26 March 2004

Peoples of, um, which book?

Wednesday night was rather upsetting. I haven't decided whether it was a complete waste of time, or something valuable in a Sun Tzu "Know yourself and know your enemies" kind of way. 

I went to a 'Faiths Debate' in Owens Park, with the topic under discussion being "The true word of God: Torah, Bible or Quran?".

The speakers were Father Chris Gorton, the Catholic chaplain at Man Met university and a priest at St Augustine's, Dr Alan Unterman, an Orthodox Jewish minister and a lecturer in Comparative Religion the the University of Manchester, and Abu Eesa Niamatullah, who I now wish I had researched before going to the talk; it might have given me some idea what to expect.

Despite Father Chris's request after mass on Sunday that he'd appreciate it if any of use were to go along to Wednesday's debate, I nearly didn't go. I couldn't really see the point in the debate; after all, this was hardly going to be an ecumenical discussion, since the three religions being represented disagreed on something so fundamental. In the end, though, at twenty-five past seven I decided to dart over to Owens Park, thinking that, if nothing else, I'd learn something about two religions about which I knew far too little.

Let the games begin!
I shuffled into OP's main hall at half seven with a fairly open mind; I was less curious about what Father Chris would say than about the Muslim and Jewish speakers; above all, I wondered what the interchange between the three would be like. My heart began to sink when I saw the crowd gathering there. At least two thirds, probably three quarters or more, of the audience were Muslims. What's more, they didn't look like any of the Muslims I've become friends with over the last few years or even the majority of ones I used to see out and about in Rusholme and Fallowfield; these seemed to be cartoon Muslims, the kind you see pictured in right-wing newspapers and on the television -- fierce faces predominated, scowling behind their big beards.

I couldn't help but wonder where they hid most of the time. These didn't look like they were interested in what anybody else had to say. I had what Han Solo would doubtless call 'a bad feeling'. 

Dr Unterman, who looked fairly stereotypical himself - wearing thick glasses and an enormous Karl Marx beard - took the microphone and began to speak. He seemed sensible, honest, gentle, and humorous as he explained carefully what the Torah meant to the Jews, about the Pentateuch and the wider notion of Jewish law, and about how Judaism wasn't a missionary religion; Judaism, and obedience to the Torah, was the path specifically laid for the Jews when God picked them as a chosen people; God speaks to others in other ways.

Hardly anybody applauded. Most of the audience sat glowering, arms tightly folded.

Father Chris stepped up to the podium, and explained that he wasn't there to tell anybody that he was right and that they were wrong, just that he was going to explain, by means of some basic 'building blocks', what Christians mean when they speak of the 'Word of God'. He pointed out that he was well aware of all manner of textural problems - discrepancies between the Synoptic Gospels, Gnostic influences on the Gospel of John, hermeneutic readings of the texts, postmodern readings, and sundry other difficulties; it was hard not to grin at this litany of difficulties. He pleaded with people not to leap up and declare that the Nativity accounts of Mark and Luke don't match, as if this was a startlingly original discovery; a good few people laughed at this, and indeed most of the scowls had faded by the time he got stuck in.

Like Dr Unterman's talk, Chris's spiel was a little woolly, but not much; only as much as was necessary to avoid offence while opening minds, I think. He stressed the fact that for Christians the term 'Word of God' refers primarily to Jesus rather than to the Bible, and that, at least within the Catholic Church, the Bible is not the sole way Jesus' message is communicated to us; the Church itself is a medium for transmission of the Gospel.

Well, he got some applause, certainly a better response than his Jewish colleague had received.

And then Abu Eesa stepped up the podium and slated the wooliness of the two previous speakers, scorning their subjectivity and saying that unless we had come to establish what was the true word of God, we were wasting our time. Furthermore, he added, we were living in a decadent country, a land where people refused to listen to the word of God. The word of God was only expressed through the Koran, it appeared, which was perfect.

Mohammed was the last in a long line of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and the greatest of these prophets; God has spoken through earlier prophets but their teachings had been corrupted by their followers, so God ensured that when the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mohammed that his revelations were recorded, checked, and protected, so that the text of the Koran now is an exact copy of the words recited by Mohammed to his followers. The Bible and Torah have been corrupted, and do not communicate the word of God; only the Koran is an accurate revelation of God's word.

Question Time!
When the thunderous applause for Abu Eesa had subsided the questions began. The first one, from a girl in front of me, asked how the speakers could be so sure God existed, how they could have such faith. Father Chris started off by pointing out that philosophically speaking it was impossible to prove from within that hall that Manchester city centre existed, so proving the existence of God was almost impossible -- Aquinas's five proofs tend to be frowned on nowadays and the Ontological proof is at best fiendishly convoluted and at worse sophistic. Dr Unterman took a similar approach, and stressed that there are many ways to God, that sometimes he speaks to us in strange ways. Abu Eesa simply stated that God's existence is proven by the Koran, and that as Mohammed performed miracles, predicted things correctly, and knew stuff he could not have known about otherwise, he must have been a true prophet of God. 

(Unfortunately, he neglected to point out, the miracles weren't recorded until centuries after his death, while the predictions tended to be of the self-fulfilling variety.)

Sadly, this set the tone for the rest of the evening. Dr Unterman and Father Chris tried to be reasonable and avoid offense while Abu Eesa simply ranted. It was like listening to a Muslim Ian Paisley. Again and again he referred to 'evidence' and 'textual criticism' to support his claims, but used them as magic charms or mantras, never citing any evidence or demonstrating any sort of textual criticism, aside from problematically claiming that the text used to today is identical to that preached by Mohammed, and by saying that it contains no internal contradictions and isn't proven wrong by anything else. 

I have a feeling that I could make the latter case for the Iliad, if he'd like to listen.

Things got really ridiculous when he came to defend his claim that the Torah and the Bible had been corrupted. I'm not sure when they're meant to have been corrupted, since they seem to have been okay in Mohammed's day to judge by such statements as: 
"Say: O followers of the Book! you follow no good till you keep up the Taurat [Torah] and the Injeel [Bible] and that which is revealed to you from your Lord; and surely that which has been revealed to you from your Lord shall make many of them increase in inordinacy and unbelief; grieve not therefore for the unbelieving people." (5.68). 
Would Mohammed, assuming he was as clued in as Abu Eesa thought, really have recommending his followers to read the Torah and Bible if they had been corrupted? They surely haven't been corrupted since his day. Thousands of manuscripts - or bits of them - survive from before then.

And the Torah does appear to confirm that the Bible was in Mohammed's day a valid source of God's word:
"But if you are in doubt as to what We have revealed to you, ask those who read the Book before you; certainly the truth has come to you from your Lord, therefore you should not be of the disputers. And you should not be of those who reject the communications of Allah, (for) then you should be one of the losers." (10.94-5).

Abu Eesa's claims about how the Bible were corrupted were laughable. Aside from claiming that the Jews had revised the Torah at Jamnia in 95 AD (sort of true) he said that the Christian Bible had been compiled not by any priest or Christian, but by Constantine, a pagan emperor, who had called an unrepresentative council in 325 to establish a fake canon, and that this in turn had been changed and revised - after all, what does 'Revised' Standard Version mean?

Chris looked thoroughly exasperated while all this was being claimed, and he only dealt with part of it; I think he was starting to feel that there was no point answering somebody so determined to believe such crap, but felt obliged to at least convey some sense of what really happened. Constantine, he pointed out, had converted decades before the Council of Nicea, and that the Nicene Creed, the main achievement of the council, expressed what the vast majority of bishops at the council regarded as orthodox and wholly in accordance with the scriptures and traditions of the Church.

(If you're curious about how the Christian canon was compiled, I've wittered about it here.)

Things turned nasty after that, with Dr Unterman clearly thinking that enough was enough and that Abu Eesa's rantings needed to be refuted. He demanded evidence, or some sort of proof that might convince him or indeed any impartial observer that the Koran was indeed compiled as Eesa claimed, and that it was definitely the word of God. Of course, Abu Eesa couldn't do that, and resorted to constantly reciting his magic words 'evidence' and 'textual criticism', without once giving an example.

I was amazed that Dr Unterman resisted the temptation to ask whether anybody else had seen Gabriel with Mohammed, or whether Muslims simply believed Mohammed's claims that he received revelations from the Angel. After all, are such claims any better than those of Joseph Smith, dictated to his friends from behind a curtain?

It took a while to wrap up the meeting; tempers had risen, there was quite a bit of shouting, and clearly nothing was going to be achieved; Abu Eesa was invincible in his ignorance, but Dr Unterman continued to throw logic against the ramparts, while Father Chris sat in mute resignation. I couldn't blame him.

I returned to base rather gloomily, and slipped discreetly into the undergrad common room, grinning at Cathy, who seemed to be the only one to spot me coming in; Sarah was quite startled about ten minutes later when I laughed at something. It was dark, and Naomi, Julie, and herself had wisely felt that staying in and watching ER was a better option than a heated 'faith debate'.

I was quite upset, and spent most of the show, and indeed the next day or so, thinking about the debate. I'd been horrified. The Muslims who'd come to the debate were like no Muslims I'd ever met. I couldn't see Leila, Ruwenna, Samia, Waqas, or Ammar, for example, shouting down others in that.

It just seemed so ridiculous. Every time I've read articles in right wing periodicals - you know, this sort of crap - I've always assumed that Islam was being misrepresented. After all, I know plenty of Muslims. None of them are like the ones you see shrieking on the telly.

I spoke to Anne-Marie earlier, since she used to live in the Middle East, and she assured me that those kind of Muslims are definitely the minority. Most Muslims, she says, are quiet and humble in their faith, and simply want to get on with their own lives without interference. They'd be disgusted by the rowdy triumphalism displayed in Rusholme at Eid.

I suppose that's true. Abu Eesa and his supporters at the debate were a minority within a minority. Most British Muslims are heavily Anglicised at this stage; they may well be as apathetic as most nominal Christians here, or else they're quiet and private in their faith. The firebrands are a tiny minority. 

They make a hell of a lot of noise, though.

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