As so often, a “yes but” reaction…

Did that annoying trick (to some) of posting yesterday’s lunch on Facebook.

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And a fine $10 roast lamb lunch as one could ever hope for from the lovely Sophia at the Wollongong Hellenic Club. Ex-SBHS student Russell Ward noted: “Nice lunchtime reading!” Indeed.

The book (Lawrence, Bruce (2006) The Qur’an: A Biography) is a delight to read and very informative. It is a salutary reminder that “civilised” readings of the Qur’an are not just possible but have existed for centuries and still exist. This is a very necessary corrective to the crudities both of the more rampant and murderous jihadists and the paranoid rejecters of almost one quarter of the world’s population and their ideas on the other – the latter leading me in the past, based on my actual dealings with actual Muslims as well as on my reading, to oppose what is called, I think more than a bit unsatisfactorily at times, Islamophobia. The latest manifestation of that is recent attention to (in my view) the quite unbalanced Dutch MP Geert Wilders.

Wilders believes Islam is a political ideology, not just a religion, and should be compared with totalitarian belief systems. He has compared the Koran to Fascism and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He advocates ending immigration by Muslims because the Netherlands was losing its demographic and social stability. For this he was taken to court for hate speech. He won, but the case occupied three years.

Wilders is opposed to what he calls the Islamification of Europe by a combination of demography, immigration and accommodations by multiculturalism that are not reciprocated by Muslims. Two other Dutch political activists who were similarly critical of Islam were subject to numerous assassination attempts. One was murdered, the other fled to America.

Debbie Robinson believes the fear she has encountered in Australia merely confirms her reasons for arranging Wilders’ visit: ”With every refusal I asked why, and was almost always informed that management had concerns about the repercussions. The audience was never the issue. The issue was offending Muslims. Looking at the number of cancellations and refusals it is apparent the Islamic community are not getting their message across about being the religion of peace.”

But.

Yes. BUT…

Revelations are sorted out into chapters and verses, and the causes of each revelation provide context for its content. The number of revelations exceeds 200. They came to the Prophet Muhammad via a divine mediary (the Archangel Gabriel) between 610 and 632 CE. They are now arranged in 114 chapters. All but one begin by invoking God’s Name, then qualify the Name as at once Compassion and Compassionate: "In the Name of God, Full of Compassion, Ever Compassionate". Different people close to the Prophet Muhammad heard these revelations as he uttered them. They remembered the words and repeated them orally. A few wrote them down. In all they total at least 6,219 verses. The contents of the surahs (chapters) and ayat (verses) are informed by the causes of revelation – that is, by events and circumstances that marked the Prophet’s life and the early Muslim community.

Through a complex process, the recitations that had been revealed in verses and chapters became, over time, a book. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Ali, his close relative and supporter, worked with others to compile them into a written text. Then 20 years later, during the rule of ‘Uthman, the third Caliph or Successor to Muhammad (after Abu Bakr and ‘Umar but before ‘Ali), all extant versions were arranged into one "standard" version. This version persists substantially unchanged to the present day.

The Qur’an is a book unlike any other: it is an oral book that sounds better spoken than read silently, but it is an oral book that is also a scripture. More evocative in recitation than in writing, the Qur’an is only fully the Qur’an when it is recited. To hear the Qur’an recited is for Muslims unlike anything else. It is to experience the power of divine revelation as a shattering voice from the Unseen. It moves, it glides, it soars, it sings. It is in this world, yet not of it.

That is from an article by Bruce Lawrence summarising the book. Now of course I do not really believe “They came to the Prophet Muhammad via a divine mediary (the Archangel Gabriel) between 610 and 632 CE.”  Yes, Muslims do believe that, and so it appears does Lawrence, who in the book goes on to explain Muhammad as being in a prophetic line  from Adam via Abraham and so on.

Unfortunately both Adam and Abraham exist pretty much on the same plane as Harry Potter and Gollum, as far as I am concerned. And I regard this fairly typical statement by a Muslim apologist of no great distinction in an eBook I have as promulgating historical idiocy and terminal dishonesty.

If there were two books and there was the possibility that one of them were not true without knowing which one, then both of them would be unreliable. Why? Because there is a probability that each of the two books is wrong. These errors can be detected by the healthy human mind and brain.

So, we say to the Christians: do not expect Muslims to prove to you that the Bible (the Old and New Testaments) that you have, has not been changed and is the true Word of God. It is definitely not a Revelation sent from the Lord.

Muslims deny that these Books are an Inspiration from Almighty God.

If one who denies the facts is in doubt about their authenticity, then proof must be brought forward in justification of the fact by the one who claims to be telling the truth. This statement has been made and agreed upon by the wisdom of humankind.

Muslims are not called upon to bring evidence that their Holy Book is true because the Truth and legitimacy of the Holy Quran has yet to be questioned. However, Christians must prove to the Muslims that their Holy Book is true.

As a matter of objective fact the Qur’an is heavily dependent on Jewish and Christian writings and traditions. It even had much the same cast list, and many of the nastier things in the Qur’an echo quite closely the dark side of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. And all these texts buy into accounts of the past that have very problematic connection to anything that may really have been happening in that part of the Ancient “Near” East that God/Allah unaccountably singled out over the heads, it appears, of around two thousand generations already living down here in Australia, not to mention other parts of the world.  In other words, :faith: in all three Abrahamic religions can involve a very large degree of patent nonsense.

And of course much that is good. Lawrence does remind us of that.

Nor am I picking on Islam especially.  A figure much respected in evangelical circles in Sydney, one whose lectures I attended during Evangelical Union meetings at Sydney University in the 1960s, was Canon Broughton Knox of Moore Theological College. Nowadays, sadly, I find his arguments of “propositional revelation” alarmingly and patently circular and little better than the Muslim apologist cited above. For example:

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Sydney Anglicanism still follows suit: see for example articles posted by MatthiasMedia.  I, rather, see much merit in The Bible and Interpretation: Dedicated to delivering the latest news, features, editorials, commentary, archaeological interpretation and excavations relevant to the study of the Bible for the public and biblical scholars. I might add that around the time I was listening to Broughton Knox I had also studied the Ancient Near East in Ancient History I at Sydney Uni and maintained an interest. Later experience teaching Ancient History, especially in an Orthodox Jewish school, augmented that journey.

Now I could offend another group by saying that at least the writings that over some centuries emerged and became in due course the Tanach and the Christian Bible have what antique collectors would call provenance. That is, they are real documents with real histories, much of which scholarship in the past couple of centuries has recovered. The Qur’an is hobbled in that respect by its own very strong exceptionalism, though as Lawrence does demonstrate there has been a very active history of interpretation. The group I could offend are the Mormons whose text, in my view but also objectively, bears no relationship to any history whatsoever, aside from what happened to the believers after the composition of one of the most effective works of fiction in American literature.

Just goes to show there is no accounting for what people will believe.

Anyone seen The Master, by the way? Doing rather well, isn’t it.

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Currently reading…

Yes, the Proust project continues in fits and starts. I find I can travel over to Proustland and stay for several hours with enormous pleasure, then go elsewhere for a day or a month and return where I had left off to take on that special world once more.  I am now into The Captive – so I have made progress since July. See Proust: visiting a demented relative? Thanks, Kobo – but it does mean I am reading via eBook the old Scott Moncrieff translation. See also: All about the new Penguin/Viking editions of Marcel Proust’s great novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, once known in English as Remembrance of Things Past but now more accurately titled In Search of Lost Time.

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Loved John Lanchester’s Capital. From The New York Times review:

Lanchester, a brainy, pleasure-loving polymath, is a novelist, memoirist and journalist who writes sagely and elegantly about food, family, culture, technology and money. He’s still best known for his delectably wicked first novel, “The Debt to Pleasure,” which blends murder with gourmandise. But he has also written a well-reasoned nonfiction book entitled “I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay,” which closely analyzes the current financial collapse. Now, with “Capital,” he readjusts his sights and zooms out, framing a larger, more inclusive picture that shows how the easy-­money era affected not just greedy speculators but the society that fattened around them.

The fiction I am currently savouring is The Importance of Being Seven, the sixth collection of episodes set in Scotland Street, Edinburgh, by Alexander McCall Smith. I read the seventh one in December: Bertie Plays the Blues. But no matter that I am out of sequence; the delight is undimmed.

Non-fiction just now is A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier by Darrell Lewis. Tom Griffiths on Inside.Org rates it one of the best (overlooked) books of 2012.

If Ned Kelly had been gentler and more learned but just as much a bushman he might have written A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier (Monash University Publishing, $29.95). Darrell Lewis’s book is a distillation of bush wisdom and scholarly tenacity, of courageous fieldwork and equally adventurous archival sleuthing, of forty years of learning the country and of a lifetime of listening to history. Lewis has walked the Victoria River District in Australia’s northwest, swum its crocodile-infested rivers, got to know its plants, animals and people, slept under its stars, inspected its caves, recorded its inscriptions on rock and tree, and then pursued its material diaspora wherever it may have migrated. I am reminded of a great landmark work in Australian history, A Million Wild Acres, a book about the Pillaga Scrub by another bush scholar, Eric Rolls. Lewis’s book is full of frontier stories, superbly researched and skilfully told. And the book to look out for in early 2013 is The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (Cambridge University Press) by Mike Smith. It’s the most important work in Australian archaeology since John Mulvaney’s The Prehistory of Australia (1969).

See also John Rickard in The Australian Book Review:

The Victoria River District is unusual in its lack of family dynasties with roots in the pioneer generation. The early settlers, who were occupying vast tracts of land, tended eventually to sell up and return to something more like civilisation. Lewis puts this down to the harsh climate, and to the remoteness and isolation, which lacked the ameliorating influence usually provided by country towns. With the high turnover of station staff, there has been ‘a weak transmission of local knowledge’. The irony is that Aborigines, who, unlike the settlers, ‘don’t come from somewhere else, stay for a period and then leave’, are actually ‘the “keepers” of much “European” history’. Lewis knows the District’s Aboriginal communities well, and is able to draw on the perspective on European settlement of those who so fiercely resisted it.

Lewis stresses the sophistication of Aboriginal land use, particularly in the deployment of fire. ‘They knew that burning at the appropriate time would promote the flowering of certain plant species, and the growth of particular food plants, or would attract desirable animals to the burnt area, and they knew that if they burnt certain food plants in patches over time, the plants would fruit over an extended season.’ This seems consistent with the argument recently advanced by Bill Gammage in his prize-winning The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011), which presumably was not available to Lewis when
he was writing A Wild History

At the heart of A Wild History, however, is a meticulous account of the halting progress of European settlement and the varied opposition it faced from the District’s thirteen or so Aboriginal peoples or language groups…

A Wild History is a fine piece of scholarship, exemplary in its judicious interpretation of both white and Aboriginal oral tradition, as well as the documentary sources. Just as the story begins with ‘the aura about the country’ firing Lewis’s imagination, so at the end it is the landscape, majestic, beautiful, forbidding, that has the last word. Keith Windschuttle could learn a lot from this book.

I doubt KW would, alas – but I have been finding the book quite a revelation.

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from the cover of A Wild History

And then there is William James.

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The Varieties of Religious Experience

A Study in Human Nature

William James

To
E.P.G.
IN FILIAL GRATITUDE AND LOVE

1902

Yes it is dated, but on the other hand what a great classic it is!  Makes you wonder whether we really have learned a great deal that matters since 1902.  I certainly am enjoying this very belated first acquaintance.