Thursday 24 May 2012


...the conclusion of a look into an exhibition on the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, at the British Museum

Unity: It's Ups and Downs

Perhaps one reason why Islam can seem controversial is it's insistence that religion should have a social dimension, that it's not sufficient to pop off for the odd prayer then get on with the rest of your life. (Though of course for much of it's history Christianity had a similar insistence, and only much more recently came the notion of religion being boxed off, a private matter.)

As anyone who's attended one of these British Museum blockbuster shows can confirm, they do tend to cram the crowds in. And, unsurprisingly, a goodly portion of the attendees are the 'ethnic Muslims' which UKIP and the EDL are always getting their knickers in a twist about. And it is quite striking how in such a logjam situation most Muslims are patient, considerate and scrupulously polite.

...which may seem merely an anecdotal point. But I don't doubt that, at least in part, being beholden to a religion enables that behaviour. It leads to your feeling part of some kind of a society, not that the world crushes people together but they're actually just in it for themselves. If that's regressive, if that's (to take one of the more pseudo-intellectual anti-Muslim arguments) “pre-Enlightenment”, then I simply prefer regressive and pre-Enlightenment to the alternative.

This communalising sense is often explicitly referred to by pilgrims. Michael Wolfe commented “everywhere else, every person looked out for himself. During the Hajj the people looked out for each other.” Ali Shariati internalises the experience: “you feel like a small stream merging with a big river. You have been transformed into a particle which is gradually melting and disappearing. That is is love at it's absolute peak.”

The show also quotes from Malcolm X's famous attendance in 1964 (“the people of all races, colours, from all over the world came together as one”), without mentioning explicitly that the experience led him to break from the black supremacism of the Nation of Islam. It would even be possible to argue that the root of Islam was the desire to end the tribal blood feuds, so prevalent in Mohammed's time, by emphasising human commonality.

Yet is there a downside to all of this? Islam practices unity but the word literally means submission. Unity is vital, but the cost shouldn't be conformity or intolerance of difference.

And it would be politically correct in the worst sense of the term to pretend Islam is free from problems of conformity, with the treatment of women is merely one. Among the (highly polite) crowds were classic examples of the mismatch couple, the man in designer jeans, branded T-shirt and sunglasses, with the woman in full burka. Perhaps I'm ill-practised in cultural relitavism, but I just see a double standard there.

So, how to square the ups and downs of unity? Let's start the next section with a disclaimer. Clearly despicable is any sort of New Agey approach, with it's consumerist, pick-and-mix approach to other religions and cultures. Let's purloin their art and listen to their oh-so-spiritual Sufi music, but not bother with all that tiresome business of praying several times a day! The far-right thugs of the English Defence League may want to destroy Islam, but at least they're not trying to help themselves to the pieces afterwards. (In one of those “know thyself” moments which writing stuff down can bring, I found myself at pains not to give any unnecessary offence to Muslims, then virtually relishing the idea of sticking it to those bleedin' New Agers!)

Religions and cultures should always be looked at wholesale, like those symbolic maps, with every element forming part of the picture. Nevertheless, I'd optimistically like to imagine a more considered view might be able to pinpoint and take up the best aspects of a religion. Otherwise we are stuck with a take-it-or-leave-it response, where the entire thing must be either an eternal truth or a total confidence trick.

It's become a commonplace to argue that communism is really a religion. (Admittedly, if you look at Trotskyism or Stalinism, not without reason.) But I would argue the opposite. Religion is a mis-representation of the sense of human community. Of course we can sense something bigger than you or me! But there's no need to go conjuring up supernatural deities. That something is actually us. It's the pilgrims, not the place, which make the Hajj. Others see things differently, of course. But to me religion is simply communism misspelt. interesting feature of that argument is that in some senses it's the antithesis of the standard communist view of religion, as “the opium of the masses.” Which there may be much truth to, but equally it raises the question – shouldn't we need more opium right now, just when religion is in overall decline? If religion is a mis-representation of the social instinct, then it can also act as a barometer of the social. Hence, in our contemporary privatised world, its signal becomes weaker.

The last time I attended a British Museum exhibition where religion was so central was about Ancient Egypt. And of course few Egyptians today plan to be mummified after death, in preparation for their bodily resurrection. But many modern Egyptians are Islamic. The idea of then going on to attend a show where half the crowd believe fully in everything that's being reported... that's almost as fascinating as the show itself.

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