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Some recent words from the Forgiveness Chronicles

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — is this the foolishness of men, or of God? ]
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Martyrs

Icon by Coptic artist Tony Rezk. The martyrs’ faces are the faces of Christ.

**

In a CNN piece titled Coptic Christian bishop: I forgive ISIS, Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, had this to say:

Q: Not long after the video released, you tweeted about the killings, using the hashtag #FatherForgive. Did you mean that you forgive ISIS?

A: Yes. It may seem unbelievable to some of your readers, but as a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness. We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.

Striking though that is, you might think it’s easier for a Church official to say such things in a pastoral context than it is for someone more closely involved.

**

As described in a Christian Today article, a Young Iraqi girl says she hopes God will forgive ISIS — the article links to a shorter version of this video:

She’s a child, though, and children are inocent in a way that may not survive so easily into adulthood…

**

But then there’s a second Christian Today article, titled Brother of slain Coptic Christians thanks ISIS for including their words of faith in murder video. Here we have close family members of those who died, expressing the same grief, the same forgivess, the same assurance, in a second video:

**

In yet a third article discussing both videos, Videos showing Christians forgiving Islamic State spread through Middle East, we read:

Beshir Kamel, from the home village of 13 of the 21 Egyptians whom the Coptic Orthodox Church has now recognised as martyrs, prayed that God would “open the eyes” of their killers to be “saved”. Myriam, from Qaraqosh in Iraq, said “God loves everybody” including IS members, but “he wouldn’t let IS kill us”. Sitting in a half-built shopping mall which had become her family’s temporary home, she ended her interview by singing a song of joy about being made complete in Jesus to a tune her mother had written.

Samir said: “These clips provide a counter-shock to the horrifying videos of killings that people receive on mainstream media and to their effect on viewers. Myriam’s and Beshir’s calls are a form of resistance through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the core of the Christian message and the core of the message of SAT-7 at a time when mainstream media avoids reporting on Christians.”

This is distinctly not tit-for-tat, even at close quarters.

**

I would like to close with this truly remarkable sermon, given by that same Bishop Angelaos, which sets the forgiveness we have seen above, in the context of theology, humility and witness:

Contextualizing the beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya

Monday, February 16th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — in real estate it’s location, location, location — in thought space it’s context, context, context ]
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Timothy Furnish offers us context for the newly released video of Islamic State beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians (screencap in upper panel, below) with two striking images of precedents, one of which I have reproduced in part (lower panel), illustrating how the Ottomans beheaded tens of thousands of Georgian Christians:

SPEC DQ christians beheaded

Furnish’s post is titled ISIS Beheadings: Hotwiring the Apocalypse One Christian Martyr At A Time.

**

I am saddened to say that this is indeed part of the history of Islamic relations with Christianity.

I am happy to add, however, that it is not the whole story. In the upper panel, below, you see Muslim and Christian at a very different form of battle, as found in the Book of Games, Chess, dice and boards, 1282, in the library of the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial:

SPEC DQ chess and krishna

Religious tolerance in Islam is illustrated as found today in India, in this picture of a Muslim mother in full niqab taking her son, dressed as the Hindu deity Krishna, to a festival — very probably the Janmashtami or birthday celebration of the child-god (lower panel, above).

**

It will be interesting to see how President Sisi repsonds to this murderous IS attack on Egyptian citizens.

Paris, Charb quotes Zapata or Sartre — or Hobbes?

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — chasing a wild, but eventually mummified and golden, goose ]
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quote-it-is-better-to-be-the-widow-of-a-hero-dolores-ibarruri

**

Richard Landes wrote a piece on Paris the other day for the LA Times Review of Books’ Marginalia blog, in which he said:

In the words of the martyr in chief, “Charb,” taken up as the manif’s motto: “Better to die standing than live on one’s knees.”

Indeed, in an interview with Le Monde, Charb is quoted as having said:

Je n’ai pas de gosses, pas de femme, pas de voiture, pas de crédit. C’est peut-être un peu pompeux ce que je vais dire, mais je préfère mourir debout que vivre à genoux.

Stéphane Charbonnier — Charb — the editor of Charlie Hebdo, lived those words. But was he quoting?

**

There’s a passage in Joseph Heller‘s Catch 22:

“They are going to kill you if you don’t watch out, and I can see now that you are not going to watch out. Why don’t you use some sense and try to be more like me? You might live to be a hundred and seven, too.”

“Because it’s better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,” Nately retorted with triumphant and lofty conviction. “I guess you’ve heard that saying before.”

“Yes, I certainly have,” mused the treacherous old man, smiling again. “But I’m afraid you have it backward. It is better to live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees. That is the way the saying goes.”

“Are you sure?” Nately asked with sober confusion. “It seems to make more sense my way.”

“No, it makes more sense my way. Ask your friends.”

**

The quote has been attributed, with greater or lesser validity, to:

  • Albert Camus
  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • In Australian jest, it has been attributed to Thomas Hobbes:

    In the December 1982 edition of Rolling Stone, Thomas Hobbes published a scathing review of Midnight Oil’s ‘10-to-1’ album. Midnight Oil, Hobbes claimed, were corrupting Australian youth with such politically incendiary tracks as ‘Short Memory’ and ‘US Forces’. But it was the lyrics to ‘The Power and the Passion’ with which Hobbes took particular issue, writing:

    We hear that “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”. How foolish! What vainglory! Who penned such rot? Was it Hirst, Moginie or Garrett? Have The Oils taken leave of their senses? Anybody who has lived through the English Civil War and who can ratiocinate knows that the opposite is true. Standing up for political ideals can only lead to political subversion, civil unrest and, ultimately, civil war. And with civil war comes a return to the State of Nature — a state in which all persons, upright, kowtowed and procumbent, face the constant threat of death; a state in which, as I have argued elsewhere (see my Leviathan (Bohn, 1651)), life for all is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. All things considered, therefore, it’s better to live on one’s knees than to die on one’s feet.

    In this entry I’ll give a few working examples of political idealism and political realism before moving onto Hobbes’ criticism of the former and his argument that domestic peace and commodious living require us to forfeit our political ideals lest they undermine the sovereign’s authority.

    **

    Jennifer Speake, in A Dictionary of Proverbs, attributes the quote to Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, in a speech given on September 3rd, 1936. La Pasionaria was a Basque, and a Republican in the Spanish Civil War, to whom the similar but so different quote at the head of this post is also attributed. Speake goes on to list Emiliano Zapata as another to whom the quote is often attributed, and to list various later uses.

    And hey, the quote has also been attributed toL

  • Che Guevara
  • **

    Okay, so who actually died on his knees? Tutankhamun, apparently:

    The pharaoh’s injuries have been matched to a specific scenario – with car-crash investigators creating computer simulations of chariot accidents. The results suggest a chariot smashed into him while he was on his knees – shattering his ribs and pelvis and crushing his heart.

    Tutankhamun 602

    Sisi followup: two publications of significant interest

    Friday, January 16th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — SH Nasr’s The Study Quran and the Diyanet collection of ahadith ]
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    Quran & Ahadith

    **

    In a recent post I quoted President Sisi‘s speech calling for “a revolution” in Islamic thinking about “that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries” and which is now “antagonizing the entire world”. I would like to bring your attenbtion here to two publications which may well provide support for such a rethinking: SH Nasr’s The Study Quran and the Diyanet collection of ahadith

    **

    The Study Quran:

    I have seen some of the proofs of this Quran, and it strikes me that once it is published (in Fall this year) it is likely to be the resource of record for anyone lacking in depth Arabic language skills and knowledge of Islamic thought across history. Superb, and very auspiciously timed.

    From their prospectus:

    In The Study Quran, renowned Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr and a team of editors address the deeper spiritual meaning of the Quran, the grammar of difficult passages, legal and ritual teachings, ethics, theology, sacred history, and the place of various passages of the Quran in Muslim life.

    For the first time, both Muslims and scholars will have a clear and reliable resource for looking up the history of interpretation for any passage in the Quran—together with a new, accurate English translation.

    From the book itself:

    The Quran is the constant companion of Muslims in the journey of life. Its verses are the first sounds recited into the ear of the newborn child. It is recited during the marriage ceremony, and its verses are usually the last words that a Muslim hears upon the approach of death. In traditional Islamic society, the sound of the recitation of the Quran was ubiquitous, and it determined the space in which men and women lived their daily lives; this is still true to a large extent in many places even today. As for the Quran as a book, it is found in nearly every Muslim home and is carried or worn in various forms and sizes by men and women for protection as they go about their daily activities. In many parts of the Islamic world it is held up for one to pass under when beginning a journey, and there are still today traditional Islamic cities whose gates contain the Quran, under which everyone entering or exiting the city passes. The Quran is an ever present source of blessing or grace (barakah) deeply experienced by Muslims as permeating all of life.

    Inasmuch as the Quran is the central, sacred, revealed reality for Muslims, The Study Quran addresses it as such and does not limit it to a work of merely historical, social, or linguistic interest divorced from its sacred and revealed character. To this end, the focus of The Study Quran is on the Quran’s reception and interpretation within the Muslim intellectual and spiritual tradition, although this does not mean that Muslims are the only intended audience, since the work is meant to be of use to various scholars, teachers, students, and general readers. It is with this Book, whose recitation brings Muslims from Sumatra to Senegal to tears, and not simply with a text important for the study of Semitic philology or the social conditions of first/seventh-century Arabia, that this study deals.

    **

    The other publishing venture of great interest in this context is Turkey’s Diyanet project for a contemporary selected edition of the Hadith.

    Emran El-Badawi, co-director of the newly formed International Qur’anic Studies Association, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2013:

    Change is certain to come to the Islamic world, not just to the streets of Cairo or Istanbul but deep within Islam’s religious tradition as well. The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, called the Diyanet, recognizes this with its seven-volume revision of the Hadith – which is the source of Sharia law and second only to the Quran.

    Thousands of the prophet’s sayings and traditions were circulated and eventually collected in the centuries after his death in 632. The sheer size of Hadith collections and their archaic 7th century Arabian context have made the texts too intractable for many Muslims today. This is the challenge which the six-year Turkish Hadith project, with its selections and interpretive essays, seeks to overcome.

    The central issue surrounding the Hadith, as with other foundational religious works such as the Bible, is whether it should be read literally or in a historical context and for its inspired message. A literal reading, for instance, may seek to justify medieval practices like severing the hands of thieves or allowing underage marriage. An inspired interpretation would see them as historical practices absent the kind of rule of law that democracies like Turkey have today.

    The question for Turkey’s new multi-volume set is whether its contemporary interpretations can be widely appreciated by the Islamic community, or whether they will be considered too avant-garde – the fate of previous modern interpretations.

    Elie Elhadj, in his post A Turkish Martin Luther: Can Hadith be Revised? on on Joshua Landis‘ Syria Comment blog wrote in 2010:

    The Indian Islamic thinker Muhammad Ashraf observed that it is curious that no caliph or companion found the need to collect and write down the Hadith traditions for more than two centuries after the death of the Prophet (Guillaume, Islam, 1990, 165). Ignaz Goldziher concludes “it is not surprising that, among the hotly debated controversial issues of Islam, whether political or doctrinal, there is none in which the champions of the various views are unable to cite a number of traditions, all equipped with imposing Isnads” (Goldziher, Muslim Studies, 1890, Vol. II., 44). John Burton observes, “the ascription of mutually irreconcilable sayings to several contemporaries of the Prophet, or of wholly incompatible declarations to one and the same contemporary, together strain the belief of the modern reader in the authenticity of the reports as a whole” (Burton, An introduction to the Hadith, 1994, xi).

    Leaders of Turkey’s Hadith project say successive generations have embellished the text, attributing their political aims to the Prophet Muhammad (BBC, February 26, 2008).

    And Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor for Reuters noted in 2013:

    The collection is the first by Turkey’s “Ankara School” of theologians who in recent decades have reread Islamic scriptures to extract their timeless religious message from the context of 7th-century Arab culture in which they arose.

    Unlike many traditional Muslim scholars, these theologians work in modern university faculties and many have studied abroad to learn how Christians analyse the Bible critically.

    They subscribe to what they call “conservative modernity,” a Sunni Islam true to the faith’s core doctrines but without the strictly literal views that ultra-orthodox Muslims have been promoting in other parts of the Islamic world.

    As to its likely influence, in Egypt and thus (I infer) on Sisi’s project, Heneghan offers this hint:

    “Among intellectuals in Egypt, there is a welcome for this new interpretation which they think is very important for the Arab world to be exposed to,” said Ibrahim Negm, advisor to Egypt’s grand mufti, the highest Islamic legal authority there.

    **

    I haven’t seen any reference as yet to the preparation of an English translation.

    The Islam we hope to read into Sisi’s al-Azhar speech

    Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — bearing in mind Ian McEwan’s comment, “General Sisi or Isis — the palindrome is apt” ]
    .

    Sisi speaks at al-Azhar

    President Sisi speaks at al-Azhar

    **

    President Sisi of Egypt made a remarkable speech to the assmbled dignitaries of al-Azhar the other day. The Coptic Christian scholar Raymond Ibrahim has a translation of the relevant section:

    I am referring here to the religious clerics. We have to think hard about what we are facing — and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before. It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!

    That thinking — I am not saying “religion” but “thinking” — that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!

    Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants — that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

    I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema — Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

    All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

    I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands.

    **

    Let me first draw a few relevant distinctions in regards to an Islamic Revolution (Sisi’s term), Reformation (cf Luther) or Enlightenment (cf Voltaire):

  • there is what Sisi would like to see
  • there is what Sisi would like to communicate
  • there is what various schools of Islam think Sisi intends
  • there is what we would like to think Sisi wants to communicate
  • there is what we would like to think Sisi would like to see
  • there is what we ourselves would like to see
  • **

    Mark Movsesian at First Things offers this caution:

    Some are praising Sisi for his bravery. That’s certainly one way to look at it. When Sisi calls for rethinking “the corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years,” he may be advocating something quite dramatic, indeed. For centuries, most Islamic law scholars—though not all—have held that “the gate of ijtihad,” or independent legal reasoning, has closed, that fiqh has reached perfection and cannot be developed further. If Sisi is calling for the gate to open, and if fiqh scholars at a place like Al Azhar heed the call, that would be a truly radical step, one that would send shock waves throughout the Islamic world.

    We’ll have to wait and see. Early reports are sometimes misleading? there are subtexts, religious and political, that outsiders can miss. Which texts and ideas does Sisi mean, exactly?

    That last comment in particular encapsulates my own response to Sisi’s speech. When Sisi speaks of “that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries” is he referring to the Qur’an? I am certain he is not. The ahadith of Bukhari? I strongly doubt it. The accumulated corpus of fiqh? That would be my guess.

    Perhaps someone with access to the original of Sisi’s speech can clarify these matters.

    **

    In any case, it is worth noting that Sisi is not the first to make such a call.

    Prof. Ali Khan‘s paper, The Reopening of the Islamic Code: The Second Era of Ijtihad, opens with the observation:

    For more than a hundred years now, an accord has gradually emerged among Muslim scholars that Islamic classical jurisprudence (fiqh) must be reformulated to meet the needs of Muslim communities

    In more detail:

    Mainstream Muslim scholars and jurists from across the world seem to have reached a near-consensus that, although the Basic Code cannot be abandoned, it must be re-interpreted to establish legal systems that respect classical fiqh but also incorporate change. This evolutionary call — “that history, as a continuous movement in time, is a genuinely creative movement and not a movement whose path is already determined” — is made to extract Muslims from historical stalemate and expose them to ceaseless dynamism. Every day, in the words of the Quran, shines with new splendor, majesty and freshness.

    What, in Khan’s view, comnstitutes the Basic Code?

    This article is founded on a fundamental premise that the Quran and the Sunna constitute the immutable Basic Code, which should be kept separate from ever-evolving interpretive law (fiqh).

    Khan notes:

    Muslims have at least three options with respect to the Basic Code. First, they privatize faith, embrace secularism, and divorce lawmaking from the Basic Code. Second, they alter the text of the Basic Code to meet modern needs. Third, they accept the Basic Code as a permanent guide for individual and social life but see the Code as a flexible and evolutionary source.

    He then comments:

    The first option has been tried but the confrontation with religious forces opposing secularism has often maligned the secular state. The second option is unacceptable to all Islamic communities. The third option seems to be the most suitable alternative for the material and spiritual development of the Muslim world.

    I hope that provides some background to Sisi’s remarks…

    Another formulation of what we might look for from a renewal of Islamic scholarship comes from Bassam Tibi:

    To me religious belief in Islam is, as Sufi Muslims put it, “love of God,” not a political ideology of hatred. .. In my heart, therefore, I am a Sufi, but in my mind I subscribe to ‘aql/”reason”, and in this I follow the Islamic rationalism of Ibn Rushd/Averroes. Moreover, I read Islamic scripture, as any other, in the light of history, a practice I learned from the work of the great Islamic philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun. The Islamic source most pertinent to the intellectual framework of this book is the ideal of al-madina al-fadila/”the perfect state”, as outlined in the great thought of the Islamic political philosopher al-Farabi.

    And there’s plenty of reading to follow up on there…

    ** ** **

    Older even than my beloved Oxford —

    al-azhar-lecture
    A lecture in al-Azhar mosque, Cairo, 12 December 2011. Photo credit: Tom Heneghan

    A lecture at al-Azhar, undated postcard, image credit Postcard Memory Palace

    A lecture at al-Azhar, undated postcard, image credit Postcard Memory Palace

    — the tradition of Islamic scholarship at al-Azhar has been with us beyond than a thousand years.


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