Thursday, October 08, 2015

A Chaplaincy Weekly thought

What can you see? A duck or a rabbit? Or both...?
I joined a group of charismatic Christians earlier this week to pray. OK, it wasn't really my cup of tea: I'm normally a sit-on-my-own-in-silence kind of guy. A classic introvert contemplative.

Nevertheless, I found myself moved and reinvigorated just by being around these Christians. With their prayers and words of prophecy they jolted me out of my less spiritual way of 'seeing', and helped me to 'see' the world again afresh as the place where God is at work.

It struck me that one of the things that worship is for is to change us: to remind (literally re-mind) us of the spiritual dimension. Often 'normal life' blinds me - robs me - of wonder, trust, and the memory of God.
But being with other Christians, speaking their language in song and prayer, 'woke me up' again, helped me again to 'see Christian-ly'.
Duck or rabbit: Is life 'normal', is life 'holy'; or is it both, depending on how you see?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Surah 3 Imran

Continuing the series in which an Anglican priest, trained as an early medieval historian, reads the Qur'an.

Though one might attempt to divide Surah 3 into sections (and it may indeed contain verses edited together), to my mind the surah seems best understood as a diptych of 200 verses, the first 100 are (apparently) directed to unbelievers and are made roughly of 3 sets of 33; the second 100 are directed at believers. I shall treat the two sections in two separate posts.

Part 1 of the surah clearly marks a step up in the existential challenge to belief we saw at the end of Surah 2, The Cow. The first 32 verses emphasize repeatedly the danger of divine judgement on those who refuse to believe. We should note, however, the nature of this judgement: it is categorically God’s alone. Believers are merely to warn, not to threaten or (worse) carry out God’s judgment themselves.

The causes of unbelief are considered two-fold. Predictably, and in common with many religious traditions, one cause is the preference for earthly rewards over heavenly ones (NB in both cases these rewards are apparently perceived from a purely male point of view). More curiously, alongside this, unbelief is also linked to the nature of revelation itself. It appears that in God’s sovereignty, some verses of 'the Book' are ambiguous in meaning and others not, and the former have become a source for dissent.

Yet what is this 'book'? Is it the Qur’an itself? If it were we would face the bootstrap problem: can the Qur’an refer to its own reception history? Perhaps - if we imagine a gradual process of revelation, and if this surah refers to the way earlier parts of the Qur'an were received.

However I think it more likely that 'the book' here means Revelation in general: the Torah and Gospels in totality. What is being referred to mainly in part 1 of this surah is Jewish and Christian disagreement. Indeed this will underscore the significance of the following section which offers an extensive presentation of a distinctively Muslim view of Jesus as an apparent alternative to the differing views of Christ offered by Jews and Christians.

Interestingly this notion of ambiguous revelation gives rise to the idea that God alone knows the true meaning of Scripture (a meaning which will, of course, uniquely be revealed to Muhammed). This is however an interestingly radical apophatic position regarding scriptural hermeneutics. Again, this is grounded in a continual reassertion of the sovereign nature of God, and the appropriate human response of submission ('islam'). This appropriate human-divine relationship is underlined by the 'sign' of the outcome of the Battle of Badr where the faithful minority were vindicated by trusting in God rather than by might (or indeed by making alliances with unbelievers).

This opening section gives rise to a rather beautiful prayer which crucially (in the light of what follows about the nature of Jesus) culminates in praise of God’s unique powers over life and death:
Say ‘Lord, Sovereign of all sovereignty, You bestow sovereignty on who You will and take it away from whom you please; You exalt whomever You will and abase whomever You please. In Your hand lies all that is good; You have power over all things. You cause the night to pass into day, and the day to pass into night; You bring forth the living from the dead and You bring forth the dead from the living. You give without stint to whom You will.”
The second third of part 1 of the Surah (roughly vv. 34-66) now appears to take a rather surprising biblical turn, and much ink has been spilt over the undoubted similarities between this passage's description of Mary’s own birth and her conception of Jesus, and the very similar accounts found in non-canonical texts (the Protoevangelium of James and the so-called Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, an analysis of which I shall perhaps treat in a separate posting).

Following on from the previous section’s focus on dissent among (presumably) Jews and Christians, the key feature in this section is the claim that Jesus is created by divine fiat, rather than by divine conception. This account is claimed to be a new divine revelation that settles once and for all the aforementioned ambiguity of Scripture that has resulted in these disputes.

The climax of the first section (on Jesus) is the assertion that God has no consort, and that Jesus is not the divine offspring of (for example) sex with Mary. Interestingly – since it contrasts with later statements about Jesus’s disappearance and denial of crucifixion – though unclear it appears here that Jesus does nevertheless appear to die and is ‘taken up’ to God, and that this is in keeping with God’s (earlier affirmed) sovereign powers over life and death.

Orthodox Christians will of course have little problem in agreeing with much of this, for what the text actually appears to refute is a biological view of Jesus’s spiritual origins. There are even hints of a slightly higher Christology: Jesus is a ‘Word’ from God (my translation has ‘word’, but Arabic does not capitalize) whom God, in an echo of the New Testament accounts of Jesus's baptism, is said to 'favour'.

After the discussion of Jesus, the text moves very briefly on to the theme of dispute about Abraham: is he a Christian or a Jew? One may perhaps see here a trace echo of Jewish-Christian disputes and a continuation of the argument articulated by Paul. The answer here is: Abraham is simply one who submits, i.e. in Arabic muslim, but which elides as ‘a Muslim.’

Abraham’s appearance here is though only apparently cursory. It is in fact the beginning of the final 33 verses of this first half of the Surah and which culminate in the account of Abraham’s foundation of the world’s first shrine at Meccah, and its importance for Muslims. After the Jewish-Christian dispute about Jesus, this final third thus serves to lift up Abraham as a unifying alternative figure (ironically, echoing Paul’s rhetorical use, and making Abraham a founding figure for a third world religion). Mecca is, in implied contrast to Jerusalem a kind of new ‘beacon to the nations’ to which, in a recurrent appeal to ‘People of the Book’, Christians and Jews are called. (The ‘Book’ here meaning the total revelation in whatever form, if unadulterated.)

As I also hinted at in my discussion of the previous Surah, there is also an element of struggle here for the 'soul' of the people. What is new though is a more noticeably apologetic attempt to situate Islam as a rival alternative to the (perceived) doctrinal mistakes of (many) Christians and Jews about Jesus (though their ethical lives are affirmed). The first 100 verses of this surah are thus carefully constructed around an argument whose direction moves from judgement, via an examination of Jewish-Christian dispute, to the unity of all those who submit and who gather around the symbolic figure of Abraham and the place of his shrine: Mecca.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Surah 2 - The Cow

This is one of what I hope will be the first of several extended comments on individual surahs of the Qur'an based on a personal reading by a Christian Anglican Priest. The translation I have been using, with parallel Arabic, is that of Dawood. As this version is copyright, I offer links in the comments below to a free online translation, as well as to other external texts. My aim is to offer a sympathetic, though not uncritical, mixture of summary, interpretation and comment.

The Cow is the first major surah (book) in the Qur'an following the brief opening surah.

On reading it I cannot help but note the careful editorial work that has been undertaken both in the internal structuring of the text, and also in its key placing at the start of the Qur'an. In many ways the text sets out a Muslim stall. It functions quite self-consciously as a kind of Islamic overview of what Christians would call 'salvation history'. It carefully distinguishes Islam from the religions of the 'unbelievers' who seem to be a mix of Jews and Christians who have ostensibly misunderstood or perverted the truth, and indigenous pagans.

Initial comments summarise several of the main tenets and practises of Islam. Thereafter one finds something rather like a Muslim re-reading of the Torah/Pentateuch. First there is a retelling of the Adam and Eve 'creation and fall' story. Christians will recognize parts of this as echoing the second of the two Genesis creation stories. Adam is God's 'deputy' (khalifa - caliph) and is superior to the angels (cf. Psalm 8) because he can name the animals, whereas they cannot. (God rather nicely shows the angels up here with his proud new human creation; one senses here a touch of humour). Unlike Christian readings of Genesis however there is a rather different take on the 'fall' narrative: Satan directly removes Adam and his (unnamed) wife from Paradise, so the humans do not themselves appear guilty of any 'original sin'. Overall humans are accorded a high status.

Soon after there follows a retelling of the Exodus story. The emphasis, as so often in the Qur'an, is on revelation doubted. Here the doubters are Pharaoh and the Israelites. It is difficult not to read such passages as echoing Mohammed's own experience of being doubted such that Pharaoh and the Israelites' doubting of Moses seem to serve as antetypes to Arab, Jewish, Christian, and pagan doubters of Mohammed's own authority and revelation. Passages such as these concretely demonstrate the Muslim sense of Mohammed as standing at the end of a long line of prophets, all of whom appear to have suffered rather similarly.

It is in this context of Mohammed as another Moses that I read the somewhat later sections of the surah as a kind of second Law (Torah). Christians will recognize passages that read rather like sections of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy. There are instructions on violence and retaliation (a necessity only in case of survival: 'fight for the sake of God those who fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors' 2:190); fasting, sexual abstinence, and warfare during Ramadan; pilgrimage, and so on. There follows a rather extensive section on divorce, widowhood, and remarriage; and there are finally sections on usury and alms-giving.

Naturally some parts grate on a modern sensibility: the allegedly superior status of men over women, for example (Christian parallels of which can be found in deutero-Pauline texts, too). Overall though these commands come across as extremely moderate: an attempt to regulate an unstable, patriarchal and violent seventh-century society.

Theologically there is a recurrent motif of commending a particular course of action and then following this with a reminder of the character of God ('A kind word with forgiveness is better than charity followed by insult. God is self-sufficient and indulgent'; 2:263). Christians will recognize Jesus' model: 'be merciful as God is merciful'. These are not then arbitrary laws from a tyrant deity; rather commandments about how humans are to relate to one another are fundamentally grounded in how God relates to humans. It is this surah that provides the famous phrase 'there shall be no compulsion in religion.'

Interspersing the latter part of the surah are sections dealing with kings Saul and David. Curiously Saul seems to me to be given a higher profile than David. Is this a subtle rejection of a Jewish focus on David? These accounts also appear to blend biblical stories of Israel's fight with Goliath and Gideon's (much earlier) campaign against the Canaanites. There are hints here of how a small faithful tribe can defeat a larger enemy - surely a potent message for Mohammed's own audience.

Lastly Jesus, briefly, and with more depth Abraham are also treated twice in this surah. As elsewhere, Jesus seems to be accorded a high position. He is a messenger like others, not divine, but uniquely given 'the Holy Spirit'. However he is by no means God's 'begotten Son' (a biological production seems assumed).

Abraham though is given (after Moses) the most prominent role. As in Judaism and Pauline Christianity he takes on the role of father of a people of faith. He is a type of faithful obedient human and a prophet, whose construction of the 'House' (Kaaba) ultimately gives Islam its cultic centre. Here one suspects a conscious creation of an Arab alternative to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (there is indeed a brief mention of the changing of the direction of prayer away from Jerusalem towards Mecca).

There are some real spiritual gems in this surah. Doubtless it has been drawn from various sayings originally given in specific contexts and relating to matters of internal community regulation and dispute. Nevertheless I cannot help but feel that now the surah serves a more outward focus - it is a fine introduction to a religion's sacred text. Those who picked the Qur'an up (or heard it read) would be in no doubt about what Islam involved, how it saw itself as relating to those other monotheisms Judaism and Christianity, how Muslims believed that the text itself constituted the very revelation of God, and how the reader/hearer faced an existential challenge to either accept or reject this message.

The final verses thus sound a communal chorus: 'The Apostle [Muhammed] believes in what has been revealed to him by his Lord, and so do the faithful... You alone are our Protector. Give us victory over the unbelievers...' (2:285-6).

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


Intricate worship:
Wet leaves shiver their praises
To the blue-throned sun.


Friday, January 24, 2014

Tampons on a path,
motorway a distant roar -
grey disconsolance.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Black twigs water-jewelled,
Bird song a gushing fountain -
Lull on a winter's morn.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Lost streets, smudged houses
Walking through winter fog - just
Now: no future or past.

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