Kingdoms Not of This World: To Imagine That Islam Can Be Transformed with a Little Nudge Here and There into a Kind of Church of England with Hijabs Is Absurd, Writes Tom Holland. for Christians and Muslims Worship Different Gods, and This Has a Huge Influence on the Relationship between Religion and State, Even in the Modern World

By Holland, Tom | New Statesman (1996), April 6, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Kingdoms Not of This World: To Imagine That Islam Can Be Transformed with a Little Nudge Here and There into a Kind of Church of England with Hijabs Is Absurd, Writes Tom Holland. for Christians and Muslims Worship Different Gods, and This Has a Huge Influence on the Relationship between Religion and State, Even in the Modern World


Holland, Tom, New Statesman (1996)


There is an optimistic notion, one popular among mystics and atheists alike, that all gods are essentially the same. "I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Zoroastrian nor Muslim": this may sound like a manifesto for the National Secular Society, but was in fact written in the Middle Ages by the great Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. His vision of enlightenment, one which saw the reality of God as being akin to the veiled peak of a mountain, taught that the world's religions, though called by different names, are all simply paths that lead to the one identical summit. The appeal of this philosophy, in a multi-faith society such as Britain's, is obvious. Indeed, at a time when even our future king frets at the prospect of ruling as the defender of merely a single faith, it must have come to rank as the new Establishment orthodoxy. What could be less 21st century, after all, than to believe that the road to heaven might lead through the Church of England alone?

And yet, for all that, the pretence that peoples of different faiths are heading towards the one single destination does simultaneously stand in the finest tradition of Anglican humbug. The Church of England, ever since Elizabeth I declared herself reluctant to make windows into men's souls, has been dependent for its existence on fudge. The pews may be emptier nowadays than they used to be, and yet the English, by and large, remain wedded to presumptions that are the theological equivalent of milky tea. "That would be an ecumenical matter"--so Father Ted coached the deranged Father Jack to reply to anything, no matter how challenging, that might be put to him. The joke would have been even better suited to a vicar. The C of E was deliberately fashioned to provide Protestants with as big a tent as possible. Nowadays, with an urgent need to accommodate not only Catholics, but peoples from a non-Christian background as well, that tent necessarily has to appear yet bigger still. Hence, it would seem, the widespread Anglican conviction that there is no problem that cannot somehow be put to rights by an interfaith forum. Far from diluting the peculiarly English brand of Christianity, the ethos of multiculturalism is in many ways the quintessence of it.

Nevertheless, as the schism over homosexuality that is dividing Anglicanism itself has served wearyingly to demonstrate, compromise depends on people's willingness not to push their own convictions too far. Unfortunately--or fortunately, according to on one's point of view--not everyone is prepared to sacrifice deeply held principles on the altar of muddling through. Inevitably, the more grandstanding there is, the less sustainable becomes the fiction that people's beliefs and ethics are all somehow of a kind. The big tent starts to look ragged, to come apart at the seams. A suspicion grows that the philosophy paraded daily on Radio 4's Thought for the Day just might be wrong, and that the various gods namechecked before the eight o'clock news might not, in fact, all be the same.

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The resulting sense of dislocation is hardly unique to our own times. The pagans of classical antiquity, who would cheerfully adopt the gods of alien pantheons and mix and match them with their own, were invariably brought to experience this sense of dislocation whenever they confronted Christianity's one true God. Christians in turn might sometimes feel a similar uneasiness when obliged to contemplate the deity of Islam.

For instance, it is said that shortly after Muhammad's death in 632AD the followers of the Prophet sent an embassy to Heraclius, the Christian emperor in Constantinople, demanding the surrender of his dominions and his conversion to Islam, on pain of invasion. "These people," the emperor is said to have responded in some bemusement, "are like the twilight, caught between day and nightfall, neither sunlit nor dark--for although they are not illumined by the light of Christ, neither are they steeped in the darkness of idolatry.

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Kingdoms Not of This World: To Imagine That Islam Can Be Transformed with a Little Nudge Here and There into a Kind of Church of England with Hijabs Is Absurd, Writes Tom Holland. for Christians and Muslims Worship Different Gods, and This Has a Huge Influence on the Relationship between Religion and State, Even in the Modern World
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