Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Sound of Prayer

This is a beautiful post from Angela Shier Jones' excellent blog The Kneeler
Good morning God,
I woke to a familiar sound today, even though the language was foreign, the voice unknown, there was no mistaking the sound of prayer. The muslim daughter of the woman in the bed opposite was saying her prayers, her mother joining in, as and how she was able.
They included me into this small intimate circle and so I was able to meet with you in the company of friends, understanding for the first time ever, what speaking in tongues really means.
As the daughter prayed, it was obvious when she was using old familiar words, gifted words from saints long since passed. These she wrapped around us like a winter blanket, their undulating cadences being like the folds of a cloth which she absentmindedly rearranged so that they fell comfortably, snugly around us. I could hear the words of the Lord's prayer as she prayed her morning prayers and the words of the psalms as she recited her morning Suras.
And when the familiar words had lulled us into warm, safe and secure spaces, she spoke from the heart - her words losing nothing of their rhythm, but now taking on an almost musical quality , a sweet lullaby for those she loved.
And you were there, and I heard and understood, her prayer for me, for her mother, for herself, for the hospital staff, and for the wider world. Her language universal, even though her vocabulary was foreign to me.
She called you Allah, and I heard it as Abba - and I swear they were the same, for you were with us. And your gift of tongues enabled me to utter my Amen, in the space you made sacred beside a hospital bed.
Thank you God.

Black Muslims in Britain

A very interesting book written by Richard Reddie brother of Anthony a colleague here at Queens. Below is a link to a recent interview with Richard in The Voice about the book and his research into Black converts/reverts to Islam

'THE INCREASING number of black people from Christian backgrounds becoming Muslims led Richard Reddie to investigate the phenomenon, and turn his findings into a book.
He spoke with Soul Stirrings about this development in Britain’s black religious culture. more'

Monday, 21 September 2009

Christians Reading the Qur'an

The Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan has now finished. I'm still not rooted enough in Birmingham and Sparkhill to enjoy the levels of participation in the month that I particularly experienced in my parish in Leeds between 2004 and 2006 and reflect upon in my forthcoming book.

However, I was invited by Birmingham Young Citizens and Islamic Help to engage in a sponsored fast towards the end of Ramadan to raise money for projects in Tanzania, and went to an enjoyable inter faith Iftar organised by the group with Muslims, Christians and Sikhs in attendance.

It was during the Ramadan fast of 2005 that I first seriously engaged with the Qur'an and haven't put it down for long since. Annie and I try to read something from the Qur'an daily after we have said the Morning Office prayers and readings. And I have received much spiritual insight from reading the Qur'an.

What is the nature of the Qur'an for Christians willing to openly engage with it?

It has been argued that in the latter years of the last century three lines of explanation developed amongst Christian readers of the Qur'an - beyond the negative dismissals of simplistic Christian apologetics - on its value to Christians (1)

The first position recognises that the Qur'an is of spiritual benefit to Muslims but tends not to explore its possible spiritual benefit for Christians. It emphasisesthe differences between Qur'anic statements and Christian conviction. Jacques Jomier in The Bible and the Qur'an has said 'According to Islam, God's message has not been incarnated in a man, Jesus Christ, but rather delivered in a book, in the Qur'an. This book gives guidence to Muslims to follow the path of obedience to God's law, which they believe, leads to salvation. For Christians, public revelation is full. complete and concluded in Jesus Christ. And because the Incarnation and Redemption are denied in Islam, the whole idea of salvation is different in this religion'. For Jomier the benefit of reading the Qur'an for Christians is simply to help them better understand their Muslim neighbour.

The second position argues that the text is divinely inspired and can be read with spiritual benefit by Christians but tends to recruit the Qur'an as a Christian text. its proponents argue that Islamic tradition has misunderstood the Qur'anic revelation and emphasises a Christian influenced interpretation or appeals to a 'higher' level of truth/reading in which the differences between the Qur'anic and Christian revelation are overcome. Franciscan, Giulio Basetti - Sani's The Koran in the Light of Christ - Islam in the plan of History of Salvation (1977) is an example of such an approach.

The third and to my mind most interesting position takes a mediating path between these two, trying to respect the Qur'an as Islamic scripture and to respect Islamic traditions of interpretation, whilst showing how it might also function as spiritually beneficial to Christians.

Hans Kung has argued that the Qur'an can act as a 'prophetic corrective' for Christians to the overly 'high christology' of concilliar Christianity and aid the recovery of an earlier Jewish Christianity with a lower Christological perspective. Although I think there is some merit in this argument the way Kung goes about it appears a little too much like recruiting the Qur'an to his modernist Christian theological project.

On the other hand Kenneth Cragg seeks to work in the other direction to Kung. Whilst being steeped in a deeply appreciative understanding of the Islamic interpretation of the Qur'an Cragg argues that Christians can interpret the Qur'an from within the perspective of Christic revelation. Cragg arguesthat certain Quranic themes can be illuminated more fully through an engagement with the Christian gospel. Whilst Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman was very appreciative of Cragg's encounter with the Qur'an, if not uncritical, other Muslims have argued more forcefully that he reveals an overly Christianizing and indeed orientalizing tendency in his approach.

Perhaps the most interesting mediating perspective is found with the long term Muslim-Christian Research group - a European- North African initiative of the 1980s that brought together Christian and Islamic scholars to read the Qur'an and the Bible together over a number of years. The small but richly engaging book The Challenge of the Scriptures - The Bible and the Qur'an was one of the results of this dialogue. The Christians in the group, at the end of the process, when asked to reflect on the meaning of the Qur'an said:

'We see the Qur'an as an authentic Word of God, but one in part essentially different from the Word in Jesus Christ'

Peter Ford argues that ' these Christians have thus been willing to be drawn in into a certain spiritual tension, to live with a measure of paradox. it cannot be denied that their approach, at once honest and respectful, holds an excellent prospect for constructive dialogue with Muslims, and not least because such statements are formulated within such dialogue.'

The first decade of the 21st century has seen a new phenomenon the Scriptural Reasoning movement developing amongst Jews, Christians and Muslims. This movement may be said to share the same spirit as the earlier Muslim-Christian Research Group but this time including Jews. A very interesting film showing one such scriptural reasoning group in process can be found here.

Reading the Qur'an as a Christian and listening to and reading about how Muslims understand and interpret the Qur'an has been a challenging and enriching spiritual experience. I find myself drawn to the tension ridden paradoxical position of the Christians in the European - North African initiated dialogue of the 1980s.

Below I recommend some resources for any Christians who would also like to step out on a journey of their own into the Qur'an

(1) See F. Peter Ford Jnr 'The Qur'an as Sacred Scripture: An Assessment of Contemporary Christian Perspectives' in The Muslim World April 1993

Some resources for engaging with the Qur’an written by Muslims or taking an approach that is sensitive and knowledgeable about how Muslims engage with the Qur’anic revelation, that I have found helpful.

Books on the Qur’an by Muslims

Farid Esack, The Qur’an – A Users Guide (One World 2005)
A very good all round introduction from a Muslim committed to a faith activist and liberationist perspective but who also undertook traditionalist Islamic studies. Esack was a leading Muslim activist in the anti Apartheid struggle in South Africa and has been involved in activism on war, imperialism and Aids. Esack’s more academic earlier work based on his PhD thesis at Birmingham University and drawing particularly on his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle is Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism (One World 1997) and very much worth the effort.

Mona Siddiqui, How to Read the Qur’an (Granta 2007)
Muslim academic’s accessible introduction to the Qur’an. An interfaith practitioner who has featured in recent years as one of the main speakers at the Greenbelt Arts Festival

Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur'an, (1989)
A modern classic probably better read after some time of engagement with the Qur'an.

Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an (University of Texas Press 2002)
A brilliant reading of the Qur’an from a woman’s perspective emphasising the radically egalitarian and anti-patriarchal nature of its teachings. Asma Barlas is amongst a leading group of women scholars challenging readings of Islam based on western media stereotypes and cultural patriarchy.

Reading/Hearing the Qur’an

Approaching the Qur’an – The Early Revelations Michael Sells (White Cloud Press 2007)
This is an excellent starting place. The book goes through each of the Surahs - the shorter Meccan surahs of early Qur’anic revelation - that a young Muslim would learn as they first became familiar with the Qur’an. Sells translates these surahs and has a scholarly but accessible commentary on each. The book also contains a CD with recitations of some of surahs by world renowned reciters.

The Book of Revelations: A Sourcebook of Themes from the Holy Qur'an edited by Kabir Helminski (The Book Foundation 2005)
A good next step with commentaries by respected modern commentators on a large number of selected passages .

The Qur’an translated by M A S Abdel Haleem (Oxford World Classics 2008)
A good modern accessible translation of the whole Qur'an

The Message of the Qur'an (Book Foundation 2008)
The Arabic text with transliteration, translation and commentary by modern scholar Muhammad Asad - for deeper engagement.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Come September

Seven years ago today Arundhati Roy gave her 'Come September' speech at the Lannan Foundation in USA, a year after the attack on the twin towers in New York. Roy presents in her writing and speeches an articulate, moving, powerful and compassionate spirituality of resistance to empire, war and corporate globalisation. Watch her deliver the speech or listen to it set to relevant news and documentary clips and music in the film 'We'. You can also watch her excellent speech Instant Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One Get One Free) delivered at Riverside Church New York after the invasion of Iraq. Also she spoke out vociferously against the Sri Lankan governments atrocities against the Tamils earlier this year in This is not a war on terror, it is a racist war on all Tamils

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Pilgrimage and Rosh Hashanah

Alison a candidate for the Presbyteral ministry in the Methodist Church at Queens recently went to Palestine with the Amos Trust as part of her Independant Study Module, here is a short reflection on the experience that she kindly wrote for this blog (pictures to follow) I have also added a challenge from Jewish Voices for Peace at this time of Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish new year.

Sitting on the steps of the main stand at Cheltenham Racecourse, overlooking the Cotswold Hills, listening to Sami Awad (Director of The Holy Land Trust[1]) speak at the Greenbelt Festival this August Bank Holiday weekend, I was transported back in time to three months previously when I had sat in a room in Bethlehem, in the West Bank listening to Sami speak about non-violence.

Under occupation, Palestinians face discrimination, humiliation and injustice on a daily basis[2]. Since the Separation Wall was built in 2002, life has become increasingly difficult, with restrictions on movement, trade, health care and education, to the point where high unemployment, the collapse of tourism, limited access to water, to their families and their agricultural land and also house demolitions is now making life intolerable for many people. “It is like living in a big jail…we are dying a slow death here in Bethlehem,” said one Palestinian.

Yet amongst the suffering, there are seeds of hope. There are people, both Israelis and Palestinians, who choose to walk the way of non-violent resistance, to make a difference in their communities, working for justice, peace and reconciliation. For students beginning education in non-violence, “the first lesson they have to learn is not to come with their guns!”

“To exist is to resist” is the slogan written on the nine metre high wall and however hard Israel tries to create an apartheid system with Palestinian enclaves and illegal Israelis settlements, many hold fast to the hope of a future where all are equally recognised and valued as human beings.

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land is an opportunity to visit the sacred sites of our faith traditions, but do not leave without listening to the stories of a people who are the ‘living stones’ in the Holy Land.[3] Pilgrimage and story are entwined like the threads of a cord that strengthen each other in their coming together, sharing time and place. As pilgrims we journey along that spiralling route, where story speaks and the way calls the pilgrim forwards towards revolution.
We become witnesses to the lives of a suffering, yet incredibly hopeful people, in the face of persecution. “Out of a disaster comes one hundred opportunities”, says a young Palestinian woman living in Bethlehem, committed to working with women and young adults, encouraging them in positive thinking and non-violent resistance.

As I journeyed home, I realised that I will always hold these people and this land as part of my story, now more than I ever did before – so how can I make a difference?[4]

[1] The Holy Land Trust: Greenbelt Festival adopts “Just Peace” Campaign for the Holy Land Aug 2009 http://www.holylandtrust.org/index.php%20option=com_content&task=view&id=399&Itemid=90
[2] The Arab Association for Human Rights http://www.arabhra.org/hra/Pages/Index.aspx?Language=2
[3] Amos Trust Trip to Palestine/Israel May 2010 http://www.amostrust.org/index.php?pageNo=757&parent=101
[4] Greenbelt Worship Booklet: Take an Olive seed – Resources http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/festival/2009/oliveseeds/ Aug 2009-09-16

Meanwhile Jewish Voices for Peace write:

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins on Friday night. It is the start of a ten day period of reflection ending on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we contemplate the year that has passed, and make commitments for the year to come.

We at Jewish Voice for Peace are using these ten days to reflect on our work over the past year, and to re-commit ourselves to work even more effectively to bring about a world in which Israeli and Palestinian lives both matter, equally. Especially now, when Richard Goldstone's UN report has just been released highlighting war crimes commited during the assault on Gaza.

We invite you to take this moment to join us and Jews all around the world in this process of tshuvah, repenting for what has been, and turning toward a new hope and a new world.
What will you do to create a more just world for all people? What vision do you hope for in the coming year?

Please go to our website to share your own commitments and be inspired by others:

Tell the world what you hope for, and how you will commit to bringing into being the world of justice we all seek.

L'Shana Tova u'Metuka

A peaceful, just and sweet New Year - for everyone. May you and your loved ones be written in the book of life, and may our efforts to end the occupation and bring about justice for all bear fruit in the coming year.

In solidarity and hope,

Rebecca Vilkomerson
Jewish Voice for Peace

The alternative TV station 'Democracy Now!' carried this report on the Goldstone report featuring Norman Finkelstein

Monday, 7 September 2009

Open Letter to West Midlands Police concerning EDL disruption 5th September

Dear Mr Levack

Thank you for your response to our open letter of 3rd September (1). Following the events of yesterday I feel it necessary to respond and for reasons of transparency and openness - publicly.
I was personally present in the city centre yesterday afternoon in order to witness for myself what happened and to evaluate how the EDL behaved.

In your response to our original letter you said that the police had received no notification of a march from the EDL and I therefore presume that the march they undertook from Broad Street to the city centre was illegal. I was wondering if anyone had been charged in relation to this. There is plenty of photographic evidence of EDL supporters with banners and placards clearly undertaking an illegal march, some banners proclaiming 'no more mosques'- surely a case of 'religious aggravation.' I also presume - following your comments - that now there is a history of them attempting such marches in our city you will, if they attempt to return, be more willing to follow the Bedfordshire Police example in banning them.

Secondly you stated that West Midlands Police would arrest and prosecute wherever there is evidence of racially or religiously aggravated offenses taking place in our city. Apart from the incident mentioned above I personally witnessed such offenses taking place yesterday in the area of Bennett’s Hill and New Street when members of the EDL broke out of Bennett’s Bar where they were being corralled by the police. They came down a backstreet throwing bottles and taunting, with Islamophobic and racist abuse, a group of Muslim youths present on New Street. The officers who were present - in the immediate vicinity - took no immediate action and when I later, twice, approached an officer who had described himself to the groups of youths as 'the officer in charge of the area' - saying I was happy to make a statement as to what I had seen - he seemed disinterested to say the least.

I notice also that The Sunday Mercury carries a report that corroborates my experience of hearing EDL supporters chanting racist and Islamophobic chants when it says that earlier in Broad Street they 'yelled insults against Allah and Islam.' I wonder if anyone has been charged in relation to these incidents. I was also personally handed a leaflet by EDL supporters when I was earlier in the area of Bennett’s Bar which stated ' “Islam is a threat to us all. Don’t let this oppressive religion go unchallenged. Time to make stand”, putting paid to the claim that the EDL are merely against what they call 'Islamic Extremism' and again, surely running close to religious aggravation. I was also witness later in the afternoon to Muslim citizens of Birmingham being told to move in an aggressive manner by your own officers in order not to 'aggravate' the EDL as they were being shipped away from Lancaster Circus. I have also seen evidence of said EDL supporters making offensive gestures of an extreme nature out of the windows of the buses as they passed by Muslim citizens on the street.

It is apparent that the police were unable to restrict the EDL in the way you claimed confidently that you would and the lack of decisive action to seek a banning order in the first place led to citizens of Birmingham being racially and religiously abused, frightened in their own city centre when many of them were simply out for an afternoon's Saturday shopping. I also noticed that things got so out of your control, that it appears, the only option was to hold the EDL in Bennett’s bar where they were able to drink, surely a recipe for further trouble. Furthermore when police put them on some of our local buses to ship them elsewhere in the city I have personally seen evidence showing that they proceeded to seriously vandalise these buses and so again because of the police authority’s insistence on 'upholding their right to protest' the people of Birmingham suffer the consequences.

I hope you can now agree with us that the EDL are not a legitimate political group deserving their right to protest but a racist group attempting to whip up religious hatred and animosity and should not be allowed to come and further disrupt and jeopardise the good community relations of our multi cultural city

I await your reply forthwith

Yours sincerely

Revd Ray Gaston
Inter Faith Tutor & Enabler
Queens Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education
Birmingham District of The Methodist Church
Somerset Road
Birmingham B13 2QJH
e: r.gaston@queens.ac.uk
w: www.queens.ac.uk

(1)For a copy of the original Open Letter from The Birmingham District of The Methodist Church visit http://interfaithenabler.blogspot.com/2009/09/not-in-birmingham.html

The Stirrer published the letter on 9th September and the Birmingham Post on 10th, as of Tuesday 15th September still no comment from the police to me directly but again the Stirrer carries a response from the West Midlands Police to critics here

Thursday, 3 September 2009


Today we issued the open letter below from the Birmingham Methodist Church to the Home Secretary and The West Midlands Police Authority adding our voices to the campaign to ban the so called 'English Defence League' from marching in Birmingham. Carrs Lane Baptist Church and St Martin's in The Bull Ring along with Central Methodist Mission issued a similar joint ecumenical statement.

An Open Letter to Home Secretary and West Midlands Police Authority from The Birmingham Methodist Church

Dear Sirs

As representatives of the Methodist Church in the city of Birmingham we wish to express our concern over the proposed presence of the so-called ‘English Defence League’ in the city centre on 5th September. Following their provocative presence in the city on August 8th we feel strongly that the relevant authorities should do their utmost to prevent this group coming into the city again. Their sole aim is to create tension and to intimidate and provoke the people of Birmingham with racist and Islamophobic abuse.

The EDL has been banned from congregating in Luton by the Bedfordshire Police and we see no reason why the West Midlands Police authority cannot take similar powers to protect our city from attempts to undermine community relations and promote hatred against our city’s Muslim citizens.

We call on the West Midlands Police Authority to ban the EDL from Birmingham on 5th September

Revd Bill Anderson
Birmingham District of Methodist Church
t:: 0121 449 0131

Revd Ray Gaston
Inter Faith Enabler
Birmingham District of Methodist Church
t: 0121 452 2623

Revd Neil Johnson
District Minister
Birmingham Central Mission
t:: 0121 233 1915

The 'English Defence League' claims to be protesting against 'Islamic extremism' but they have been exposed as deeply Islamophobic and racist and with close links to the BNP. The film below was made when they last came to Birmingham at the beginning of August and shows you the real aim of the EDL is to hurl racist and Islamophobic abuse at the citizens of Birmingham and to seek to promote community tension.

So far (Friday Morning the following have published reports on the open letter

The Stirrer

The Birmingham Post