Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Thought For The Day: BBC Radio 4

Dr. Mona Siddiqui

30th September 2008.

Several years ago I sent an email to a colleague who was about to publish an article I had written for an edited collection. To this day I can't understand what he found offensive in that email but his subsequent reply was indignant and rude. We managed to clear the air but I was left perplexed, wondering how is it that what we say and how we are understood can be such worlds apart.

On this programme yesterday, Sherry Jones, the American journalist spoke of her own integrity in writing the historical fiction, The Jewel of Medina which depicts the life of Aisha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammed. The book which is to be published later on this year was pulled by the American publishers Random House amidst fears that it would incite extremists to commit acts of violence. Though most of us can for now only speculate on the style and content of the book, it would appear that what the author intended and what has actually been understood of the book are also worlds apart. Sherry Jones has said that she has written respectfully about Islam and claims that she envisioned her book to be a bridge builder. Her critics however, perceive the intimate portrayal of the Prophet's personal life as sacred history being depicted as soft porn.

It is ironic that a religion which had its birth in arab lands, a people famous for their mastery of story telling, poetry and allegory has in recent years been denounced for its inability to tolerate different forms of literary and artistic expression. But ideas cannot be confined and the written word will assume its own life form. While Europeans are still debating the furore over the Danish cartoons, this book may yet be even more controversial As believers we can have faith that certain events happened but we can never really know; we can honour all the prophets of our shared history but we cannot be certain we have really understood them. Any literary work which aims to explore the past, even a sacred past is not necessarily setting out to tell us more truths, it may even be embellishing simple facts, but it is providing another lens, another viewpoint. We can either accept or reject this lens but we owe the writer a safe space for this exploration.

As Ramadhan comes to an end and Muslims all over the world prepare for 'Id, lets hope that we have all emerged with a lot more humility and self-reflection, for faith without understanding and generosity is not faith at all. Islam has a rich legacy of creative and artistic expression where the writer, the artist has been revered, even if critiqued. If it really is love of the Prophet that may incite some to commit violence, lets hope that it's the tolerance of the same Prophet which will inspire them to stay calm.