Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Understanding Islam

As a Summerfield Trustee, one of my proudest achievements was to establish the Summerfield Lecture within the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. Our first lecturer was the then little-known Will Hutton, trailing his seminal book, The State We're In. As grant givers, we wanted to be visible within the community so those in need of funds would know where to come, but more than this I felt we had a responsibility to explore big ideas - and where more appropriate to do this than within our own local festival of ideas?

The Summerfield Lecture seems to have morphed in recent years: last night's featured Fiona Reynolds, on the role of the National Trust: admirable speaker, but hardly cutting edge stuff. (Perhaps this is sour grapes - I am not now invited.)

Which yesterday was just as well, as another foundation, now well enmeshed in our Festival, provided an excellent alternative at the same hour: Coexist have sponsored a number of challenging events this year, including Mary Robinson's, in their quest for an expansion of what they term religious literacy. To the extent that hostility to faith-based ideas stems from ignorance, they must be on the right track.

Certainly "Understanding Islam" was a revelatory session - and (judging by the searching questions it elicited) not just for us. Why don't you hold things sacred? the Muslim world asks. Is the price of our intellectual freedom that nothing is sacred?

A London-based Imam, Shaykh Ahmad Saad al-Azhari recited (aided by his iPad) four separate passages from the Qur'an; each one was then translated by commentator Abdul-Rehman Malik, and expanded upon by both the Imam and Dr. Mona Siddiqui (her voice familiar from Thought for the day).

We learnt that for Islam, the God of Abraham is a secret God, longing to be known. So he gives love, but he is not, as for us Christians, love itself. We believe he has revealed himself in the person of Jesus: Jesus (for Muslims) is both the bridge and the gulf - immaculately conceived by Mary, yes, but though of divine spirit, the servant, not the son of God.

We were told this was just a taster session, but I've said it before: we need a follow up mechanism, so that those whose minds are fired up by Festival events can meet again to help one another further along their paths of discovery. Come on, organisers! Where is the Cheltenham Continuing Festival... of Ideas?

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