If you don't like God's word, write your own
We should respect others' right to believe, but we don't have to respect what they believe.
LOOKS like the committee deciding if bishops should remain in the House of Lords has come up with the answer. The answer is: yes. Not all bishops. Some bishops. Fewer bishops. But bishops all the same.
Many of us like a good bishop from time to time. They make a change from the thugs, crooks and sock puppets who have otherwise been clogging up the Lords of late.
But what about their beliefs? The C of E’s great strength is that you don’t need to believe much in particular to join. Perhaps once you get to be a bishop, you don’t have to believe in anything at all, except the crucial Bishops’ Doctrine that you must, above all, respect the other person’s beliefs.
Which is awfully nice, but also wrong.
What we should respect is not others’ beliefs, but their right to hold them. And it’s not just bishops.
It is the right, for instance, of Trayvon Martin’s killer, vigilante David Zimmerman, to believe that black people are "fucking coons".
It is the right of Rick Santorum to believe that the morning-after pill is murder but capital punishment isn’t.
It is the right of paedophile David Bryant to believe that pre-pubescent children are erotically desirable.
And it is our duty, if we are to call ourselves civilised, to respect those rights - until the first black man is attacked, the first Planned Parenthood clinic firebombed, the first child laid a finger upon... Then all bets are off.
The history of human hatred has coincided too often, and for too long, with human belief-systems for it to be a coincidence. In the "rational" west, five hundred years’ blood still drying on our hands, we’ve come over all preachy.
But we preach the wrong thing. We preach respect for belief, when we should be preaching respect for right action. That’s how the west has come to hate and fear the Islamic ummah while claiming to respect Islamic faith.
Wrong way round.
The trouble is that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are (as they are fond of reminding us) "People of the Book", the Jewish Bible with the Christian hodge-podge grafted on, to which Islam subsequently attached the Koran, which they claim was God’s last word to his people. (They don’t seem to have noticed that Mormons believe that Joseph Smith got the very last word from God. Maybe they just think it’s silly. Perhaps they’ll think again if Mitt Romney becomes the World’s Most Powerful Man. That’ll be interesting.)
Christians have come to terms with the biblical hodge-podge by just sort of vaguely not mentioning it.
Jews have come to terms with it by spending the last 4,000 years arguing.
Muslims, on the other hand are tightly bound by their sacred text, because the very core of Islam is that the Koran was dictated directly, perfect and complete, by God, via the archangel Jibril, to Mohammed.
Which is where the magnificent - and brave - Tom Holland steps in.
The historian and author of Rubicon and Persian Fire has now, after five years’ work, come up with In the Shadow of the Sword. His story is so compellingly told that it could almost be Dan Brown, except that Holland writes brilliantly, with a simultaneously dashing, meticulous and at times ravishingly camp style, and his tale is true rather than factitious hogwash.
It concerns, as the subtitle tells us, "the end of the ancient world" and, in particular, the shadowy, ill-defined origins of Islam. And it astonishes us when we know, in our hearts, that we shouldn’t be astonished at all.
It’s as we should have expected. The earliest sources for Islam are oral tradition and commentary. They are after - often centuries after - the time of Mohammed; the earliest consistent basis for Islam appears two centuries after its prophet flourished.
And it was less than a century ago that today’s authentic and immutable Koran was, as it were, sanctified in Cairo.
On the way, Holland, as usual, offers a catalogue of curiosities, my favourite being the Mystery of Mohammed (peace be upon him) and the Mummified Sodomites. (I shan’t tell you; read the book).
But the core of the story lies, not just in the invention of the Koran - and any transcendentalist could tell you that God can guide many hands to a single end - but in its narrative history.
Holland’s conclusion is simple, and timely. We act in our own interests. Cities are sacked, empires lost and won, blood spilt. Rape, fire and the sword. And we then retrospectively justify ourselves by composing holy texts.
It’s astonishing that in 2012 this should still be a major issue in the world. But it is. Holy texts are still being tried out. Somewhere, someone is starting a religion for which others will in due course die. The lesson remains: respect others’ right to believe, but don’t respect what they believe. And the other lesson is: if you don’t like the Word of God, why not write your own?