Chapter 9: The Whole of Life

What can We Learn from Islam: The Struggle for True Religion
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 9: The Whole of Life

On one of my visits to Chicago in preparation for the Cape Town Parliament of the World’s Religions, I stayed with a distinguished heart specialist, who was a Muslim. I was shown to my room which had the usual provision for a guest, but in addition there was a prayer mat. I was pleased to use this for my own prayers. It was a reminder also to me of the faithful Muslim’s wish to remember God in everything he or she does and or says.

This of course is the hope of the devout Christian, but even they may be reluctant to make their religious practices public. This is in part because of the secularization of Western society. ‘Secularism’ and ‘Secularization’, strictly speaking, are neutral terms, whereas ‘Secularism’ is a movement that opposes religion. Most Muslims, however, as Ataullah Siddiqui points out, use Secularism in a wider sense to include materialism, modernity and the secularization of society. They perceive this as a corrupting influence on their society and blame the West for the damage that secularism causes. They also often see Christian missionary efforts as an extended arm of secularization.

Public religious observance appears to be more evident today in Muslim countries than in most Christian societies. Certainly there seems to have been a decline of public religious observance in Britain over the last fifty years. For example, the school I went to had a holiday on Ascension Day and a half holiday on a Saints Day -- although the St Andrew’s day half holiday was usually deferred to coincide with the Varsity Rugby match! Now, in Britain, shops open not only on Good Friday but on every Sunday, except Easter Day. Rather than speak of Christmas, some cities in Britain have created a ‘Winter Festival’. Even practicing Christians tend to compartmentalize their lives.

Muslims publicly affirm their faith in the regular prayers which are offered five times a day. When I traveled once on Kuwait Airlines, as the flight began, a verse was read from the Qur’an. Royal Jordanian Airlines regularly indicated the direction of the Ka’bah at Mecca. Religion plays a more public role in Muslim societies today than Christianity now does in most Western societies.

There are many reasons for the secularization of Western society and the loss of the privileged position that Christianity once enjoyed. It allows for personal freedom, including freedom of speech, shown for example in the defense of Salman Rushdie’s right to say what he wanted in his novel, The Satanic Verses, even though many Muslims thought that ridiculing religious beliefs should not be granted such freedom. By contrast laws to defend Islam in Pakistan have led to attacks on Christians merely for possessing Gospels. What are the limits to freedom of speech and when do those limits become oppressive?

In Islam, God’s concern is for the whole of life. I have a little book called Radiant Prayers. It is a popular Muslim book of ‘easy prayers’. There are prayers for every occasion -- when the sun rises, on taking a bath, while looking into a mirror, on setting out on or returning from a journey. This may not seem strange to a devout Christian, it certainly is so to the modern secularist.

Yet soon after writing the above, I came across the following passage in Farid Esack’s book On Being a Muslim:

‘Our lives as Muslims are largely devoid of an ongoing and living connection with Allah. We confine this relationship to moments of personal difficulty, have it mediated through a professional class of religious figures -- the managers of the sacred -- or the formal rituals of the five daily prayers, the pilgrimage to Mecca and fasting in the month of Ramadan. Absent is the warmth evident from the following hadith qudsi (saying of Allah, in the words of the Prophet):

"When a servant of Mine seeks to approach Me through that which I like out of what I have made obligatory upon him (her) and continues to advance towards Me through voluntary effort beyond the prescribed, then I begin to love him (her). When I love him (her) I become the ears by which (s)he hears, the eyes by which (s)he sees, and the hands by which (s)he grasps, and the feet with which (s)he walks. When (s)he asks Me I bestow upon him(her) and when (s)he seeks my protection, I protect him(her)."’

This passage made me realize how difficult it is to understand the dynamic of a religion from outside. One can give an account of the teaching, but this may be an idealized version and not correspond to the actuality. Perhaps both Christians and Muslims and indeed members of other religions have the same struggle to be aware of the presence of God in every day life. We have our various rituals -- but none of us can judge the meaning another person attaches to them. Are they repeated by rote or are they a renewed encounter with God? As Farid Esack observes later in his book, ‘It is . . . possible to complete all one’s legal obligations in respect of the prayers and bypass Allah completely. . . This "in the presence of Allah" is a vital element in prayer that many of us seem to have sacrificed at the altar of legality. We are able to rush through the "whole thing" in a few minutes flat to get it over with.’

This question of attention in worship is nothing new, although it may be highlighted by the complexity of modern society, especially where the assumptions of shared belief no longer exist. Esack himself says that ‘We have never been as alienated from ourselves, from others and from Allah as in this age.’ Later, he comments that ‘Accumulation, the sister of consumerism, has impoverished us spiritually and humanly.’

Muslims and Christians face the same challenges in an increasingly alien society and differences are probably more to do with varied historical-social situations in different societies than differences of religious teaching.

There are, however, perhaps differences of emphasis on wealth-creation and sexual enjoyment between the two religions. There is little evidence of the ascetic or world-renouncing attitude to found in some forms of Christianity and I have found the positive attitudes of Islam helpful in my own thinking.

Al Faruqi wrote, ‘Every Muslim desires and plans to become a "millionaire" if he or she takes Islam seriously.’ He insists that the money should be earned and not accumulated by cheating or exploitation of natural resources. Further, Muslims should provide for the poor both by paying Zakat, which prescribes that two and one-half percent of one’s total wealth be distributed to the needy, and by other charitable giving. Nonetheless, he said, ‘Muslims believe that God commands them to produce wealth, so that all may live and prosper. They thank God if their efforts succeed, and they bear it patiently if they fail.’ In the teaching of Jesus, however, there is a suspicion of riches. Jesus told various parables warning against the dangers of wealth and he said that ‘You cannot serve God and Money’ (Matthew 6,24). When he was approached by a member of the ruling class who asked what he should do to win eternal life, Jesus said to him, ‘Sell everything you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven’ (Luke 18, 22). St. Francis’ renunciation of wealth has been copied by many monks and nuns who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Celibacy, which the Roman Catholic Church requires of all priests, is not regarded as a virtue in Islam. ‘For Muslims’ writes Al Faruqi, ‘sex is as natural as food and drink, growth and death. It is God created, God blessed, God instituted. It is not laden with guilt, but, like woman itself is innocent. Indeed, sex is highly desirable. The Qur’an prohibits celibacy for the sake of God, and the Prophet ennobled marriage by making it his sunnah, or example, and hence the norm for every Muslim male and female. Like everything else pertinent to life on earth, Islam made sexual gratification of men and women a thing of piety, virtue and felicity.’

As has been already mentioned, there is no doctrine of original sin in Islam. The Baptism service (now seldom used) in The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, however, begins, ‘Forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin.’ According to St Augustine, Adam’s original sin has been transmitted from parent to child ever since through ‘concupiscence’ or the sinful sexual excitement which accompanies procreation. The Qur’an’s account of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is not linked to human sexuality. ‘Islam regards sex’, says Faruqi, ‘as an innocent good and the pursuit of knowledge as a paramount duty, not as evil.’

Christian attitudes to human sexuality have been far more ambiguous. Jesus, tradition holds, was unmarried, as was St. Paul. Influenced in part by Hellenistic thinking, which thought of physical pleasure as ensnaring the soul, many monks and nuns chose celibacy. Although many Christian thinkers would now repudiate Augustine’s teaching about original sin and take a far more positive and Biblical view of sexuality, certainly in the past guilt feelings have been quite common among Christians. Past inhibitions in the West have today been replaced by what most Muslims and many Christians would regard as undue permissiveness.

Western society seems to be obsessed by sex. One of the attractions of Islam for western converts -- many of whom are drawn to the faith by Sufism -- is its clear moral teaching. This is especially so for women converts as well as for ‘reverts’ -- nominal Muslims who become committed to the practice of the faith. Jemima Goldsmith, who insisted that she converted ‘of her own conviction’, said that ‘it would seem that a Western woman’s happiness hinges largely on her access to night-clubs, alcohol and revealing clothes, although such superficialities have very little to do with true happiness.’ The Times in an editorial in November 1993, drew attention to the growing number of women in Britain and the USA who were positively attracted by the sense of sisterhood and community which they discovered in Islam. Nouria, who converted after finding some verses of the Qur’an in a dustbin, emphasized the sisterhood. ‘There is no such thing as a Muslim woman on her own nor a single Muslim parent on her own. If anyone with a commitment to Islam sees you in hijab (the scarf) and you’re suffering, they step in and help. That’s abnormal in Britain.’ Female converts claim that in Islam they already have the equal status that the feminist movement is striving for. They keep their own name in marriage and they also retain anything they inherit and whatever they earn -- a right Muslim women have had for 1,400 years! They complain that Western emancipation means copying men, whereas Islam recognizes separate spheres.

A male revert, Asif, also tells how his attitude to women has changed. ‘I had a book full of contact numbers for women, and believe me they could do some freaky things, but I never talked to them. I talked at them and bought them stuff but it was all a ploy to get into their knickers and walk away with another tale for the boys. But when I meet a Muslim woman nowadays with full hajib, covered up, I can talk to her, really communicate, because it’s not about sex any more and I know she’s not out for my money.’ The constant bombardment of sexual imagery, which is used to sell everything, has led to a new puritanical outlook among some young Muslims who have grown up in the West and are returning to their faith. Asif explained what had made him change. ‘The Club was packed. The Charlie [cocaine] was racked out in long flowing lines in front of me and the blonde was in the doorway looking hot... I danced all night and in the morning when I was at home I flicked on the news and in a drugged-out haze I watched a report about Chechnyan Muslims being murdered.’

The rejection of the permissive sexual mores of Western society is linked to a wider rejection of Western values, especially capitalism and to the political dominance of the USA and its allies. The Disc Jockey Imran Khan ends his article on reverts by saying, ‘When Islam gives you spiritual and intellectual awakening it becomes hard for reasonable Muslims to turn a blind eye to the fact that Islam is seen as the enemy of Western life and that the slaughter of innocent Muslims is cheap compared with the lives of those taken on September 11.’

We shall return to these wider issues. On the question of morality, many Christians regret what seems to have become the norms for sexual behavior in the West -- at least as portrayed on television when people, after the most casual acquaintance, jump into bed together. I was brought up with the Christian teaching that pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relations were wrong and I have lived by this teaching. As a clergyman, especially in the sixties and seventies, I was aware that this teaching often sounded judgmental and negative and linked to Christian guilt feelings about sexuality. I have tried to emphasize that the negative flows from a desire to preserve the high ideal of Christian marriage in which physical union is seen, sacramental, as expressing and strengthening the union of two whole persons. I am aware that having been blessed with a happy marriage, it is easy to judge others who have been less fortunate. As a clergyman, I have been willing to marry those who have been divorced as I believe it is possible to affirm both the Christian ideal of life-long marriage and the Gospel of forgiveness and new life. I recognize the great suffering and damage that broken homes can cause, especially to the children, but I have seen second marriages which are creative and I am aware of the pain of unhappy homes and the adverse effects on children where there is parental violence or abuse. Equally, it has become common for couples to live together before marriage and it is now a surprise when couples who come to have their banns called give different addresses. Perhaps the church should have been more critical. Certainly some of the converts to Islam feel this. ‘Muslims don’t keep shifting their goal posts’ said Huda Khattub, who wrote The Muslim Woman’s Handbook. ‘Christianity changes, like the way some have said pre-marital sex is OK if it’s with the person you’re going to marry. It seems so wishy-washy. Islam was constant about sex and about praying five times a day.’

Yet this may be to ignore new understandings of human sexuality, for example in regard to homosexuality, as well as the very real changes in peoples’ expectations of marriage, which have increased, and in patterns of family life. I also believe that moral behavior should be self-chosen and inwardly motivated and not imposed by law and family pressure. I felt distinctly uneasy when in a recent TV documentary some Muslim women agreed that adultery should be a capital offence. Here again there is a need for balance -- one which may more easily be achieved by a sharing of Christian and Muslim insights into the best teaching and practice of the two faiths. If many Western Christians are too accepting of the permissive society, some Muslim regimes are too harsh in enforcing traditional morality.

Islam, in Faruqi’s words, ‘vehemently’ condemns sexual promiscuity because it is by definition a violation of responsibility of one or the other party. Marriage in Islam is not a sacrament but a civil contract. Although the Qur’an allows a man to have up to four wives, this is on condition that each is treated equally. Some Muslim scholars, such as Ameer Ali in The Spirit of Islam says that is emotionally impossible and that monogamy is ideal. It is often recognized that at the time of the Prophet many women were widows and the preponderance of women in the population made polygamy necessary.

Many in the West are critical of the status of women in Islam, partly because of their treatment by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Farid Esack himself quotes the words of his guide when he visited Uzbekistan in 1988, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. ‘You’d be delighted to know how alive Islam is; you won’t find a single woman on our streets!’

One of the difficulties of a discussion about the status of women in the two religions is to know whether one should discuss the teaching of the two religions -- and talk about an idealized situation which has little reality -- or compare actual situations which may have been historically and socially conditioned. Neither religion has much to boast about in its treatment of women and both religions have been male-dominated. Rather than argue over the past, theologians in both religions need radically to rethink traditional teaching and interpretation of the texts.

Farid Esack claims that ‘reading a text through the eyes of the marginalized who yearn for justice would yield a meaning in harmony with what Allah, the Just, desires for all humankind.’ Several Muslim women scholars, such as Fatima Mernissi or Riffat Hassan, are shaping a new reading of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Muhammad himself revolutionized the status of women. He stamped out female infanticide, accepted the evidence of women and allowed women to inherit. He washed and stitched his own clothes and shared the cooking chores with his wife. Islamic law, however, Esack says, has failed to keep up with human progress in the area of gender justice. ‘We have betrayed the prophetic intention of justice and equality for all Allah’s people.’

I would be equally critical of much in the Christian tradition and in an unpublished article on ‘Gender in Christianity’, I quoted Linda Woodhead who has said that ‘what is needed is fresh and creative reflection on the mystery of human sexual difference which is as responsibly related to the Christian tradition as it is to contemporary concerns.’

At the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1993, members of the Assembly, including leading Muslims and Christians, in the ‘Declaration Toward a Global Ethic’ committed themselves to work for an equal partnership between men and women. Men and women were urged to respect each other. At the same time sexual exploitation was denounced. There is some debate whether equal partnership means ‘equality’ or ‘equity’. Do the physical differences of men and women lead to some differences in role, although not in respect or worth?

There is also the question -- still too little discussed -- about the use of inclusive religious language and allowing women a full and equal role in the life of a faith community. Christian talk of God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ and the repeated references to God as Father is very masculine -- the Holy Spirit is normally spoken of as male. Allah, although no attributes can be given to Him, at least in translations of the Qur’an, is also assumed to be male. In some Christian churches -- but still a minority -- women may now be priests or ministers. In 1994 Professor Amina Wadud spoke at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town. The Cape Times -- inaccurately in fact -- described her as ‘the first woman ever to do so in South Africa.’ At the same time, women congregants at the mosque came down from upstairs to pray alongside the males, with a rope separating them.

These are isolated occurrences, but they suggest the possibility of change. Those in both faiths, men and women, who are committed to ‘equal partnership between men and women’ need to be partners in the struggle. Once again the question is what is true religion or how are we to obey God in an ever-changing world.