Mehdi Hasan, (
@mehdirhasan) the Huffington Post UK’s political director, wrote a very interesting piece in the New Statesman a few days ago, You can read it here. The title of the piece was “What Islam-bashers can learn from The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin” and in it he quotes Baroness Warsi ( @SayeedaWarsi) who in turn quotes a bit from the West Wing where President Jed Bartlet takes on a Christian evangelical radio presenter by quoting back at him some of the more ridiculous sins and punishements from Exodus. It is a great bit of TV which I urge you to watch it, which you can here.
Mehdi uses this to argue, rightly in my view, that as he puts it “Rigid, context-free literalism is the bane of every religion, not just of Islam” and further that “both the Islamophobes and the Islamists are guilty of a literal reading of the Quran“. He also with commendable honesty admits that “it would be disingenuous of me to deny that, these days, Muslims are more prone to literalist interpretations of their holy scripture than most“. I have to say I thought it was a pretty good piece and I was pleasantly surprised by it.
Later, on twitter I was also pleasantly surprised to see Mo Ansar (
@MoAnsar) also praising the piece, calling it excellent in fact.
So why was I surprised? Well prior to this I had not seen anything from either of them that would indicate that they did not take the Koran to be the literal truth, so I was kind of surprised but very pleased. I, rather rudely, butted into their conversation to ask them to clarify, or as I put it “I liked the article too. Are you both saying that the Bible and Koran should not be considered literally true?“. I didn’t get a reply from Mehdi but Mo replied “Even that is too B&W. Some parts yes, some no. It is about deep thinking, context, understanding, scholarship” Oh dear I thought, the dreaded context word had appeared, but he did say yes and no so I tried again “Fair point but you would agree some parts are factually incorrect. Yes?” – silence fell. I made a couple more comments and gave up.
Now I’m sure Mehdi and Mo are very busy people and their timelines will be much busier than mine so they might just not have had time to reply, or maybe they just didn’t want to, or any of many other reasons.
Sadly though, I think there may be another reason. While both of them are happy to criticise literalism in Christians and “Islamophobes” they are somewhat more reluctant to declare themselves as non literalists in public.
The point is if you are not willing to say publically that there are parts of the Koran that are not literally true then you ARE a literalist and part of the problem rather than the solution. And, by the way liberal use of the words “context”, “nuance”, and “scholarship” don’t help they just disguise the fact that you are not willing to say something is factually incorrect.
Later still someone else joined the conversation, they told me there was no “no midway in Islam” its all or nothing. I suggested that many may not agree with him. He replied that “there is a word in Quran for them ‘hypocrites‘ “. I suggested that maybe we should agree to differ on this.
You can see the whole twitter exchange here.
Now I don’t know if that last tweeter is or is not a literalist but I suspect it is because of his, and others, disapproval that Mehdi and Mo will not explicitly say that they are not. I also think that as long as people with their influence wont “come out” as it were other progressive, non-literalist Muslims will be reluctant to do so.
I may have got this all wrong and if Mehdi or Mo want to comment or indeed a full right of reply that would be great.
But I have to say. If you can’t point to something , somewhere, in the Koran and say
“That is not literally true”
then you are a literalist. And as we know “literalism is the bane of every religion”
Many people have pointed out to me that Mehdi, in a debate with Richard Dawkins, appeared to say that he believed that Muhammed had literally split the moon in two and ridden on a winged horse which doesn’t really square with an attack on literalism. You can see that bit of the debate here and the whole debate here. It is worth listening to.
Neither Mehdi nor Mo have so-far broken their silence. I would normally just let it drop, but not this time. The bit of “The WestWing” quoted ridicules literalism, and Mehdi’s original piece (praised by Mo) calls literalism “the bane of every religion” and also attacks “Islamophobes” for assuming that Muslims were literalists. That’s a bit rich if you can’t point to a single bit of the Koran which you don’t consider literally true!
So I’m going to keep nagging. I’m going to tweet them every day asking for a responce. It probably won’t work but hey, we’ll give it a go.So long as I change the date at the end Twitter will let me send it forever!
If you want to joint in – the text of the tweet I’m sending is this: