The Book

Someone, somewhere, is reading Hemingway in Arabic…

A young woman in Cairo recalls her grandmother reading the verses of Byron in precious moments they shared as she grew up.The hunger to devour great works of literature is found most keenly in those whose spiritual diet is restricted by tyrants, priests and clerics. The darkness of ignorance is met down the ages with defiance and determination.

The thirst for beauty – “Other Men’s Flowers”-  is one of the marks of the human mind. Devouring works created even farther back in history nourishes deepening perspectives into the knowledge of who we are. And the works of the ancients deserve a special study. These include religious texts, and the great Books which are still treasured for laying the foundations of all that developed from them in the centuries ahead. The Bible remains part of English literature University syllabuses for the beauty of the language alone. Non-believers, too, delight in the bible as literature and history. The Q’ran and other holy Books attract similar respect from the world of poetry and scholarship. That’s where the similarities end, however.

The Bible gave its religious followers a lucky break which has been denied to fundamentalist, literalist Islam: mercifully, the Old Testament book was overtaken by the New Testament book. Only a tiny minority of fundamentalist Christians continue to rely upon the Old Testament for private guidance and public law. The words “An eye for an eye: a tooth for a tooth” can still be admired for their style and drama, but cannot be enacted under today’s western laws. The Old Testament “sharia” has been surpassed by the New Testament outlook which dazzles with its poetry of revolutionary humanity. “Turn the other cheek”, (when faced with aggression), is still a concept many struggle to accommodate in a world where confrontation is still absorbed as personal affront, an insult which must be resisted and avenged at almost any cost. Even today, turning the other cheek is an option closed to many otherwise gracious societies. Doomed to be forever alien within a modern era, passing generations are starved of the beauty of ideas; because their Book has been paralysed, a frozen document composed, far from steadily or coherently, during darker centuries.

But just because the west has developed laws which protect freedoms better than is achieved elsewhere does not give the west rights to impose “my way or the high way” magisterialism. Comics and satirists cannot dictate what others must feel. Their material can be funny, educational, crude or childish. Tastes, and mental processings, differ. Sensitivity of muslims around the prophet and their ancient Book can be respected as alternative, even viable, responses rather than as plain wrong. Less to do with indoctrination and enslavement and much more to do with the beauty of courtesy and civility.

What might help save the oppressed from their clerical tyrants, urgently, would be a New Q’ran; revised to reflect the best of modern Islamic societies while retaining the treasures of ancient Islamic civilisation. On historic grounds, the barbarism of stonings, lashings and mutilations – entire public, private and domestic habits of pride-based revenge – may be shed like a long-decayed skin. In opposition to sharia and misogynistic neuroses, a Book of such power may blossom that eager minds from all cultures will flock to it for its its wisdom and beauty.

The Q’ran cries out to be released and restored to the world in its liveliest, most inspiring, evolved form.

Meanwhile, the brusque, knockabout “realism” behind today’s western culture might profit from overdue lessons in true gentleness. Behaviours which used to be commonly understood as good manners. The reason for certain formalities and boundaries was to accommodate people who do not feel exactly the same as we do. To impose all our attitudes on others is to believe we are always in the forefront and always right. If Muslims are to rejoice in revering their own newly invigorated Book, the West in fairness must also show it can interrogate its own ineffably contorted arrogance. The New Testament Book leads to liberality. Liberality also allowed for crudeness of expression and deed. Sometimes all of us might usefully, and gratefully, follow examples of others who now open up newly refreshed pages of old Books, and write new ones even more gloriously founded.   ( Penstorm)

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