The Koran in Church

I have been meaning to write something about the reading of Surah 19 in a Scottish Cathedral on 17th January. This led to the resignation of one of the Queen’s 33 Honorary chaplains, Gavin Ashenden, who wanted to conduct his own campaign against the Cathedral and against the priest who had arranged the event. For Gavin Ashenden, what happened was blasphemous.

A number of issues have been raised- that the priest who made the arrangements, the Cathedral Provost, Kelvin Holdsworth, is gay, that the Koran was read by a woman and a Shi’ite and so on. All largely irrelevant, and actually when all is considered, things to be grateful about rather than to condemn. So the real focus is the text of Surah 19, which the sensationalist press and the rev Ashenden, claimed “denies the divinity of Christ”. It does not. Here is a photograph of Madinah Javed reciting the Surah. At the bottiomof the blog is a video recorded in the Cathedral of her recitation. It is, in itself, rather beautiful.

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This is what Rev Ashenden wrote to “The Times”:

“Quite apart from the wide distress (some would say blasphemy) caused by denigrating Jesus in Christian worship, apologies may be due to the Christians suffering dreadful persecution at the hands of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“To have the core of a faith for which they have suffered deeply treated so casually by senior Western clergy such as the Provost of Glasgow is unlikely to have a positive outcome.

“There are other and considerably better ways to build “bridges of understanding”.”

There is nothing new in reading the Koran in a Scottish Cathedral. It has been done before, in front of the Moderator of the Church of scotland, in front of Archbishop Winning. And the passage chosen had been read before in Churches in Scotland on a number of occasions. It celebrates the belief in Islam in the Virgin birth, and is also just one instance when Mary is celebrated in the Koran. Mary, after all, is mentioned far more in the Koran than in the Christian Bible and Mary is the only woman to be mentioned by name in the Koran.

In his blog, the Chaplain writes about “Kelvin Holdsworth’s lack of awareness, and his carelessness” which may well be cause for alarm and he also highlights the issue that caused him distress. Towards the end of the Surah are three verses which question the idea that God should have a son, the Christian claim, specifically 19.91 and 19.92:screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-09-50-36

In the reports circulating on Twitter, the chaplain insists that the Surah specifically denies the Divinity of Christ, which frankly is not the case. It is a passage that may be taken to defend such a denial, but the text itself does not do that. It deals with the lives of Zakariyya. Maryam, Jesus, Yahya (John), Abraham, Ishmael, and Enoch (Idris). It reproduces the Christian message of “glad tidings”, so it is a good companion piece to the New Testament, though it also adds “warnings”. There are warnings about who might intercede to God and as this passage traditionally was to have been recited to a neighbouring Christian King, Negus, it is likely that the passage implicitly challenges the orthodox belief in the intercession of the Theotokos, but it is implicit, not explicit and many anglicans absolutely reject this belief anyway. The only explicit statement that might worry a Christian congregation is the statement above that God should not be thought to have a son.

Reciting the Surah traditionally confers great blessings.

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The variety of belief accepted in the Anglican communion today is remarkable. Indeed, it is only recently in 1984, that the Archbishop of York, Dr David Jenkins, denied the Virgin birth. This is a passage from the Koran that, in contrast, celebrates both parthenogenesis and the role of Mary in the Christian narrative!

I applaud the Provost, therefore, in promoting interfaith, and particularly during the service of Epiphany. This is the time when the magi visited Jesus- when people of different faiths and backgrounds came to the home of the infant child and brought him gifts. In the Orthodox tradition, it is also a celebration of the Baptism of Christ.

Following the Chaplain’s intervention (he was not at the service, and maybe the term “bullying” would be more appropriate), the Archbishop of Glasgow has apologised for any distress caused. I really cannot see that there was any reason at all to apologise. We need to promote ties with Islam, welcome strangers, rejoice in mutual kindness and celebrate what we hold in common if we are to challenge extremism.

The Provost is no stranger to controversy. Here he is discussing gay marriage on “Songs of Praise”:

Palmyra needs saving

Palmyra or Tadmor was a place famed for barbarity and splendour. And history has so far seen fit to preserve its architectural merits lest we forget. It was a place of astounding progress and beauty. I remember a friend had a girlfriend with the improbable name of Zenobia. She was named after one of the great queens of Palmyra who led an invasion against Rome at about the same time Russell Crowe was fighting in the arena in Gladiator I think.

Personally, every time I read CS Lewis’ first Narnia book- or the first one chronologically, “the Magician’s Nephew”- and every time I read the chapter set in Charn, I think of Palmyra’s desert landscape and majestic, yellow columns. I am afraid if ISIS has its way, it will be more like Charn than ever.

The city itself was inhabited in some form until early in the 20th Century when the border arrangements negotiated at the end of the 1st World war made it possible to move inhabitants into a nearby village and begin archeological excavations in earnest. What emerged was wonderful though this is today threatened by the seizure of ISIS.

Silk road

Palmyra preserved a prosperous society that was on a crossroads, was famed for its peculiar mix of Aramaic and Greek, a city at one end of the silk road, probably the last great stop on the caravan trail from Uzbekistan to Istanbul or conversely, the first great stop on the road to Samarkand.

Solomon/ Suleiman

Before ISIS, many people claimed ownership of Palmyra, not least King Solomon, (in arabic and the Koran, Suleiman or Sulayman regarded as prophet and king) who supposedly fortified the city (2 Chron 8:4). In Islam and Judaism, Solomon is presented as an icon of Wisdom. He was also the husband of many wives…Anyway, when it comes to the later Jewish writings, there was certainly enough intermarriage still going on in the post-biblical period for Tadmor/Palmyra to be singled out in the Talmud.

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Talmud debate

A mamzer is a child born to a gentile man and a jewish woman. While thoroughly Jewish, the child faces some limitations in terms of marriage. (the Talmud, incidentally assumed that Jesus is a mamzer, the son of Miriam and a roman soldier probably called Pantira. It might explain the tradition that Jesus was unmarried in a society where all men were married off routinely) The talmud (Yevamoth 16, a-b, which deals mostly with marriage laws relating to close relatives) worries about accepting converts from Palmyra. It worries specifically that they may be children of the former slaves of Solomon or that they might be “daughters of Jerusalem”, descendants of those girls seized by the assyrians and taken into exile. I am not sure how this section should best be interpreted – that these people do not need to convert because they are inherently Jewish seems the most probable understanding. But it helps to colour the image of a city that lay on a crossroads and had its own multi-faith society.

Odenaethus

One of the giants of Palmyran society was Odaenathus, or “little ear”, a puppet king in the final days of the Roman empire before it moved on to Byzantium. He was already using the title “King of Kings” and had he not been assassinated may have had plans on the Imperial throne in Rome itself. Zenobia was his second wife.

Why destruction is wrong

Today, very few people have seen Palmyra- neither the little town that has grown up around the ancient ruins, nor the ruins themselves. And what is worrying now is that few will ever again see Palmyra. Should we care? Indeed we should! Not just because of the intricacy and brilliance of the architectural decoration, but also because we should never smash and destroy those artifacts we do not understand or just because we are annoyed with other people. That way is a temper-tantrum worthy of a spoilt child. The wanton destruction, indeed, done in the name of ISIS is actually against all the traditions of Islam which saw in the early centuries the careful collection of pagan texts from Greece and India and their translation into arabic- this fused ideas and gave us modern Mathematics as well as the kickstarter to the Western renaissance. What Islam has always done best is to appropriate and convert whatever it finds. This is how the Church of Agia Sophia survived till today by plastering over the mosaics and by adapting the existing building to the needs of a new Religion.

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By studying and appropriating the architecture of Agia Sophia, the great master Sinan was able to develop the blueprint for the modern Mosque. The destruction of history in Syria and Iraq, in contrast, is just another demonstration that ISIS is an heretical manifestation and Islam needs to hurry up and- as a world-wide community- condemn terrorism for what it really is. It is brutal, destructive and thoughtless.

Some examples of Persian/etc miniature depicting Suleiman, Prophet and King:

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But Palmyra is even more important- it was built on the orders of a Koranic prophet سليمان Solomon or Suleiman, a divinely appointed Monach, a man who tradition tells us ruled the Jinn and also spoke to animals, a man who, above all, was faithful to God throughout his long and prosperous life- Sura: 27:15 – it is not right to destroy what the wisdom of God has given to us. The wisdom of God in Greek is Hagia Sophia, the name of the Church that was converted into a Mosque in 1453 and is now a museum in Istanbul.

Challenge
If Palmyra was indeed built on the orders of King Solomon, a man venerated in all three great religions, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, it is probably best to preserve what in wisdom he commanded to be built or at least to be protected. It is a challenge, then, with their history of iconoclasm, to see what ISIS intends, for if they destroy this site, then they are destroying something that was protected by a prophet, a great architectural work inspired by God-given wisdom. Can ISIS dare to be greater than Solomon in all his glory? I wonder.