Islam – Religion and Representation

There has been a lot of talk recently – and quite rightly so – about toleration for Islam, almost as if it were  a defective form of religion that needed indulgence or correction as distinct from a world religion with approximately two thirds of the population on the planet who are know to believe in a Divine Creator. (That Europeans generally do not can be taken for granted at this stage.) I am not qualified to defend Islam nor condemn it, but I am sure that the patterns of behaviour which are causing so much alarm – whether the imposition of the Sharia in more extreme Islamic countries or jihad-style attacks in others – are essentially uncharacteristic of the religion which has sustained the spiritual hopes of millions for half of modern history, and only 400 years shorter than Christianity, on which it is partly based.

I have lived in Arab countries and have found the people kindly and open-hearted with obvious and understandable limitations. By way of anecdote, I want to recall the occasion in Tripoli when a student who had promised to meet me at the airport fulfilled his undertaking without initially telling me that a young child in his family had died in the interim. His mother and other women in the family dutifully passed food through a veil from the kitchen and briefly his sister appeared as an ambassador. Only when I asked how many children there were was their recent loss made known.

It is possible to regard this as callousness but it is not and there was nothing unfeeling about the way the tragedy was spoken of – but the doctrine of “submission” (Islam) enjoins quite literally that, while the tradition of hospitality put me in receipt of that extraordinary kindness. Of course I was embarrassed but I was also deeply moved and ultimately respectful of those kindly people who found it possible to do justice to their religious ethos with such generosity of spirit and such dignity of mind.

I do not want to impose too many disparate ideas about Islam on anyone reading this at present but I would like to mention my general reaction to the form of Islamic society I saw in Saudi Arabia – a more extreme version than virtually anywhere else. I need not refer to the stonings and beheadings which are the norm in cases of adultery or the executions which were meted out to abused servants when they finally turned on their brutal masters. All of these things are functions of Saudi society, not the Islamic religion.

At the same time, Islam bears the marks of its origins in ways that Christianity – having passed through (or fallen away during) the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, the rise of Liberalism, and so on, does also, though different ways of course. For these historical moments there is hardly any equivalent in Islam and in the main it is still best-adapted to a semi-pastoral society. The treatment of women is a case in point and it is a curious fact that among the converts to Islam in Britain (and Ireland) a clear majority are women. I wonder why?

The Western perception of Islamic law and custom (sharia & hadith) in regard to women is that it is unremittingly oppressive with the sole intent of demeaning women, rendering them servile, and hurting them as much as possible. This could not be further from the truth. Discounting first the misplaced charges of female circumcision which is actually most practiced in the Christian-majority countries of North-East Africa – the burkah and the restrictions on female movement in public have their obvious causes in social conditions which are still more or less extant in several Arab countries from Saudi to the Khyber Pass.

The pertinent facts are very simple: in desert societies, nomadic peoples in tribal groups move their households with the seasons and on such treks it is imperative to disguise the identity of the females who are the first object of predation by marauding groups who follow the alternative modus vivendi of piracy in those arid regions, though they usually share the same basic life style with the pastoral nomads. To some extent the biological imperative of exogamy dictates these rapacious behaviours and under such circumstances, the burkah is simply a way of making young females indistinguishable from older ones for their own protection.

There are deeper issues involved of course, or rather, more manifestly spiritual ones. The idea of female purity, together with the very marked respect and affection which Arabs show towards their mothers in many instances, are part of a system of social and intellectual idealism which used to be shared by the Christian West. On the other hand, Arabs are frankly disrespectful of women whom they consider to be “fallen” and I am not sure that this was very different in, say Victorian Britain. They also – at least in the Ottoman days – had slaves and harems, though the latter seemed to bridge the gap between the exalted rank of potentates’ concubines and the exploitation of comely women from tributary nations (the “Circassians”) on a virtually industrial scale.

In modern Afghanistan, or at least the highlands, the Pashtun code of “honour” with its brutal exponents vengeance and stoning still holds sway today. That is not Islam: that is the culture of Arab Hill Tribes living in landscapes so arid that an easy-going relation between the sexes, or even the villages and tribes, is virtually unthinkable.

Of course we hope that it is a transitional stage, but where daughters are a significant form of wealth and the actual coinage of social exchange (though less prized than sons), the possibility of deviation from traditional family patterns is closely guarded against – not to mention the fact that the pool of women for uneducated Pashtun men diminishes each time a woman is educated and leaves the region. I venture to say that the terrible attacks on female education must be seen in this context – as can the recent outrage at Peshwar to the extent that school-children are not regarded as immune to retribution while the whole is dressed up as a suicide strike on the part of Islamic warriors. It is not, in other words, a simple matter of carnal desire or sadistic delight in subjugating women. It is more like a traditional culture fighting for survival in a paranoid world of modern citizenship which threatens to “out-class” it.

Our answer, remember, was to celebrate their fearless spirit in the war against the Russian invader but to castigate them as barbarous during the Allies’ invasion of their region when the booby-traps started exploding under the feet of British and American patrols. (I have heard American and British servicemen gloat about the “Afghan necktie” and other atrocious methods of killing used by the Pasthuns on their Russian captives.) No wonder that their attitude towards the West seems hostile and confused.

What we do not always grasp, and refuse to sympathise with, is the difficulty of the transition from pre-modern to modern – and the cost to those who are not equipt to make the change without enormous physical and spiritual impoverishment. Ghastly as the offending behaviours seem, and actually are in many instances, it is not certain that we would lack the courage to fight back against the developed world if it threatened our selfhood, our national pride, and our way of living. In fact, there is reason to say that the Irish actually did so – locking themselves into intellectual reaction for several generations after independence.

With a little extrapolation one can easily see what happens on a bus in Indian when a young couple living in modern culture are assaulted by a gang of living in traditional culture – and rape and murder follow – though I think the case was Hindu. One can also see, of course, the challenge to individual and collective ethics involved in remedying this appalling situation – but it certainly isn’t helped by photographs proliferating on internet falsely showing young women hanged for supposed adultery when, in fact, they are the victims of intra-familial rape. To extend this topic might rapidly lead into the pitfalls of misinformation and supposition judgements as well as exposing the obvious fact that very terrible things are done under the guise of “traditional” values. As with the Paris attacks, there is no defending those things but there is still the challenge for us, at least, of understanding materially and spiritually – or psychologically, if you prefer – why they happen.

Everyone knows, too, what the marriage system of Pakistan is like and how the welfare and personal feelings of a young woman (even a child) is sacrificed to some patriarchal bargain. Likewise, when the same Pakistani families settle in Britain, the same customs are sometimes adhered to, while a grim psychological pressure compels some young men to unleash viciously anti-feminist feelings against girls in Britain who exercise their natural right in saying, “Buzz off – not the guy for me.” This is where the acid-throwers come in – and the only answer is an statuary sentence for grievious bodily harm and expatriation if their immigration papers are not in order.

Similar horrors are perpetrated by Asian gangs in Britain who predate on English school-girls whom they seem to see as fair – or at least freely accessible – targets. The girls have fallen in a gap between neglectful British parentage and Asian attitudes of mixed desire and contempt for the white girls in their adopted country. The conclusion of the press and courts was that the social services had been dilatory in addressing the growing problem and that some politicians in the Labour-dominated constituencies involved had preferred to garner Asian votes than point a finger at the abuse in question. To a significant extent the problem has been addressed by British-Asian opinion along with custodial sentences which no one disagrees with, but there are certainly gangs of all kinds – white, black and Asian – who are still ready to predate on vulnerable girls in sink-estate Britain.

So this stuff happens – quite apart from the violent aberrations of young men who cannot handle Western liberties or – more pertinently at the present moment – react immoderately to the shocking news about the torture of their perceived co-nationals in Abu Ghraib-type “black sites” run by the CIA in European countries with the connivance of their hosts. Check out “extraordinary retention” in Wikipedia for a geo-political commentary on this practice. Meanwhile, I am sure you remember the mind-boggling irony that one of those convicted for obscene sadism at Abu Graibh was a female American NCO called Lynndie Rana England – a wonderful post-imperial collation of a name in itself.

Self-evidently, generations of black and Asian boys have grown up in British and European cities, or availed of education in America, who were susceptible to radicalism in the wake of those events – not to mention the endless trauma of Israel’s national expansion in the Palestinian homeland. And if there is a single cause of all the violence and terror (in the received sense), it is this: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the incapacity of world counsels to resolve it in a way that seems just to half the world’s population. It has also comprehensively put relatively insignificant guerrilla movements in the shade – not perhaps in South America and Africa but in Northern Ireland and Black America, where the lesser roaring tigers have settled for a quiet life in the shelter of various ‘agreements’.

Early still – though not unconnectedly – a generation of “radical” imams grew up in the Iranian revolution who put jihad back on the agenda and whose extremism has permeated every anti-colonial movement in Arab lands since then. Remember that the Ayatollah was an exile in Paris, as Ho Che Minh had been before him. And bear in mind, too, that the Shah of Persia was as much a Western placeman and as much a tyrant as Fulgencio Batista was in Cuba. This is the kind of mix-up we are dealing with. But back to Islam.

There are, to my mind, two features of Islam – as distinct from sundry Arab societies – which raise it absolutely above all these ghastly regional aberrations. The first is the doctrine of monotheism – not our watery Trinitarian monotheism with three ‘persons’ and a shadowy female deity in the form of the Virgin Mary whom the Vatican installed in the spirit of “throwing a sop to the Italian crowd”, as Joyce amusing puts it. (I am trying to recall who has written so well on that transaction – but Marina Warner’s “Along of All Her Sex” must forever be a touchstone.)

T. E. Lawrence wrote that monotheism could only come from the desert, because in the desert there is no question of a plurality of gods. In fact, everything is spartan in the desert and the whole spirit of Islam seems to follow from climatic conditions unlike those of Europe or the Americas. To mention a relatively trivial point, the strictures on alcohol make perfect sense if you have every imbibed whiskey in a country where all the water is subterranean excepting during annual flash-floods. In Scotland you have only to take your cap off to undergo thorough rehydration. In Abu Dhabi – where whiskey flows like water – you need the full resources of a medical clinic to recover from the most moderate bender. The same goes for halal – especially the abhorrence of pork, which is justly ascribed to trichinosis – but also to the association of pigs with rubbish tips or “gehenna” – the original of the pan-semitic word for Hell in religious parlance.

The second deeply impressive fact about Islam is the ban on representation – in the first instance, images of God and the Prophet and after that images of any created things.These are all said to be impieties since they are in emulation of the original act of creation and, as an amusing corollary, the makers of Arab carpets habitually excuse imperfections in the pattern on the grounds that attempting perfection is blasphemous.

Everyone knows the glories of architecture which came from the marriage of Byzantine models with the geometric complexities of the Arab imagination and the relation of this to the theological mind-set of the Caliphs and their followers. From the standpoint of modernity, with its nigh-central preoccupation with naturalistic representation, the Islamic abstention from images seems inherently primitive but in its origins it is anything but. To the contrary, it is harbours a virtually Buddhist perception about the metaphysical order (or God, for short). That is to say, the ‘taboo’ on representation conveys the idea that to make an image of God can only be to misrepresent him and demean him. By an extension which we may not willingly allow, the same is said for the Prophet.

This implies a very wide difference between Muslim culture and ‘our own’ which has embodied the idea of representation at its absolute centre from the outset. It goes without saying that we are following the Hellenic and Roman traditions in which the “gods” are constantly represented in admirable physical forms and which – in part due to the doctrine of Incarnation – it becomes possible to elevate ordinary human physicality to the plain of near-divinity. (How all of this impacts on the Charlie Hebdo attacks is easy to deduce.)

On the other side, our representational culture has produced all the shades of pornography, which is jolly good fun in a certain sense but which has deeply impacted on the mentality of modern people with generally deletrious results. (A friend recently compared a school-age daughter who takes her studies more seriously than her hair-style to one of the “old St. Trinians”, pointing out that the new “St Trinians” are all show-case model girls.)

The hermeneutics of the Koran are a rather specialist concern but, bearing in mind that legend has it that the suras (chapters) were first written on the shoulder-blades of sheep and then kept in a wooden box it is not surprising that it does not conform with the classical proportions of a Western text. On the other hand, the prestige and mystique of the Arab language, with its astonishing basis in tri-consonantial word-form (kitab, maktab, and so on) has the effect of raising the Koran to the position of a linguistic treasure quite apart from its doctrinal value. I think we are impoverished by the fact that we know very little about the Koran or its extraordinary impact on its readers and its listeners – no mere breviary but a virtually magical world of sound-sense linguistic elements.

My over-all sense is that the part of Islam which is identifiably religious and spiritual deserves at least as much reverence as we bring – or once brought – to Christianity. Nor do I think that Islam can be disparaged in its essence as the doctrines of Christianity so easily can. Perhaps one objects to the Word-of-God dictation aspect of the Koran, a little bit more literal than its Biblical counterpart. So too can the life of Mohamed be subjected to ridicule – as we now know, thanks to Monty Python, that the life of Christ can get a good going-over. (There were of course sceptical ‘lifes’ of Christ by Strauss and Renan and even the Irish George Moore before that revelation broke upon the world.)

The part of Islam that seems most distinct is the purity of its conception of a single transcendent force to which all creation can be ascribed and which regards its creation with compassion and demands compassion for others and submission to itself in the same measure. I have seen this idea reflected so often in the lives of Muslims, rich and poor, that I do not doubt its nobility or its practical value as a personal belief system and a rule of conduct. But I have also seen – or heard of – its being meshed with forms of social life of a much less noble kind and in some case the most punishing and exiguous forms of social life on earth.

I therefore try to keep these factors separate in my thinking – Islam and whatever aberrations arise in places where the conditions of economic and political life supply ideal conditions for the rise of cruelty, oppression, injustice, greed, malice, vengeance – or any other of the many preconditions for desperation and violence. And in circumstances where our own intervention has created those conditions I prefer to reflect on the collective failings of my co-religionists – even those who think that they are much too secular to be identified with any religious tradition.

12 January, 2015

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