Saturday, 26 July 2008

Gwen John – The Lost Love of Rodin

It was my day off from the summer school today and I had not planned to do very much. The weather has been very hot! I’m trying to recover from my Wimbledon tan and didn’t want to increase my tan any further. Yes, I blame all my friends for giving me a huge complex that my face looks orange! So, I had a lovely walk around the Birmingham University campus and came across the The Barber Institute of Fine Art. The museum was pretty amazing which did not have a huge gallery but quite well packed. It houses a couple of paintings by Monet and I saw one at least of the infamous Vincent Van Gogh. But what really moved me was the work of an artist by the name of Gwen John.

John is understood to be the most important female artists of the twentieth century. This specific gallery explores her spiritual life as she moved to Meudon, near Paris in 1911 to be near her former lover the sculptor Rodin. It is said that as their relationship deteriorated she turned to the Catholic faith and was received into the Church in the year 1913 where she maintained a close relationship with the local town convent. John spent a long time painting the local nuns, priests, townspeople as they worshipped. John made me consider the relationship between love and spirituality. The way in which they are interwoven and the way we express our feelings and desires.

A quote from Gwen John to reflect upon…

“Aloneness is nearer God…nearer reality”

The G-d of the Jews and the God of the Muslims

Our group had an interesting day at the Mosque and at the Synagogue. We first visited the Central Mosque Ghomkol Sharif where I prayed my Juma (Friday) prayers and the group observed from the viewing gallery. Ghomkol Sharif Mosque is an interesting Mosque in Birmingham which has a Barelwi inclined congregation, which believe in a more mystical strand of South Asian Islam. They have a spiritual leader who came to the UK from the Punjab, Hazrat Shaik Sufi Mohammad Abdullah Sahib in the early 1980s. It is a pretty colourful Mosque with decorations all over. They are known for their melodic sermons which sound like an angry argument but are argued to be as such to arouse the emotions of the faithful to a spiritual frenzy, an interesting approach.

In the evening we visited the Orthodox Jewish Synagogue in Birmingham for the beginning of the Sabbath prayers. It was my first time in a Synagogue and I have to say I really enjoyed it. I liked the way that the congregation, separated sections for males and females, sang their prayers. The Rabbi of the Synagogue was a young man and very welcoming to us all. It was an interesting day of Muslim/Jewish worship. I must confess that for me God followed me in both places and I was left in a total spiritual trance at both locations. I wonder if it is even possible to close our hearts and minds to God in different places of worship? For at the end of the day we are the same person with the same heart and mind in all places.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Religion and Sexuality – Dr Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip

A summary of the lecture...

Dr Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip is Associate Professor and Reader in Sociology at the University of Nottingham and has done considerable work on British Gay Muslims.

When we talk about religion what religion are we talking about? In Britain we generally think about Christianity. We must take into consideration inter-religious differences and also intra-religious differences. Although there may be a grand narrative there is always a silence or silenced narrative. Andrew is interested in how people manage, contest and digest the messiness of religion as a sociologist. The integral notion is that sexuality and spirituality cannot be separated. Sexuality has three components, which should exist, sexuality is connected to desire, sexuality is connected to identity and sexuality is connected to behaviour. Identity is more than a personal issue because it is also a social issue. Identity is about personal choices and social relationships. The family is based on people who are identified as heterosexual and are pro-creative.

Sexuality is more than personal choices but also based on the social. Sexuality is then closely related to gender and the body. The general notion is that religion and sexuality do not sit well with each other. The gender and sexual binarism: men (mind/public) vs women (body/private); heterosexual vs homosexual. The main themes when you explore sexuality and religion we see some general themes, power, control, domination, policing, and surveillance, legitimised by extra human sources. Religion will quite easily dismiss the dissident sexualities with the statement that ‘God says so’ and based on these assertions it becomes very difficult to create the discourse. It is this power that needs to be deconstructed and it is the feminist who have created that space for such a discourse to take place. Liberation theology is about liberation from the self and such discourses. Faith communities lag behind secular society in legitimising sexual difference and diversity.

Homosexuality is often genatilised but as human beings we are far more than that. It is about, passion, love, relationally, complimentarity. The sexual experience is then a truly spiritual experience. When a lesbian Muslim has internalised the fact that there are norms that she has to follow then she raises the question, who am I? Am I normal? She is not only questioning her sexuality but she is also questioning her spirituality and her place in that faith. The ontogeneric argument is an understanding that the sexuality of the individual is willed by the divine as opposed to being made in that way. This takes the question away from it being a genetic or mistake but much more than that. The two categories of theologies, theologies of sexuality which are based on the authority of the text and sexual theologies which are based on the self-directed interpretation of texts. The latter is based on the assertion of feminist and the former is based on the understanding of religious authority structures.

Queering religious texts is Andrew’s attempt to understand the lesbian and gay Muslim communities and the way in which they incorporate the texts as opposed to reject them. The first approach is the defensive approach which is about re-interpretation and re-contextualisation. The second approach is the offensive approach which is about the critiquing interpretive authority and this is infused through power relations. The final approach is the creative approach which is a way of uncovering, homoeroticism.

Amina Wadud states in her book called the Gender Jihad that gender jihad is gender mainstreaming which is to bring women into all aspects of Muslim practice. Separating heterosexist and andocentric cultural practices from essential principles of religion.

The concept of citizenship is highly contentious. The assumption that because everyone is British this gives everyone access to everyone to all resources. Sexual/intimate citizenship could be one point which denies individual access to the resources that the mainstream have. Andrew stated that the religious communities should not be expected to accept the secular methods but what they must do is have a discussion about how homosexuals of faith fit into the faith community.

Here are some of the questions that were raised in the discussion. Will society fall apart if there is diversity? ‘In my fathers house there are many mansions’ – this was also stated. Kinsey’s report (Kinsey was an American biologist 1894-1956) stated that sexuality is not fixed and that sexuality is not fixed. Andrew stated that it is then difficult to say that men who have sex with other men are gay because research shows us that one does not have to be gay to have sex with other men. It was raised by a Palestinian participant (Muslim) that in the ‘west’ it is more easy to be sexually liberated than in more conservative society and this must be accepted. The question was raised that if homosexuality is to be accepted then all other acts should also be accepted such incest. The discussion revealed a difference between rape/abuse and mutual sane consent.

Jewish resources of tolerance

Susan Last Stone is Professor of Law at Cardozo School of Law and Director of Yeshiva University's Centre for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilisation at Cardozo and Visiting Professor of Religion at Princeton University.

These are just some of the notes that I jotted down during the lecture, not all in order but gives an idea of some of the tension and debates.

Susan Last Stone prefers to use the term pluralism as opposed to tolerance. Judaism is a particularist religion, in her view. This means that only Jews are bound to follow the tenets of the faith. Jews do not proselytise their religion. This begs the question what is the salvation of the religious ‘other’ if only Jews are the chosen ones. In the bible, genesis, what we see is a drama with the creation of humanity. Each person is created in the bible in the image of God. People are divided into collectivities and this leads Jews to believe everyone as one is not a good idea. One does aspire to universal social peace and harmony but this is not the same as universal oneness. The bible gives two different pictures about the religious other. One gives the pictures that there are a chosen people and the rest are idolaters, morally corrupted. This is an all or nothing picture. The other picture is that the chosen people are just an intensified form of humanity. There is another aspect of the bible that is important and this is the ideal civil life in Israel that has all sorts of people who are living in the land. The Mishna is an edited written collection from the 2nd century and it contains a collection of the oral law given by God on Sinai. Groups of Rabbis settle in Israel and create academies and they create the Talmud. The Halakha is a collective body of Jewish religious law. The Mishna and the Talmud became the primary authority over the time. Judaism is made up of many different discourses, mystical etc but they come and go but what remains is the legal tradition.

The central tension is between the particular and universal aspects of Judaism. On one hand you have the idea that Sinai is important. Who are the idolaters? Maimonides did not believe that Muslims were idolaters because he was influenced by Islam during his time. Hulme says that polytheists are more accommodating that monotheists.

Gloucester Cathedral: Stained Glasses of Spiritual Ecstasy

Our group visited the 11th Century Gloucester Cathedral which was a truly inspiring and delightful experience for me. Having visited some beautiful churches around the world I failed to realise that there are some just as beautiful at our own doorstep, not saying Gloucester is at my doorstep! I was awe struck to see the intricate detail of the cathedral from the outside and from the inside just as amazed. One of my favorite spots in the cathedral were the south cloisters with the fan vaulted roof. It reminded me of the university of Glasgow cloisters!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Religion, Law and Public Life

This is a summary of the lecture of Silvio Ferrari, Professor of Canon Law, author of the book, ‘Islam and European Legal Systems’ and all views are his unless I state them as my opinion

Here is a recap of what Ferarri said in the lecture. He began his discussion with some questions which he would answer. Is there a structural connection between law and religion? How will it be described? Ferarri used three examples, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. How much Jewish, Islamic and Christian laws have contributed to shaping the secular state in Europe, in Arab countries and the state of Israel? The legal status of the ‘other’ was the starting point of Ferarri. This is also the starting point of any community. To deal with the person who does not share the fundamental principles which the dominant community has. In order to do this one must go to the roots that in Islam, Christianity and Judaism that God has given the laws which cannot be changed by any human authority and is far superior by any human law. Divine revealed law has been ‘given’ and divine natural law is ‘given’ through nature. This means that every human being has the capacity to decide on what is good and bad. Most laws come from God but revered laws can only be known through divine revelation but natural law can only be known through the rational faculties. Divine revealed laws, found in holy books, are only binding on the faithful but the divine natural law, found in conscience - reason, is something that every human is bound by.

Jewish tradition does have God in the top of the spectrum. The law is based on the revelation to Noah and Moses. The commandments given to Noah. Maimonides said that anyone who shares the 7 commandments of Noah will enjoy a share in eternal life. The Noah commandments are for everyone and the law revealed to Moses is only for the Jews. Ferarri stated that in the Christian case, legal tradition is revealed by law and the other is found in man’s conscience. There are some principles that bind all human beings together. In Islam the starting point is the same. God is the law giver and revealed his law to the Jews and Christians but some say that the Jews and Christians did not maintain that law. Therefore there was a need for a final revelation and this was given to Muhammad. Ferrari stated that there is no clear idea in Islamic law that binds all of humanity. I disagree with this because Islamic law was a law for people, Muslim and non-Muslim. This is evident in histories of Muslim states in the past. I have no intention of stating how successful or unsuccessful these were but the point to note is that Islamic law cannot be understood as generic. Ferarri failed to highlight the different denominational aspects of the law, the difference between Shi’I and Sunni law. Ferarri commented on the Mutazillite movement in Islamic history (8th Century). Mutazillite, grasped God by reason and good and said that evil is not because of what God has said so but good and evil have their own consistency. This was the link and point of contact between Europe and Islam because this was what was being discussed here. However, the Mutaziillite did not win and they were lost by the Hanbali school, a more puritan school of legal thought. There were two prominent Muslim scholars at the time, al-Ghazali and al-Ashari. They said that good and evil are as such that God has declared them but God could have declared that the mother is good and the child is bad. Ferrari stated that if you were to open the books of Dun Scotus, a prominent Fransiscan theologian in the 13th Century, you find the same ideas, the voluntaristic approach to the will of God. Dun Scotus lost and Thomas Aquanus won in the same way the Mutazillites lost to the Hanbalis.

Ferarri examines the way in which the three faiths and their legal traditions have impacted the world today. How can we identify this impact on the state? This is done through a look at the constitutions where we find the principles that states are based. There are three parts that need to be seen, the constitution preamble which talks about the history etc. Some preambles are completely silent on the issue of religion (34%), some have a preamble on secularism (6%), some have a reference to generic God (41%) and finally some with reference to a specific God. It would seem that European constitutions 64% have more reference without God. There are no European countries with reference to secularism and only one state in the Arab world has reference to secularism (Lebanon). Lebanon has the same number of Muslims and Christians and the whole voting system takes this into consideration. This then means that the state is neither Muslim nor Christian. The reason why India is secular is to safeguard he religious identity of the population. We then moved onto the articles of the constitutions. There are no European states which state that they are Christian but 23% of Arab countries state that they are Islamic. Israel has no constitution but it has some fundamental laws. The two main components of the Israeli state are the terms ‘Jewish’ and ‘Democratic’. In summing up, three patterns, secular states (silent on religion), north Africa and Middle East are more explicit about religion (Islamic) and in Israel we have a Jewish and democratic state.

After the Lutheran reformation there were for the best part of a century wars of religion between the Catholics and Protestants. The criticism was that the reformation had broken the religious horizon of the Middle Ages. The solution and way out of the war was the appeal to the pontiff, the Pope. The two kings accepted the pope in hope that the wars would be stopped. The solution came through the question, when God is no longer in the picture what will be the unifying force? The unifying force was said to be human reason. This was then based on natural law based on reason. This then takes religion out of the public life and into the private life. This was established by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) who was a Dutch jurist who laid the foundations of natural law. So to make a statement that Europe has Christian roots will then create unnecessary tension so it is better to remain silent on this. Silvio Ferarri was against the inclusion of Christianity in the European Constitution as the constitution needs to be as inclusive as possible, even though this is against the general understanding that Europe is deeply rooted in Christianity.

The constitutions of many Islamic states make reference to the Shar’ia, Islamic law. Is it possible to find the legal status of a non-Muslim in an Islamic state? Ferarri believes that the legal status of a non-Muslim in an Islamic state cannot be possible by the removal of the natural law and trying to remove Islam from the public sphere. Ferarri states that’s many Islamic states identify themselves as ‘Islamic’ in many different ways. Ferarri believes that the European model of natural law can be transferred to Islamic law. It is the Qur’an that recognises that Jews and Christians have received divine passages and have the right to reside in the Muslim community in peace, according to their laws and must accept that Islam is the supreme religion. This concept is called ‘milat’ and was applied in the Otomon Empire. It is important to make a distinction between state and society. The state has to be secular but the society does not have to be. In my opinion then the rational and logical mind and law needs to take precedent in order to see progress amongst Scottish Muslims and Muslims in other states and that secularism needs to be reclaimed not as a point of tension to the ‘religious’ but as a libratory device towards progress.

Sikhism, Language and Peace

Our summer school visited the Guru Nanak Sevak Jatha in Birmingham. I have only had the experience of visiting the Gurudwara in Glasgow and was totally amazed by this one in Birmingham. It was at a much grander scale and I was taken aback by the beautiful dome. During our tour we were told that the cut glass work that decorates the dome was done by a Muslim who offered his services as he walked past the site in progress. We had a wonderful talk by the ‘Pai Sahb Ji’ (see photo), an honourable title given to an elder brother, he spoke about faith, spirituality and of doing good things in the world. He spoke from the heart and there was little that I did not agree with. The site also houses some shops which are an income to the work that the Sikhs are undertaking. They have put together a gym, for men and women, and also an employment centre which helps unskilled migrants to learn about something new. We visited the main hall where the Guru Granth Sahib was placed and some of us took the special sweet offering during this brief visit. We also ate in the communal eating place called the Langur which was very nice. I had a giggle with the old man serving me hot milk after I refused it he said ‘it make you sleep better!’.

Language is a great thing and the way in a lot of South Asians share languages such as Punjabi is great at breaking down religious barriers. Let us not forget that Guru Nanak had two great friends, one a Muslim and the other a Hindu. Maybe we have a lot to learn about interfaith work from the founder of Sikhism.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Atkinson: The Hole in the Social Ozone Layer

Dr Atkinson is the Chief Executive of the Balsall Heath Forum which has been highly commended on transforming an inner city area away from crime, prostitution and litter. Dr Dick Atkinson started his presentation by stating that environmentalists have been commenting on the breakage of the ozone layer but he believed that this is an indication of our social breakage. Dick recalled his shock when Jamie Boulger was taken from a busy supermarket and tortured and killed by two young boys. Dick asks why has this happened in society? Is this because of poverty and people cannot afford to live a better life. He is not against local councils but believes that if folk were to take ownership of their own community then it would force people to work in the best way for their areas. The area of Balsall Heath had around 450 prostitutes working in the area. This was problematic for any woman who was walking the streets. The problem was tackled by groups of residents who took chairs to the corners of their streets. They then sat and took the registration numbers of all the kerb crawlers. It took four years for the streets to be cleared of these prostitution. Dick offered us the joke about when the Bishop of Birmingham was in the area and sat down outside next to a lady. This lady offered him his services at which the Bishop opened his coat to show his robes and mention that he was the Bishop of Birmingham, ‘kinky, she said, that will be double for you then’!

It was a rather passionate presentation but the sceptical side of me raises some questions from this. Prostitutes are not litter and so I wonder where they have been moved or removed to? Dick commented that he was often understood as the local vicar even though he was not. This raises the question where was the local vicar? Or where was the Mosque Imam? Are Mosque Imam’s willing to get their hands dirty in local issues? Or are the issues of their respective religious communities all they want to associate themselves with?

In the afternoon we visited the area of Balsall Heath where we saw many of the development projects that Dick spoke about.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Reconcilliation: Traditions and Laws

It has been a while since I have been to Birmingham. The last time was to present a paper on social justice philanthropy at the university and I must admit that I was not greatly taken by the city. Mainly because I was here for such a short time. I am hoping to correct this outlook this time round. I decided not to fly down this time either and opted for the more environment friendly means of transport in the form of Virgin Trains. I was reluctant to undertake this summer school because it has been so close to my 4 week tennis sojourn to Wimbledon and other grass tournaments.

I was invited to this summer school by Adam Seligman, Professor of Religion at Boston University, who I met the Shalom Hartman Institutes Theology Conference. So here is a quick recap of our first lecture. Adam believes that the models of co-existence that we previously held, and by we he is talking about people of a previous generation. Am I excluded? Cheeky! This was the separation of the religious and secular. This is a problematic assumption. This is not about the separation of Church and State as this is easily confused with the notion that you can clearly distinguish with what is religious and what is secular, playing baseball is secular and going to Church is religious. This is something he does not accept. There are sacred traditions which do not separate what is religious and what is secular. The examples, Jewish person who doesn’t observe commandments, no dietary restrictions, does not visit synagogue, does light candles, fasts on Yom Kippur – are they religious or secular? If we are basing our understanding of religious based on traditions then who is defining the tradition?

Traditions are contested and they are continually contested. There are many reasons for this. The main conclusion is that the division is not easy to make. When traditions are based on practice it is difficult to make the distinction between religious and secular because there is an endless movement within practitioners. A tradition that bases itself to a belief or creed it is much easier to make the distinction between religious and secular. It is much easier to dismiss or accept. These distinctions, he says, came from the Christian tradition in European history in the form of the Christian reformation. A lot of the categories that we take as self understood come from a very particular moment in history and they don’t translate all that well in the modern period with other realities.

The liberal solution to living together differently is based on the public/private distinction. This is rooted in the protestant reformation of the autonomy of individual conscience. The right to find God in his or her own way. The first right was the freedom of conscience. Through your own means of reason you will arrive at the correct moral decision. The problem with this is that there are faiths that are heteronymous, which require the believer to do certain things. Reason is not a math – reason is a ‘how to’ and is based on all sorts of factors.

Adam believes that the moral autonomy of the individual is a very European tradition. However, I disagree as there are many examples in the Islamic world of antinomian movements, especially Sufi who wanted to strengthen the direct relationship with God as opposed to set laws and traditions.

We had a short discussion on the issue of fear. Fear – two categories, why do we fear difference? Difference threatens our coherence. The ‘narcissism of the small difference’ by Sigmund Freud. Someone who is totally different is not threatening. Someone who shares a lot with me and is close to me then this becomes threatening. The other fear is based on control. Convincing someone on an issue becomes a matter of control.

In the afternoon we visited Coventry Cathedral which was very sombre as it is the site which took nearly eleven hours of German bombings during the war. It now houses a centre for reconciliation. The statue that you see was created by Josefina de Vasconcellos who made it at the age of 90 in the spirit of reconciliation. Some say the two figures represent Germany and Britain and some say it represents God and Humanity. It is a lovely image. The old building still has its ‘shell’ and is in great contrast to the modern looking cathedral that is situated adjacent to it. Our group stayed for the ‘Evensong’ which was really beautiful, it is a sermon through song and it completed the day in the most Godly sense.