The major religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have plenty of constructive elements. (I even think that the rational core of an Atheist as a response to irrational elements of religions is something constructive.) Religions, based around a sacred and transcendent core deity, each has something very special to offer mankind however. I wish to list what I see as the most powerful contribution of each of the religions that I have considered.
What makes me capable of seemingly arrogantly coming here and declaring my views on various religions? Let me offer some credentials firstly then:
I spent almost 9 of my most formative years in Christian schooling. With the exception of my final three years of primary school, which I spent in a Muslim class, the rest were all spent in Christian schools and predominantly 90% Christian classes. During these years I joined in with my Christian class mates in reciting the Lord’s prayer, I heard the Bible being read almost every day and I celebrated every major Christian event. When I was small, I even remember getting Christmas presents at Christmas time. Also, away from school, when visiting my neighbours, friends and colleagues, I was exposed to Christianity in their homes. I can therefore claim to have more than a mere superficial insight into Christianity and its real meaning in everyday life.
My credentials to issue profound opinions about Islam’s impact are also valid, I believe. I grew up in a Muslim home, went to Muslim afternoon classes for nine years, sat in countless Muslim sermons, formed (and still form) part of a Muslim community and also attended classes in certain Islamic subjects at the prestigious Al Azhar university in Egypt from mid 1991 until mid 1993. When it comes to Sunni Islam, I have all these mentioned credentials, but adding to these, in Egypt, I also had the opportunity to gain much deeper insight into Sunni Islam by having plenty of in depth discussions with some of the most senior Sunni experts within the Muslim community today in South Africa.
What qualifies me to issue an opinion about Shi’ite Islam? From the age of 17, I gained good access to literature from Iran, promoting the revolution as well as Twelver Shi’ite ideas. For ten years, I immersed myself in the popular literature of the revolution and Twelver Shi’ism. While in Egypt, I had several learning sessions with an Iraqi Shi’ite cleric, who was in exile in Cairo. While in Egypt, I befriended a recent Sunni convert to Twelver Shi’ism very closely. I in fact embraced the standard rituals of that school in Egypt, and became a Twelver Shi’i, using Taqiyyah to conceal my beliefs from some who may have taken offence. Back in South Africa, in 1993, I saw the devastation of sectarianism in my family. It took me less than six months to reverse my decision to embrace Twelver Shi’ism. I announced my decision to my closest family members. From now on, I told them, I rejected any labels, and merely followed the truth, no matter from which sect it came. The 13 years from 1980 until 1993 gave me special insight, I believe, to issue an opinion on how Twelver Shi’ism impacts on society and the individual.
What qualifies me to speak about Judaism? I can claim a sufficient knowledge of Judaism. I have attentively listened to over 20 sermons on Youtube from prominent Jewish Rabbi’s of today. These include Rabbi Boteach, Rabbi Sachs and other prominent Youtube published Jewish scholars. Furthermore I spent four years of my work life in close daily contact with a well-read secular Jew, who spent time in Israel. Some pertinent finer nuances of Jewish culture became known to me through that valuable interaction. I also had plenty of business and social interaction with local Ashkenazi Jewish persons, during which it was possible for me to gain some insight into their beliefs. I have attempted to read as much as possible about Jewish beliefs and culture.
So now, I believe I utter the following words on the basis of more than a mere whim or a superficial knowledge of the religions and sects I mentioned…
- The Good in Christianity
Christianity kindles the most personal and loving relationship with God, albeit through a complicated understanding of God. A Christian does not do good, as a Jew or Muslim does, simply because they want to earn “rewards” from God, but rather because I feel they truly love God. (As such, I can compare Christianity with some esoteric Muslim sufi sects.) Christians also have a certain measure of built-in humility because of the “original sin” concept, which defines people as tainted and imperfect. This makes the Christians of today different from the Christians of the middle and dark ages. I see in today’s Christians much more of a capacity to accommodate other belief systems, than I see in Wahhabi Islam and Judaism and even Atheism. Lastly, I believe that Christians’ lack of arrogance today is perhaps tied to the often ridiculed core beliefs that the theology offers. It has been easy for today’s rational society to pick many holes in the difficult and illogical core beliefs of Christianity, with the result that churches have gone empty over recent decades. Lastly, the humility of Christianity is aided, I think by the fact that it’s central personality, Jesus Christ, never lived as a conqueror or a ruler, such as Muhammad or Moses, but rather died violently and humbly at the hands of his enemies. The arrogance of the middle ages, and the Crusades were, I believe a result of the eminent position achieved by the Church under the Roman empire and subsequent great conquering Christian Europeans such as Charlemagne.
2. The Good in Judaism
My understanding of current Judaism is that it’s strictly not a religion, but rather a tradition carried by a nation. Reverend Sachs (the chief Rabbi of Britain), speaking on Youtube claims that Judaism is not primarily about a shared past, but rather by about a shared destiny of the Jewish people. Modern Judaism is different from past Judaism. A few hundred years ago, it seems the word Jew was not even used, and the terms Israelite or Hebrew were preferred. The modern concept of a Jew allows for a wildly differing levels of religiosity, ranging from secular, non-religious, atheist, to ultra-orthodox; all claiming to be Jewish.
Deeply embedded within the Jewish psyche lies a trait that represents the best, but also the worst of modern Jewry. The trait I refer to is the absolute contempt Jews feel very deep within for any man-made law. Jews, as the nation, referred to in scriptures as God’s chosen one, really appears to only attach real currency to God’s laws. There is good in this attitude as long as Jews know and observe God’s laws, but when Jews became secular, then only the contempt for the laws of the Gentiles remained. I therefore see much good in the Orthodox Jewish approach that acts as a counter balance in a world where morality has become a shifting phenomenon, and where barbarous immorality threatens to encroach everything. Orthodox Judaism represents timeless moral standards, which Christianity can unfortunately not guarantee in our times. The other good in Judaism is the fact that its scholars have been able to mount a more powerful scholarly defence against the attacks of modern pagans. Jewish theism, or monotheism, is simple and well articulated by the scholars within the Jewish community.
3. The Good in Islam
Most Islam today is still heavily Sufi influenced. Sufi Islam is less focused on the holy law, more inward spiritually-focused, and highly respectful of the spiritual leader, while emphasising a direct relationship with God. On top of this Islam, we have in the past century seen the spread of Wahhabi Islam, not completely detached from Sufism, but placing the emphasis much more on the law, and a rejection of esoteric elements that feed traditional sufi practices. Wahhabi literalism and Sufi esoterism are essentially the two contending forces at work within popular Islam today.
The best thing about Muslim society is that it is profoundly enriched by both Eastern and Western traditions and wisdoms. The finer courtesy of Muslims (derived from the orient) is genuine and cannot be surpassed by any other culture that I have been in contact with. Muslims have a very real subliminal sense of accountability: to God, to their fellow believers and to their leaders. This makes Muslim society generally stable, peaceful and well-established within its cultural and religious observances. The violence that is often seen about Muslims is almost exclusively the result of Wahhabi literalist influencing. The Islam of today is also heavily influenced by the West, from two centuries of Muslim society benefitting from the immense technological leaps made by the West. There is therefore a measure of modernity and enlightenment within Muslim societies that makes it comfortable to engage and interact with Muslims. So the best past of Islam is that it has found a good balance between spiritualism and pragmatism.
4. The Good in Shi’ite Islam
The powerful scholarly legacy of Shi’ite Islam is its biggest asset. The strong tradition of scholarship also upholds a tradition of continuous change and has resisted the route of scholarly fossilisation undergone by Sunni Islam. Shi’ite scholars are real reflective scholars whereas Sunni so-called scholars are in fact human Xerox machines. In the past few centuries alone, a fundamental position has been radically altered by the Shi’ite scholars, namely the near complete defeat of the Akhbarism (uncritical acceptance of Prophetic traditions) towards Usuli’ism (qualified acceptance of traditions). The powerful scholarship tradition in Shi’ite Islam has been cultivated by centuries of mounting arguments against the ever-present Sunni majority. Shi’ite Islam almost reflects and mirrors the powerful rabbinical tradition within Judaism. (Unfortunately, both traditions have confused scholarship with priesthood at times.)