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Posted by on Dec 5, 2007 in faith schools, Ibrahim Lawson, Is religion dangerous | 2 comments

Ibrahim Lawson’s reply

Ibrahim Lawson’s reply to my letter:

A word about the anger some of us may feel inclined to vent: I entered into this discussion in the spirit of dialogue rather than debate (check google or see so I am not trying to win this argument or catch anyone out. Rather, I am seeking areas where some new thinking might emerge. In order to do so I am prepared to ‘hold my beliefs lightly’ as some have put it.

My religion: entails some fairly strong assumptions about epistemology. These appear to run contrary to those which have evolved within the western metaphysical tradition since its Socratic origins. As a short hand, perhaps we could call the latter ‘Greek’ and the former ‘Semitic’. In order to see how there might be a conversation between the two, we have to go very deep, to the roots of each, where the sources of later, derived conflicts lie. Alasdair MacIntyre exposes this kind of problem at the beginning of ‘After Virtue’ in a discussion of attitudes towards abortion.

While we continue to hold unexamined, second order commitments to either the Semitic or the Greek paradigms, we can expect unresolvable disagreements over specific, first order issues.

Accepting values and beliefs entirely without question. This is a vast topic, and perhaps the main point of contention. To discuss this properly we need to be clear what this means; just which specific values and beliefs for example?

There has always been a great deal of discussion about Islam within the Muslim communities; some say that the effort to collect and analyse the sayings of the prophet during the 7th-9th centuries CE laid the intellectual foundations for the university system, for example.

However, it was necessary to establish foundational principles for discussion, commentary and resolving disagreements of interpretation. One of the main ones, in my view, appears at the very beginning of the Qur’an where Allah says: there is no doubt about this book (the Qur’an) – it is guidance for … those who believe in what has been revealed to you (Muhammad).

In what follows thereafter, there is no attempt to argue logically that one should believe in the truth of the Qur’an; such belief is assumed as a pre-condition, as the first verses clearly indicate. Even the famous challenge:

Do they say, ‘He (Muhammad) has invented it (the Qur’an)’? Say: ‘Then produce a sura like it and call on anyone you can besides Allah if you are telling the truth (10:38)

can be taken as rhetorical. In many other verses, Allah might be taken, on superficial analysis, to be arguing for belief, but this has never, until recently, been the Muslim view; rather there are many exhortations to believe on a kind of ‘How could you not…?’ basis. But this is not the main point.

Allah is quite clear in stating that the reason that people do not believe is because He has prevented them from believing; and that, conversely, belief comes not from any effort of our own but purely as a gift from Him.

The well known verse beginning ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (2:255) makes the point that you cannot force someone to have religious beliefs; and I think that applies also to oneself – I cannot force myself to have religious beliefs, even, or perhaps especially, by logic and argument.

So I don’t think there is any getting round the fact that there is ultimately no justification of religious belief of the kind that would satisfy anyone committed exclusively to Greek metaphysics. Is that, however, the end of the story?

In the past, when Muslims were, by and large, not exposed to Greek metaphysics, the issue of defending the Semitic tradition did not arise. Philosophers and mystics, of course, were well aware of the problems, but kept it to themselves, though there were ‘leakages’ in the writings of the Sufis from time to time and Ibn Rushd was obliged to observe that most Muslims lacked the intellectual agility to deal with abstruse philosophical thinking. The ‘manufacture of consent’ is not a uniquely modern western issue.

I think the problem you identify is a real one: people are vulnerable to persuasion by any old Tom, Dick or Harry, and when they cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

I think it is very important for children to taught to use the skills of critical thinking, which they are not, in any significant way, in any UK school I have ever known. But I think it is also important to recognise the limits, so that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And there is a baby in there somewhere.

The example of the jihadists: I am sure there are Muslims, I have met them, who believe there is no question about anything they are told is ‘the uniquely authoritative Islamic position’ on various issues. They are told this by a rather small and unrepresentative set of ‘scholars’. There are unquestioning people like this in all walks of life, some of them American soldiers in Iraq right now. But this is not the view shared by the vast majority of Muslims. I do not claim to speak for anyone but myself here, though I know my view is widely shared in differing forms and degrees, but there is ample room for both faith and reason in a balanced Islamic world view. ‘Faith’ pertains to certain fundamental matters concerning the ‘inward’ or ‘spiritual’ realm, where reason has no purchase; ‘Reason’ deals with issues of the ‘outward’ or ‘material’ world (highly misleading terminology, without further extensive clarification). The Muslims have always exercised reason in the interpretation of religious texts, and would mostly disagree with the typical jihadist position. (This position has interesting historical antecedents and has always been an extreme minority view). Reason can also be applied to most, if not all, first order ethical issues.

So I think that the spectre you raise of unthinking fundamentalist automatons is one not to be found in the real world in the UK today; certainly not in any Islamic schools of my acquaintance.

Mindlessly religious followers? As opposed to what? As I have said, I don’t see that religious faith is based on rationality (to put it crudely; long argument about meaning of terms) and I sense some truth in the idea of believing in order to understand.

Finally, yes, it’s the straw men that I do not wish to be confused with. However, it would take some persuasion for my parents and governors to give you a platform on which to seek to persuade my students that Islamic beliefs are irrational. There is simply too much mistrust of other people’s motives. I am personally very familiar with the traditional arguments for belief in the existence of god and the interesting reasons why they fail. My motive in teaching people about these things is not, however, to undermine their faith. Even so, I have learned from experience that it is not wise to pull the carpet out from under someone in mid-flight. There is a lot of work to do in preparing children for the complex world they are heading for in today’s post-modern societies and there are ethical principles involved which include an large, if not unconditional, element of positive regard.

However, the imam of my mosque likes a challenge, so shall I suggest he gets in touch?


  1. “some say that the effort to collect and analyse the sayings of the prophet during the 7th-9th centuries CE laid the intellectual foundations for the university system” the oldest university and predated islam by a 1000 years and was destroyed by mindless muslim rulers like ghazini who razed it to the ground. And there were other universities like nalanda that were even older and were also destroyed by mindless muslim rulers.

  2. DDI doubt whether any institution at Taxila had any causal influence over the Western university system seveal hundred years later. cf wikipedia article cited:c. 460–470[29] – The Ephthalites sweep over Gandhāra and the Punjab; wholesale destruction of Buddhist monasteries and stūpas at Taxila, which never again recovers.[30]whereas the west took directly from the Muslims during the middle ages.

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