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Discovering Islam - One Person’s Adventure - Lavinia Byrne

Reviewer: Joe Bloggs

Culinary treasures, such as oranges, marzipan, coffee, sugar, asparagus; practical household objects, such as carpets; all those magical words beginning in ‘al’, such as alcohol and alchemy; must-haves, such as soap and perfume, and even – in the old days - public baths; musical delights, such as the lute and guitar; and if you’re seriously bright, logarithmic tables and works of astronomy and astrology. What do all of these have in common? They are all a product of the Arab world and so, indirectly, of Islam.

There is one further ingredient though, that makes a seamless link between the early years of the spread of the spiritual sons and daughters of the prophet Mohammed from the 7th and 8th centuries to the Middle Ages– and I don’t mean Arab horses, though they too are part of the legacy – I am thinking about the link back to the work of Aristotle.

Through the translations of Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) also known as Averroes the commentator and his team, the teachings of Greek philosophy – and especially the writings of Aristotle - were converted from the original language into Arabic, then into Latin and subsequently were taught in what became the great universities of the modern world: Paris and Oxford, Bologna and Cambridge.Why is it important to remember all of this nowadays?Say the word ‘Islam’ to anyone on the British high street these days and they are unlikely to associate it with high culture or even with the food and drink they expect to see on their supermarket shelves and take completely for granted. This is because we suffer from a deep malady called stereotyping. We think Arabs are poor people who live in hot countries. Or even more negatively, as angry people who throw bombs and oppress their womenfolk. We do not readily associate them with art and beauty and culture, with sophisticated ideas, elegance and calm.

Yet, go to a Middle Eastern country, as I have done several times now and you see the religious legacy of Islam played out in utterly unfamiliar terms and learn to admire a world that is so different from our own that it brings you up short and makes you ask distinctive questions both about Islam – and for that matter Judaism – and also Christianity.One such country is Syria. When I first went there as a religious commentator with a tour group of Brits, Americans and Australians, I was expecting to see something different and felt curious about where the difference would lie. Yet even in a fortnight certain things entered my blood stream: the courtesy with which I was greeted and entertained, of course; the amazing food and endless cups of mint tea. But more than that: I learnt to enjoy the call of the muezzin to prayer, echoing round the cities of Aleppo and Damascus in the very early morning just as dawn broke; I felt drawn to the intricate artwork and geometric mosaics in the Great Mosque in Damascus, to the sense of wonder they represented, speaking to me of a God who cannot be represented and therefore should not be depicted in religious art.

When I first returned from Syria and Jordan to Wells in Somerset where I live, I found myself looking at the west front of the Cathedral with a certain amount of alarm. In its heyday it had 365 figures on it (the Puritans destroyed a number of them, but the niches are still there).Sipping a glass of chardonnay in my garden that evening I heard the bells pealing out with their call to prayer and found myself missing the raw insistent tones of the human voice from a minaret. What used to be familiar and therefore right had somehow slipped to a new place in my consciousness. The Cathedral and its bells – the heaviest peal in England – were no longer the only way of doing things, so no longer normative.The next day I returned to writing the book Original Prayer which was the next task I had in hand. Is it surprising that I found myself writing this?

We use art to adorn our churches and our homes because of our need to open a window onto the divine. Pictures are able to do that for us, and so too are stained glass, carved stone, ceramics, statues and all manner of artefacts because the human heart is uplifted by beauty. Beyond words – even at their most sacred; beyond music even, there is world waiting to be explored when we open our imaginations to art. It is not by chance that the calling of an artist is described as a vocation. For their task is to engage with the activity of God, the first artist and original creator of all that is. What God began, they continue. The artistic tradition of the west demonstrates something fundamental to our self-understanding: for Christ-ianity is able to accommodate the idea that God can be represented and also that representations of the Trinity, of Jesus in his humanity, of Mary, the angels and saints make up a major part of a shared inheritance and culture. We take this for granted. For Judaism and Islam the opposite holds good: God cannot and must not be depicted. Why is this?

I had begun to wrestle with a question that still engages me. What is it that Islam can do, or that Judaism can do, that Christianity doesn’t do? What is the unique point of each of the major living faiths? Not simply ‘what makes them different from each other’, or the more familiar ‘why is Christianity best’, but a more generalised question, one more appropriate to put to my mixed bunch of agnostic Brits, pious Americans and baffled Australians (again, forgive the stereotypes...) to enable them to realise that I am asking a desperately important question, highlighting the fact that religion really does matter and that an enormous amount hinges both on finding the appropriate question and on the answers we give to it.Put simply, my question is this: for each of these faiths, what is the main locus of revelation? That is to say, where do they believe that God is most clearly revealed? For Christians the answer is clear: in the person of Jesus Christ. So get your mind round the passion with which that idea is held and you will then understand the equal passion with which the Jews believe that God is revealed to them in the land of Israel. That is the locus of revelation for them and they will shed their blood to protect it. And for Muslims? In the Quran. That is the place where God speaks to them directly and so it is the source of their inspiration, their piety and culture and art. And so, indirectly of our oranges and, ironically, our nice glass of Shiraz.

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