful interfaith work happens out with the label of interfaith and in the realm of friendship. This friendship should be less on formalities and platitudes but based on reason and faith, only then does progress happen. Berlin is an interesting city with its leftist politics, much to think about in that city. I’m sure I will be back there at some point. It is also worth mentioning that I attended my first Passover Seder at a dear friends in Glasgow which I found very interesting. A truly spiritually uplifting experience for me and one of the first forms of Jewish worship that I have attended, hopefully not the last.

As most of you know my life is now fully focused on writing my phd thesis. Writing is a funny business. The ups and downs of writing a thesis are too boring to list here but one thing that whirls in my head as I write is where is this thesis actually taking me? I have much to be proud about as a Muslim Scot academic of Islam, am I the first to have sailed so far? I have no idea. I thank my good teachers for creating this monster! but aside from these superficial accolades which are truly not the impetus for my actions I ponder over the impact that my work has or will have? One of my great teachers, the Rev. Christopher Foxon of the Methodist Church, once said to me that academics and academia is maybe selfish for it is a game for the self-promotion of ones own interests. To what extent is this true?

I agree to an extent that academics research those areas that interest them but my drive has many different layers. I should try and place my cards on the table. So here it goes, I wish to better my own understanding of Islam for my own spiritual journey first and foremost then to succeed as an academic and then to raise the necessary debate in Scottish society to seek a progressive Islam. I know that there are many in the Muslim and non-Muslim community who detest anything that I say but healthy opposition is good. I bear no grudge to those who find my progressive/liberal views obnoxious but what I do seek is an acceptance that I have every right to voice these opinions. I worry when Muslims tell me that I am ‘dividing’ the ‘community’. I worry when I see websites which lambaste my right to express my opinion on the current state of affairs. Diversity has always seen Muslim society flourish so why must we shy away from this today? I cannot accept mainstream Islam because it does not allow me to think. It places the thinking part in the hands of a religious elite and even God gives me more breathing space in the Qur’an than what this religious elite dictates.

It is here that I return back to the Qur’an. I attended the lectures given by Professor Mahmut Aydin of Samsun University, Turkey, which were on Islam and Interfaith. Aydin made some interesting points in a seminar about Islam and the ‘west’, which truly disturbed me. I know I know, disturbed is a strong word but this is how I felt. It was his constant use of the word ‘west’ which disturbed me. As if to say that Islam is a thing of the east and everything else is of the west. Let me be clear here, I am a product of the west. I see no such divide in my own life. Having been brought up in the ‘west’ I am a product of the west and being totally at ease with this has given me total contentment with the fact that I can dip into my Indian subcontinent heritage or my Scottish heritage and see no conflict between the two. I take ownership of the fruits and flaws in both these societies. And let me add on the other hand that a good friend questioned me recently whether Islam (or should that be Muslims) is truly compatible with western democratic values in its current state of affairs? I must concede that at times Muslims fail to realise and uphold the fact that Islam truly is. I was further asked if I was a lone voice and was I representative of a Muslim voice? I must concede that maybe I am a lone voice but I am confident that there will arise a wave of progressive voices in the near future.

Aydin promoted a dialogue of pluralism through the Qur’an by highlighting all the positive passages of the Qur’an and stating that the Qur’an should take precedence over the Qur’an. Well, I’m not quite sure if this is possible. For the Qur’an comes from a certain period in history and its historical roots cannot be erased. If we are to seek a theology of pluralism through the Qur’an then it is not acceptable to be content with the positive parts of the Qur’an being universal and the negative passages being specific for a certain time in history. I’m thinking of the passages of the Qur’an that state that Jews and Christians should not be taken as friends because they are only friends to one another (Qur’an 5:51) which is located at a certain historical time and so immediately ‘scrapped’ by pluralists. Yet on the other hand the passage which says that the Jews, Christians and Sabaens have nothing to fear because they believe in God (Qur’an 2:62 and 5:69), this becomes universal without treating its historical condition. Where do Muslims find themselves in terms of these passages? God is leaving Muslims to decide where they wish to locate themselves in terms of Muslim/non-Muslim relations. Could it be said that these passages support my three divisions of Muslim society, ‘extremist’ (upholders of Qur’an 5:51) , ‘progressive’ (upholders of Qur’an 2:62 and 5:69) and then ‘mainstream’ who are a mixture of the two, neither here nor there, battling in crisis against the demons of the past, be it colonial etc etc. Why am I placing such an emphasis on these passages? Because the Scottish society that I call home is one that flourishes with the religious other and faith for me must go hand in hand with reason.

I want to end by presenting to you a poem written by Margot Rhead on spirituality. This was written on the occasion of a public lecture at the University of Glasgow on ‘Finding God Through Poetry and Creative Writing’. Margot holds degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Maybe it sums up what I am trying to say…


Sometimes, by the shore,
Allah drifts close;
through an immanent quiet mist
which merges land and sea
and fills each empty space,
in our uncertain hearts.

Each guarded step helps re-create
our forgotten purpose,
a journey of forgiveness;
alive with uncertainty,
yet tentative and trusting;
a straight path into the future.

Our boat, colliding
repeatedly with the pier,
shows relentless determination,
then attempts a delayed passage
across the firth,
through strong grey waves.

A subtle hint of sunlight
escapes through low clouds,
and hints at the Unknowable above.
slowly a shawl of brightness
wraps itself gently
round human mistakes,
compassionately destroying doubt

The haar* lifts
beyond it the All-Knowing,
the All-Merciful,
the Great Forgiver,
the One True God.

* haar = sea mist

Margot P. Rhead 29/04/08


  1. Great post Aman, well worth the reading. Your vision and principle is laudable. Have courage in the face of opposition.

  2. Superb stuff Aman! We have similar problems in the Christian Faith. There are those who believe they have God tied down. They understand perfectly. They have the Scriptures, interpreted only by literalism, forgetting the poetry and Kyrugma, (preaching), which only points to real truth. So their faith becomes unquestioning. God, and their faith is put in a box and tied up in pretty ribbons to be presented to the world, and accepted or rejected by the rest of the world. Rejection spells damnation and condemnation. Fools! Can't they see God himself looking over their shoulder and saying, "What a pretty box - it's a shame it cannot contain me, my height nor depth nor length." It is a poor soul who believes that our God can be tied down and captured by us, or any writing from any age.

  3. The problem within the Muslim community has to do with tolerance and the “my shaykh is better than your shaykh” syndrome some people have or that we may be teetering on the steps of apostasy, or be declared a non-Muslim, if not a pseudo-Muslim, if we prefer to question rather than be passive sponges and regurgitate teachings without ever really understanding them. The need to prove their POV is the right one because it’s more “sound” – is another problem.

    The problems are endless but ultimately stem from this dire need to direct everyone on the “right path” (which they know better than the next person of course) and so tolerance within and between Muslims for different opinions on same subject matter is minute.

    Carry on doing what you do Aman.

  4. Hi;
    I guess you mentioned about On Dokuz Mayis University in Samsun. I have no idea about his speech but as I am quite sure he doesn’t think Islam is a thing of the east and everything else is of the west, as you said.( I don’t defend him. I don’t need.) However as you know, we have to name/categorize/generalize things to be able to think/talk about them. But I don’t think this is a separation or exception. Shouldn’t be! On the other hand, what is ‘east’ and what is ‘west’? Do we have certain lines? Even if so, what does this mean?
    I don’t understand why you think you are a lone voice. If you’re really interested in this kind of things, yes you are, you should know that, of course, you are not alone. Open your eyes!
    Your writings sometimes make me think that you are not less racist than many. For example, why Progressive ‘Scottish’ Muslims? Can only ‘Scottish’ Muslims be ‘progressive’? Or do you not consider others as Muslims? Why do you limit your mind? I am sorry I am not a Scottish but sometimes follow your blog!