Category Archives: secularity

Sharia Law and Contemporary British Society

How do Sharia councils in the UK operate now – and how should they operate in the future? In the week the long-awaited UK parliamentary inquiry into Sharia Councils began,  the fifth speaker in the Religion & Law series, Imam Sheikh Mohammed Ismail, provided an introduction to Sharia Law and its implementation in Britain today. His talk showed how the question of the right relation between religion and law is still, in this respect, very much alive and kicking in the UK.

Sharia is the body of Islamic law that works within the public and private aspects of Muslims’ lives, or those who live in a legal system based on Islam. The implementation of Sharia Law varies from place to place, and is not always fully applied even in those countries where it operates as the main legal system.

Sharia is based upon five sources in the Islamic tradition.

  • The Quran is the core text for moral and judicial laws within Islam, and is understood as being the word of Allah. It is split into two sections: the first, from when the Prophet Muhammad was in Mecca, is mainly about beliefs; the second is from when the Prophet was in Medina and is about laws and the organisation of a society of believers.
  • The Sunnah, also known as the Hadith, details the sayings, deeds and silent approval of the Prophet. Where the Quran lays out beliefs and morals, the Hadith explains how they can be put into practice.
  • The three remaining sources that come together to create Sharia Law are the Ijma, which means the collective consensus of scholars or the community on a point of law that is not clarified or explained in the Quran or the Hadith; the Qiyas or analogical judgement,  when a case emerges that is not in the Quran or the Hadith but a judgement is made based on an understanding of these two sources (an example is the prohibition of alcohol in general on the basis of the Quran’s prohibition on drinking wine); and finally the ljtihad, analogical judgement used when the Quran, Hadith and Qiyas have not already provided an answer to a case.

So Sharia Law derives from key holy texts and traditions within Islam and is then translated into four main areas: beliefs and rituals, business and finance law, social and marital law, and penal law.

In the UK, there are currently around 30 Sharia Councils, which mainly deal with marital and financial disputes. Those who sit on them are predominantly male scholars who are experts in Islamic law. These councils have no clear standing in UK law, but in practice their decisions are viewed as binding by many within the Muslim communities they serve.

The ongoing parliamentary inquiry is seeking to address the role of the councils, considering whether either to include Sharia advisors in British family courts, or to formally acknowledge the role that Sharia Councils play in Islamic British society. That would in effect make these courts legally recognised arbitration tribunals – in which case the government would regulate how they work, for instance by requiring at least one woman to be on each council, and setting minimum standards of training in UK law as well as Islamic law.

Over the course of previous talks, we’ve seen how accommodations between religion and law can work to increase separation (for instance, separating Jews from gentiles) or alternatively can enhance community cohesion (for example, inadvertently creating networks of exiled clerics in the Roman Empire) – and sometimes both at the same time, as when the separate legal treatment of clerics and laymen ultimately served to strengthen the overarching integration-through-difference worked by the medieval Church.

So when parliamentarians wonder over the coming weeks about how best to integrate religiously-based difference into legal frameworks in the UK in the case of Sharia law, they’re dealing with an issue that’s absolutely contemporary – yet one that also has a very long history behind it.

***

The next and final talk in the series is on Wednesday 9th December at 1:15pm in Sheffield Cathedral, where Prof. David McClean will be discussing ‘Church Establishment in a Global Context’.

Image: Wikicommons – Central London Mosque.

The doubting monk: atheism in the Middle Ages

Earlier this week I attended a workshop in Glasgow on atheism, organised by Callum Brown. Present were a number of modernists and early modernists, but also several medievalists too, because the idea behind the workshop was to examine the traditional grand narrative about the ‘rise of unbelief’. Was atheism really an invention of the Enlightenment; or were there sceptics around beforehand, hidden by the nature of the sources, all preserved by the Church? Or is an attempt to find such people, as John Arnold warned it might be, a kind of ‘heroic history’, seizing on rare, ambiguous and marginal references in the hope of identifying a few individuals who were ‘ahead of their time’?

It is often remarked upon that there was no word for atheism in the Latin Middle Ages. In fact, there is perhaps just one first-person account expressing doubt in the existence of God from the entire period (at any rate, it is the only one known to me). It comes in the work of a late eleventh-century monk, Otloh of St-Emmeram in southern Germany. In this work, written in the 1070s, Otloh explains how he was ‘tempted’ by the Devil, who whispered increasingly awful thoughts into his ears. Otloh should not have become a monk; Otloh was not a very good monk; God was severe and unkind.  Finally came the worst devilish thought of all: si vel ulla in scripturis sacris veritas sit ac profectus, vel si deus omnipotens constet prorsus dubitavi (“I wholly doubted whether there was any truth or usefulness in the holy Scriptures, or if Almighty God existed”).

Reading this passage after the Glasgow workshop, several thoughts come to mind. The first is that Otloh’s doubts were apparently not provoked by anything he had read, or any conversations he had had: they were purely the product of inward reflection. Otloh could not have read an atheist tract, for the good reason that none existed at this time. He worked out his doubts for himself. The second is that this moment of doubt in God – Otloh describes it as lasting for several hours –  clearly represented a crisis for Otloh, because he was a monk who had dedicated his life to serving God. For thinking doubters outside the monastery, the issue may well have been much less urgent, less in need of definite, definitive resolution.

A third thought relates to an aside of Otloh’s, that he did not dare tell anyone about his doubts: propter inauditam ipsius impugnationis qualitatem ulli fratrum aperte indicare vererer (‘because of the unheard of nature of this attack, I feared to mention it to any of the brethren’). This doubting monk had, it seems, never heard anyone questioning the existence of God before, so he did not talk about it either. Now, this can be interpreted in one of two ways: either such doubt was indeed incredibly rare, and Otloh was a very odd person; or it was quite widespread (even within monasteries), but taboo. The fact that Otloh wrote an account of his experience, in order to benefit future monks, strongly suggests that he at any rate suspected the latter. Perhaps many monks were afflicted by doubt at some point; perhaps every monk was.  But there was no possibility of forming a community of doubt; it was not a topic that could be discussed.

That might be an important pointer for those interested in histories of unbelief (heroic or otherwise). What seems to have changed in later periods was not that people became more sceptical, questioning or rational. It’s quite clear that people were all these things before the year 1700. The change was sociological rather than psychological, in the formation of a subculture that allowed doubters to talk to each other, to create and to confirm self-narratives of de-conversion. Had Otloh stumbled across or remembered a bootleg copy of some atheist pamphlet at the moment of his crisis, or found some doubting confidant, then events could have taken a very different turn. Instead, Otloh prayed to God, found renewed certainty and purpose, and wrote a narrative of reconversion to demonstrate his confidence to others – and perhaps also to himself.

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Further reading
Otloh’s work is not currently available in English, though a translation is apparently in hand for Broadview. The best edition, with German translation, is by Sabine Gäbe, Otloh von St Emmeram: Liber de Temptatione cuiusdam monachi. Untersuchung, kritische Edition und Übersetzung (1999).  Hannah Williams has recently written a number of sophisticated studies of Otloh’s  text, for instance here (£).

The best general guide to these issues is unquestionably John Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (2005), esp. pp. 216-229. As always, Susan Reynolds, ‘Social Mentalities and the Case of Medieval Scepticism’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series 1 (1991), repays reading.

“Secular power” in early medieval Bavaria

Early medieval sermons are a lamentably underappreciated form of evidence. That’s because they’re often anonymous (or pseudonymous) and difficult to date, and are often based on earlier texts anyway, though in maddening variation. Plus there’s a pervasive (and pernicious) feeling amongst (some) medievalists that proper preaching didn’t start until the later Middle Ages, which creates a self-reinforcing impression: no one works on early medieval sermons, so we don’t know that much about them, so no one works on them…

Thankfully that’s now beginning to change – and about time too, because these sermons are often fascinating despite, or because of, being derivative, relatively unpolished works.  This blog’s about one such sermon, preserved in not one but three ninth-century manuscripts from Bavaria. It’s been studied and edited in an excellent KCL thesis by James McCune.[1] Unfortunately the thesis, from 2006, hasn’t been published as a book (yet? it certainly ought to be), but it’s now available online here (pdf), and I’d recommend a read.

The sermon in question is typical of the genre in that it’s squarely based on an older text, Isidore of Seville’s Sentences – a collection of moral and edificatory wisdom from the early seventh century. To write the sermon, the (Bavarian?) compiler picked one of these ‘sentences’, titled ‘On the justice of princes’, and which begins ‘Who rightly uses royal power…’. Isidore declared that kings ought to be humble and steady, and above all ought to rule for the benefit of the people, whose mortal condition they after all share.

The compiler thought this would make the basis of a great sermon, and so copied it out more or less verbatim: except for one change, which is what brought it to my attention. For whenever Isidore wrote ‘royal power’ (regni potestas), the compiler instead wrote ‘secular power’ (secularis potestas). This doesn’t seem to be the result of a variant text in Isidore’s works – it was a conscious choice on the part of the compiler.

Why? One answer is that the sermon was written in ducal Bavaria, so talking about royal power was inappropriate – there wasn’t a king. Yet McCune thought the sermon was written quite a while after Charlemagne’s takeover of Bavaria. In any case, the sermon compiler could easily have talked about ‘ducal power’, if the problem was with ‘royal’. So I think we should treat his decision not as a kind of circumlocution, but as a deliberate authorial choice; he wanted to talk about ‘secular’ power, so that’s what he wrote.

His decision is a particularly interesting one, because it’s usually assumed that ‘secular’ is a word with negative connotations in the early medieval world – that ‘secular’ things were bad things, to be avoided by the pious, and at most to be tolerated.  That may well be so in general. Nevertheless, for this particular writer, ‘secular’ power was potentially a good thing, if exercised well. And that was a message that he thought was worth sharing with a wider audience, too. In fact, it might be that imagined audience which shaped his choice, in a text designed not to encourage monks to turn away from the world but to exhort laymen in authority to use their power wisely.

Whatever the reasons, the sermon shows that for one person in the ninth century, at least three scribes, and who knows how many listeners too, not only could ‘secular’ power be distinguished from ecclesiastical or church power, but it could be a positive thing, in its own right. Here’s a translation of the text so you can make up your own mind…

Translation (based on edition in McCune, Study, vol. II, p. 59.)

Who rightly uses secular power ought to excel over all others, so that the more he shines in the eminence of honour, the more he humbles himself in his mind. Let him place before himself the example of the humility of David, who did not swell with pride on his royal throne, but humbly cast himself down, saying ‘I shall enter in humbly before God, Who chose me’.

Who rightly uses secular power must demonstrate the form of justice more in deeds than in words. He is such a person who is not raised up by prosperity nor disturbed by adversity, who does not trust in his own strength, nor does his heart depart from the Lord. Iniquity delights him not, nor does cupidity inflame him, nor does he unjustly make wealth by defrauding any of the poor, and what he is able to obtain by just authority from the people, he often gives away with clement mercy.

God gave rulership to princes for ruling the people, and he wished them to be of use to the people, with whom they share the condition of being born and dying. Rulership ought to be of use to the people, not to harm them nor to oppress them by domination, but to give advice by condescension, so that this emblem of power may be useful, and they [the rulers] may use the gift of God for the defence of the limbs of Christ. For the faithful people are the limbs of Christ, and when they rule them well with that power which they take from God, they restore to God the giver a good thing in turn. The good prince turns back from crime to justice, when he is moved from justice to crime. He ought never to depart from truth in his intention: so that if by chance he should waver, he may call upon the grace of God so that he may rise up, and when he has risen up he will live more cautiously.
Through Him who lives and reigns forever, Amen.

[1] J. C. McCune, An Edition and Study of Select Sermons from the Carolingian Sermonary of Salzburg, 2006.

 

The secular university?

The secular university?

A recent article for the Times Higher Education Supplement calling on universities to consider religion as a diversity issue brought a furious response from one reader:

In my view a university is a secular place of learning. If you want attention paid to your religion you should go to a theological college. It is not a university’s job to pander to superstition. Religion, unlike race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, is a choice and if you can’t modify your choice to cater for the university’s rules you should go elsewhere.

The comment interprets “secular” in the sense of excluding religion, rather than of a religiously neutral arena. It also displays little historical awareness: the university as a “secular” space is a relatively new phenomenon. In England, only after more than 600 years of universities did the first religiously neutral university appear, with the foundation of University College London. But rather than trace the overall history of the secular university, I instead want to use my own personal history to illustrate the difficulties of the concept.

In 1983, aged 18, I went to St Anne’s College, Oxford to study mathematics. During term-time, I spent substantial portions of the week in the lecture theatres at the old Mathematical Institute. Lectures were the main form of teaching mathematics and regular attendance at them was expected and required in order to do well.

But my time at Oxford was also expanding my experience in other ways. For the first time, I was exploring my Christian faith independently, away from the limits of attending the churches where my father was rector. I came to follow a regular routine on Sundays; the college Christian union met for breakfast and then parties of us walked down to the main student churches. In my case, I went to St Aldate’s, and after a long service (the morning service averaged about 90 minutes), then walked back to St Anne’s in time for lunch.

I was aware that religious commitment was out of fashion, so I was interested when I read an article in one of the student newspapers which quoted a mathematics student, Danielle, whom I knew slightly. She was a religious Jew, something that in my naivety I hadn’t realised, and she talked about observing the Sabbath, for example by not using her bicycle on that day. Later in the year, when we received the thick booklet with Oxford’s examination decrees and regulations, I noticed that there were provisions for Jewish students who felt unable to take examinations on the Sabbath to sit them at another time and presumed that such measures acknowledged the existence of students such as Danielle.

Fifteen years later, in 1998, I was off to Cambridge, this time to study for a master’s degree in medieval history. But as I looked at the general lecture lists, I noticed something odd about the mathematics lectures: some of them were held on Saturdays. Cambridge, like Oxford, also holds some exams on Saturdays. On their website, I can find information on special arrangements for examinations for disabled students, but not Jewish ones. A mathematics student like Danielle might have to make difficult choices if she went to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

So is Oxford “pandering to superstition”, while Cambridge is not? The question is misleading, unless you bring into the equation not only Danielle’s experience, but mine. As a Christian, every British university I’ve ever been to is set up to observe my main holy days. If they hadn’t been and I’d been expected to attend lectures on Sundays, I don’t know what I would have decided to do. Either my beliefs or my mathematical training would have had to suffer, and the suggestion that I should simply “go to a theological college” would also have excluded me from the highest level of academic education. Unlike Danielle, however, I didn’t have to make such choices, since I belong to the historically dominant religion of Britain.

The university that excludes religion then, is finally a myth, since it is inevitably embedded within wider systems that have already determined religious or non-religious parameters of acceptable behaviour. Making a university secular in the sense of religiously neutral, meanwhile, remains a difficult proposition; an awareness of the historical background is likely to be essential to doing so successfully.

The image is of Penrose tiling outside the Andrew Wiles Building, where the Mathematical Institute is now based in Oxford

The Irish Referendum: What Would Augustine Say?

What would the fifth-century writer and theologian Augustine of Hippo have said if consulted for his opinion on the results of Ireland’s recent same-sex marriage referendum? Augustine was seldom short of opinions, and given his known views on marriage, which helped shape the institution for centuries, we might suppose that he would have been shocked, vehement, and strongly condemnatory.

Little wonder then that the airwaves and newsprint have been full of commentary on how the referendum shows that Ireland is now  rapidly secularising, breaking away from the grip of a Catholic Church whose official position remains in many ways still faithful to that set out so influentially by St Augustine over a millennium ago.  The result has even been described as a ‘Copernican revolution’. Yet as so often with debates that revolve, implicitly or explicitly, around a concept of secularisation marking a break with tradition, things are not quite so clear-cut on closer inspection.

Marriage, for St Augustine, was defined by three things: children, loyalty between the spouses, and the sacramental bond that reflected Christ’s union with the Church. People on both sides of the Irish referendum seemed to take positions which reflected these concepts. Everyone accepted that marriage creates a family unit ideal for bringing up children, that it is designed to allow two people to commit to one another indefinitely, and that the institution says something about Irish society as a whole: that in other words, marriage represents a bigger reality.

All this suggests that the debate was conducted essentially within a Christian tradition: no one, for example, suggested that marriages should be possible between numerous people, or that it should be open to brothers and sisters,  or that it should be time-limited, or that it should be abolished altogether.

As a result, the referendum’s outcome could be seen as an updating of that Christian tradition as much as a rejection of it. That a fifth-century Augustine would have been opposed to same-sex marriage seems quite clear: but which side of the referendum a twenty-first century Augustine would have stood is not quite so obvious.

Secularism and the medieval past

Much of the commentary on the terrible events in Paris a fortnight ago, and even more of the abundant commentary on the commentary that followed, has pivoted around the distinction between religion and the secular that is typically ascribed to the European Enlightenment. Arguments have usually boiled down to how this legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be fiercely guarded at all costs (‘European values’), or, more controversially, how it perhaps needs to be reassessed to adjust to contemporary realities (‘globalisation’).

These are of course primarily political arguments, keyed to current political positions. But they are also historical arguments, in that they both rest on a general, widely-shared view of the shape of (European) history, which for all useful purposes apparently begins with the 18th century.

In point of fact, however, the general consensus that the distinction between religion and the secular originated in the early modern period is, quite simply, not true. Doubtless it took on important new forms at that time. But most historians realise these days that supposed turning points are more historiographical than historical: that very little comes out of nowhere. A recent strand of German research, bringing together sociologists (notably Detlef Pollack) and historians, has profitably discussed whether a process of ‘differentiation’ between religion and the political sphere really began in the 11th century, with the so-called Investiture Quarrel. A similar suggestion has been made, albeit in passing, by the eminent Canadian theorist of ‘secularisation’, Charles Taylor.

Moreover, there is a venerable line of research that explores how the very concept of the ‘secular’, meaning something that is not anti-religious but rather non-religious, was honed in quite specific circumstances by 4th-century Christians as they made sense of the religious and political realities around them, as proposed by R.A. Markus and, more recently, Kate Cooper. As a consequence, modern secularism can be said to derive from a Christian worldview (not a ‘European’ one, though, since a dominant contributor to these early debates was a North African). Arguably that makes the modern concept itself inherently Christian.

Much could be written about these and other ideas. In fact, much already has been written about them in specialist circles, where they are the subjects of often heated controversy. Yet these debates have hardly registered in the copious reflections on the meaning and implications of the Paris attacks. That is not the fault of media-shy medieval historians, nor of lazy journalists content to rehash triumphalist narratives they learned at school (perhaps the most authentically long-lived product of the Enlightenment). It simply reflects the peculiar importance of the Middle Ages in the modern (European) political imaginary. It is an importance that consists, paradoxically, in not mattering at all – thereby authorising political arguments based solely on more recent history. The medieval period is never more crucial than when it acts as a foil to the present day (as pointed out by Julia McClure), and never more present than when it’s silently passed over or peremptorily dismissed.

That’s naturally aggravating for those studying these distant centuries, who find themselves condemned to a highly relevant irrelevance in wider public discourse. But isn’t this politicised depoliticisation also a pity for that public discourse, too? If we don’t realise that ‘modern values’ aren’t quite as straightforwardly modern as seems to be assumed, then the terms of debate will be hugely impoverished, even before anything has been said.

Secularity in the Middle Ages

It’s often assumed that there was no such thing as the ‘secular’ in the European Middle Ages. How could there be, when the public authorities were firmly and whole-heartedly committed to promoting religious observance,  even burning heretics when required? Wasn’t the secular invented along with rationality and progress by the Enlightenment?

However, we need to be careful not to confuse ‘secular’ with ‘atheist’. In fact, it can be argued that the secular is hard-wired into Christianity, as a religion (more controversially, it’s also been argued that secularity is an intrinsically Christian concept: but that’s a debate for another blog post!).

Early Christian thinkers, most notably Augustine of Hippo, were careful to distinguish things that were religious from things that were polluted (e.g. pagan sacrifice); but they also had a third category, of things that were neither inherently positive nor evil. For instance, Christians ought to obey pagan rulers, provided they were legitimate and did not command the faithful to carry out impious acts. Political authority could be in this sense secular.

This stance of neutrality has often been attributed to the circumstances of the religion’s origins: Christ was crucified by the Romans, but his followers (or most of them, anyway) did not call for the empire’s destruction. After all, had Christ not said that ‘My kingdom is not of his world’ [John 8:36]?

Of course, Christianity eventually took over the empire, and historians like R.A. Markus have talked of the secular being ‘drained out’ of the world as a consequence. Yet my initial findings suggest that we should tread carefully. People kept on reading the Church Fathers, including those who’d written before the Empire became Christian, long after circumstances had changed dramatically. Ideas about the secular might have changed, but we shouldn’t assume the concept itself just went away.

I came across an excellent example of this yesterday. In the late 12th century – many centuries after Augustine – Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, came into conflict with King Henry II of England over, among other things, the extent to which he and his church were subject to royal jurisdiction. One of the king’s claims was that even though Thomas was a cleric, he still had to come before the royal court concerning land that had been given to him: property was ultimately a matter for kings to decide about, not bishops.

But a near-contemporary biographer of Thomas, William FitzStephen, was having none of it:

[The property] was secular: given to God, it was made ecclesiastical. Secularity was absorbed in it by a claim of divine right. Hence the secular court has no right to hold the archbishop liable”*

(translation in Staunton, The Lives of Thomas Becket).

The Latin word translated as ‘secularity’ here is secularitas. What did William FitzStephen mean by that word, and by talking about the ‘absorption’ of the secular? Was he arguing that church land was holy, and outside even a Christian king’s control? In which case, was he suggesting (even if only rhetorically) that King Henry was a ‘secular’ ruler?

I admit that I’m not yet entirely sure of the answers to these questions. But I do think that ruling out the secular from the Middle Ages would not be a good place to start if we want to find out.

Charles West (@pseudo_isidore)

* For the keen Latinists, here’s the crucial text:
Fuit secularis; data Deo, facta est ecclesiastica. Absorpta est in ea secularitas a titulo divini juris
From Materials for the History of Thomas Becket (Rolls Series), vol. 3, p. 60.

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