Archive | November 2010

Cindy Crawford on Religion? Why the hell not…

I love it when academic journals shock and surprise you in good ways. This was one of those ways:

More recently, supermodel Cindy Crawford has given an even more succinct statement of religious privatism: “I’m religious but in my own personal way. I always say that I have a Cindy Crawford religion – it’s my own” (Redbook, September 1992).’

Yamane, David. 1997. Secularization on Trial: In Defense of a Neosecularization Paradigm. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36, no. 1 (March): 109-122, p. 116.

Way to sum up secularisation in one sentence Cindy! Nice one!

Do the New Atheists err in their ways? A response to Amarnath Amarasingam

I have just finished reading Amarnath Amarasingam’s recent journal article “To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists” (2010), and I really don’t know how to react. I found myself agreeing emphatically with some of his well-researched points, and yet at other times I was hitting the roof at how unfair and inappropriate some of his statements were. To that end, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the article… positive and negative… and hopefully you can draw your own conclusions.

Firstly, Amarasingam writes:

‘The academic community, with a few exceptions, has largely dismissed the[ New Atheists’] writings as unsophisticated, crude, and lacking nuance.’ (574)

This is not necessarily a criticism of Amarasingam, but a criticism of most academic treatments of atheism (‘New’ or ‘old’). What I want to know is what gives the academic community the right to do this? I guess it is possible to do this from a philosophical perspective… but if we are looking at these texts from a religious studies perspective, it is not our place to critique them in this way. Imagine if a religious studies scholar read something by Karl Barth or al-Ghazali and deemed it ‘unsophisticated’, ‘crude’ or ‘lacking nuance’! According to, Amarasingam is a PhD student in Religious Studies, ‘working in the area of sociology of religion with a focus on social theory’, yet he refers to New Atheism as an “evangelical revival and  repackaging of old ideas” and deems the frequency of comments posted in the Converts Corner of Dawkins’ website ‘ad nauseum’.

Amarasingam begins by discussing what he describes as “the fundamental attribution error. This is:

“a pervasive tendency on the part of observers to overestimate personality or dispositional causes of behaviour and to underestimate the influence of situational constraints on behaviour’’

Tetlock, PE, 1985. “Accountability: a social check on the fundamental attribution error” in Psychology Quarterly, 48(3):227-236, p. 227.

Amarasingam states:

‘I am not arguing that secularists are the only group that succumb to attribution biases. Christians may view Muslims as a coherent whole, even though this is far from the case, and Muslims in turn may view secularists with similar biases. However, I focus on the new atheism, because it often presents itself as an objective, value-free, and universal critique of religion en bloc.’ (575)

And continues:

‘One of the most replicated […tendencies that individuals exhibit when attempting to understand why others behave the way they do] is one in which individuals assume that some stable dispositional or attitudinal characteristic lies behind the behaviour of another. [… P]eople often downplay situational reasons for the actions of others while overestimating the significance of dispositional causes.’ (575)

So far so good. I can totally relate to this. As human beings we all too frequently make statements such as “That’s so typical of a…”, without giving that ‘other’ the respect that we would give ourselves by discerning situational reasons for such-and-such an action/statement/belief/etc.

However, Amarasingam suddenly stumbles when he states that ‘It must be noted that religious belief is best treated as a situational cause of individual behaviour, and not as a disposition’ (576). Why is this the case? He provides no justification for making this statement and just assumes that it is obvious. He continues:

‘At times, [New Atheists] effectively treat religion as a social constraint and critique it accordingly. At other times, they treat individual religious actions as if they were dispositional.’ (576)

But is it not both? Doesn’t everyone do this when they assess things? I see his point… we should treat religious actions as both dispositional and situational… but I would imagine that everyone is guilty of focussing on one to the detriment of the other at specific instances in time. The fact that they consider both aspects throughout their writings could be seen as a positive… Just a thought…


Amarasingam then moves on to the following statement from Sam Harris:

‘‘The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not ‘cowards’, as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith – perfect faith, as it turns out – and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.’’(2006, 67)

From this, Amarasingam somehow infers that, ‘For Harris, all that is required to understand the terrorist acts of 9/11 is the knowledge of the fact that these individuals were people of faith. Situational causes – Western injustice, geopolitical realities, etc. – do not need to be factored into the equation’ (576). Whilst I understand the point that he wishes to make, my problem is with the statement ‘all that is required’… Harris does not say this at all. He makes it quite plain that ‘faith’ is what he sees to be the most important element… but he does not say that it is all that is required. That being said, I do agree with his further elaboration that: ‘To continue to argue that religion is about blind faith and not open to discussion and criticism seems disingenuous’ (576).

At this point I had a thought. Could it have been that the idea of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) stopped civilised debate occurring between atheistic and theistic positions before the publications of New Atheistic literature? Could the New Atheists’ books be a deliberate overstatement to force the religious to clarify their position and open up a dialogue?


One of the things that Amarasingam does well, is to draw attention to these massive overstatements which lace the texts of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. He writes:

‘Although there is much in Hitchens’ text to admire, and several philosophical arguments to take seriously, his presentation of basic historical facts about religion as if they are revelatory is rather perplexing, especially since most religious people (not to mention theologians and scholars of religion) have known about them for years.’ (576)

As a ‘scholar of religion’, and someone who has had experience with religious faith, I could not agree more. Most religious people are well aware of the inconsistencies of their religious tradition, and

‘just because [they] have learned to live with inconsistencies in their religious tradition, this does not mean that they practice blind faith. Hitchens’ claim that religion is man-made is particularly revealing as he believes himself, once having stated it, to have made a devastating critique of religion.’ (577)

Just as in science, religious people tend to adapt to new revelatory facts about their faith by accepting, adapting and revising, or stubbornly sticking to old paradigms. This is human nature… the religious do not all, or even mostly, live up to the caricature depicted by many atheists. They do not all stubbornly resist the discoveries of history and science, but take them, work with them, and attempt to understand them and work them into their worldview.

Whilst it pains me to agree with him, the theological critique of John Haught hits the nail on the head, when he writes that in arguing that faith is simply

‘‘‘belief without evidence,’’ the new atheists are undermining ‘‘the intended universality’’ of their condemnation of faith: ‘‘Even one white crow is enough to show that not all crows are black, so surely the existence of countless believers who reject the new atheists’ simplistic definition of faith is enough to place in question the applicability of their critiques to a significant sector of the religious population’’’ (577)

Citing Haught, JF, 2008. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 62

Amarasingam continues to hit the nail on the head, when he finds Dawkins, in an interview on Youtube, stating, in opposition to this criticism, that

‘“it’s no good saying ‘oh, that’s not my kind of Christianity!’ Well fine, it is not your kind of Christianity, but I didn’t write the book for you’’ […]. Such candid statements by Dawkins contradict the intended universality of his writings. It is unclear, then, whether the writings of the new atheists are aimed at religious fundamentalists or religion en bloc.’ (577)


Getting back to the fundamental attribution error, Amarasingam writes:

‘when the group that we are a member of performs a positive act, we are more likely to see that act as stemming from a dispositional trait. But, when this in-group performs a negative act, we are more likely to see it as stemming from situational, contextual, causes. When it comes to the out-group, however, we tend to do the opposite.’ (578)

This certainly makes sense, and is something which Richard Dawkins draws attention to himself.

‘When their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children [considered in an experiment by George Tamarin in Israel] agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. […] But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts in early life. [… Religion] made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.” (Dawkins 2007, 292)

Amarasingam continues:

‘As Pettigrew (1979: 464) has noted, there ‘‘appears to be a positivity bias for intimate others, such that you grant them the benefit of the doubt by attributing positive actions to dispositional causes and negative actions to situational causes’’ […] Similarly, there is often a negativity bias, where the situational constraints of a negative action performed by an individual member of a disliked group are underplayed in favour of dispositional explanations. ‘‘And often when race and ethnicity are involved, these attributions will take the form of believing the actions to be a result of immutable, genetic characteristics of the derogated group in general – the bedrock assumption of racist doctrine’’ (Pettigrew, 1979: 465). Although I am certainly not calling the new atheists racist, they do, as we will see, repeatedly fall victim to what is known as the ‘‘ultimate attribution error’’: whenever a member of the out-group (i.e. adherents to a particular religion) perform a positive act inconsistent with their overall view of the group (i.e. all religious people), the new atheists either dismiss it as an exception to the rule or deny that religion had anything to do with the positive act. The reverse is true when the new atheists deal with their in-group (other secularists).’ (578)

Citing Pettigrew, TF, 1979. “The ultimate attribution error: extending Allport’s cognitive analysis of prejudice” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 5:461-476.

‘As Sam Harris (2006: 78) notes, ‘‘the fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is itself a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness.’’ This is indeed true: faith, and/or religion, is not necessary for people to be good. However, neither is it a sufficient element for the perpetration of evil. Harris (2006: 78–79), however, does not allow for this: ‘‘By contrast, the most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief. This is nearly a truism.’’ Here we see the ultimate attribution error in full bloom.’ (579)

From my own experience of New Atheist literature, this criticism certainly rings true. However, I would disagree when Amarasingam turns to the New Atheist criticism of the Holocaust. Taking Sam Harris’s statement that ‘knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion’’ (2006:79), Amarasingam writes:

‘Such attribution errors are common in the new atheist corpus. Harris does not even attempt to explain why, if Christian anti-Semitism was the sole driving force behind the Holocaust, the Nazis also attempted to eliminate the Romani people, the deaf, the disabled, as well as homosexuals’ (580).

Sam Harris has not stated that Christian anti-Semitism was the “sole driving force” behind the Holocaust, but that the Nazis were fulfilling a path laid by the religious situation in Germany at this time. Whilst it is not debatable that the Holocaust targeted many more people than just ‘the Jews’, these were certainly the primary targets of Hitler’s extermination. And whilst ‘religion’ is not the only factor involved here, a brief glance at the situation of the Jews in Europe in general in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust, and particularly in Germany will demonstrate that the common, and indeed Christian, attitude to the Jews was largely responsible for providing an atmosphere in which the Holocaust could happen.

To take but a few examples of Christian anti-Semitism at the time of Hitler, Joachim Hossenfelder (1932) – wrote that the Church must help “cleanse the German nation of the foreign blood of the Jews”, Reinhold Krause (1933) declared the Old Testament, the apostle Paul, and the symbol of the Cross to be debilitating signs of Judaism, and Bishop Muller (1934) decreed that Hitler was to be considered the supreme authority of the church. This anti-Semitism was not new to the twentieth century, but had been present for many years before, in the writings of, for example, Wilhelm Marr (1879), Heinrich von Trietschke (1880), and of course the composer Richard Wagner, who wrote in 1850 that moneyed Jews “held it wise to make a Christian baptism wash away the traces of [their origin]”, and that “to become man at once with us, however, means firstly for the Jew as much as ceasing to be a Jew.”

I am not wishing to argue here that Christianity was responsible for Hitler. But simply that Amarasingam is being unnecessarily harsh to Sam Harris in this instance. I would thoroughly recommend seeing (Ericksen and Heschel 1999) for more information on this issue.


Turning to the idea of group consensus, Amarasingam writes that:

‘at times, the[ New Atheists] complain that organizing their fellow secular humanists is a bit like ‘‘herding cats’’ because they are ‘‘such independent thinkers,’’ while viewing religion as homogeneously irrational. At other times, they view themselves as a homogeneous, enlightened whole, fighting back superstition.’ (582)

Whilst I agree that there is some ambiguity here, it would be helpful is Amarasingam included some citations (see my previous post). And can these not be the same thing? Can a group of enlightened, independent thinkers, not fight back superstition in their own individual ways? However, this is me simply being a pedant. Continuing once more:

‘When faced with a threatening group, ‘‘perceivers are quite willing to infer the presence of a consensus without much information simply because they want [584] to see the group as a unified whole’’ (Corneille et al., 2001: 440). Such biases will become apparent below when we explore the new atheist treatment of Islam.’ (583-4)

Citing Cornielle O, Yzerbyt VY, Rogier A and Buidin B (2001) “Threat and the group attribution error: when threat elicits judgements of extremity and homogeneity” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27:437-446.

‘For Harris, the out-group, Islam, is indeed thoroughly homogeneous. For example, he argues that ‘‘If a twenty-first century [585] Muslim loses his faith, though he may have been a Muslim only for a single hour, the normative response, everywhere under Islam, is to kill him’’ (2006: 115; italics added). If we are to believe Harris, Muslims, regardless of whether they live in Dearborn or Dubai, live under the fear of death if they even contemplate apostasy. As Corneille et al. (2001: 440) noted, individuals are more than willing to believe there is a consensus in a given community simply because they wish to see this community as homogeneous.’  (584-5)

I could not agree more! This monolithic treatment of Islam is completely and utterly inaccurate and misleading.


Amarasingam begins his conclusion stating that his ‘paper has argued that insights gleaned from social psychology – particularly the fundamental attribution error, out-group homogeneity bias, etc. – are especially useful for critiquing the new atheism’ (585).

As I began this post, so I will say again… yes within the context of social psychology it is definitely okay to make this sort of critique. However, I ask once more: how appropriate is it for a religious studies scholar to be critiquing the position of a group of people who are essentially articulating their position on religion?

That being said, Amarasingam has a point when he cites McGrath and Collicutt McGrath (although the majority of their book is utter twaddle), who state that (2007, 22, 50):

‘similarly note that one of the main characteristics of the new atheism is its presentation of ‘‘the pathological as if it were normal, the fringe as if it were the center, crackpots as if they were mainstream. It generally works well for his intended audience, who can be assumed to know little about religion and probably care for it even less. But it’s not acceptable. And it’s certainly not scientific.’’’ (586)

Drawing attention to another Youtube interview, this time between Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, Amarasingam finds Dawkins confused by Harries’ liberal stance on Christian dogma. On hearing about this, ‘Dawkins responds: ‘‘This, of course, is all music to my ears, but I’m kind of left wondering, why you stick with Christianity at all!’’ Harries (YouTube, 2008a) rightly responds that perhaps Dawkins has spent too much time in fundamentalist circles’ (586).

It is a point…


Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2010. To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 39, no. 4: 573-588.

Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.

Ericksen, Robert P., and Susannah Heschel, eds. 1999. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Harris, Sam. 2006. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: The Free Press.

McGrath, Alister, and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. 2007. The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the denial of the divine. London: SPCK.

The secret to getting elected? A proclamation of faith and a libel suit!

“In the 2008 North Carolina senate race, incumbent Elizabeth Dole accused her Democratic opponent Kay Hagen of being an atheist. This last ditch effort, however, failed to persuade votes to abandon Hagen, the contest’s eventual winner. Like the residents in the union’s others states, North Carolinians simply could not conceive of a nonreligious public figure and simply scoffed at the allegation. Hagen quickly responded with a proclamation of faith and a libel suit. She then charged Dole of wilfully breaking the ninth commandment (thou shalt not bear false witness). Few people considered the fact that unbelief is not a crime, and despite what former presidents have uttered [i.e. George Bush Snr.], atheism is not implicitly unpatriotic. In eighteenth-century New England, women confessed to cavorting with the devil in order to avoid execution on charges of witchcraft; in twentieth-century America, charges and counter-charges of “communist” destroyed careers and ruined lives. With the rise of the Christian Right in the post-Cold War world, the accusation of atheism holds the same power as these earlier scare tactics in its ability to send public figures scrambling for religious cover. Despite a shared past filled with the good words and deeds of nonbelievers, Americans cling to a myth of unimpeachable religio[sity] from the first colony to the “end times.” To question the veracity of this myth is tantamount to resigning from public life. Those who do not heed this advice, such as Thomas Morton, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Robert Ingersoll, find themselves in the dustbin of history.”

Cady, Daniel. 2010. Freethinkers and Hell Raisers: The Brief History of American Atheism and Secularism. In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 229-249. Santa Barbara: Praeger, p. 247.

And this from a country with the following in Article VI of its constitution?

Article VI: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (my italics)”

Cited in Fitzgerald, Timothy, 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 284.

“No religious test” my arse!

Shari’a Law: Where does it come from?

“Islamic” Law… “Shari’a Law”… where does it come from? Not in a geographical sense… but in the simple sense of “where do the majority of Muslims turn to for clarification of the law”? Is it to the Qur’an? Is it to Allah himself? Is it to trained legal specialists? This question is unlikely to produce a definitive answer given that “Islamic law has been alternatively described as a divine law and as a jurists’ law” (Coulson, 1969:3). Its ambivalent nature is further demonstrated by Joseph Schacht who unflinchingly refers to Islamic law as both an “extreme case of a jurists’ law” (1964:209) and as “typical of a ‘sacred law’” (ibid:211). It is evident, whatever the answer, that this question depends upon the definition of some key terms… “Islamic”, “divine” and “jurists.’” If you want a quick 101 on “Shari’a”, please see the relevant section in my earlier post “A very, very short introduction to Islam“.

Before beginning discussion, it is necessary to understand what is meant by Islamic law. Does this law apply to Muslims living in non-Muslim countries, or to non-Muslims living in Muslim countries?  Schacht attempts to answer these questions by indicating that “Islamic law does not claim universal validity.” Rather, “it is binding for the Muslim to its full extent in the territory of the Islamic state, to a slightly lesser extent in enemy territory, and for the non-Muslim only to a limited extent in Islamic territory” (ibid:199). However, one need only look at the media to see that non-Muslim citizens of some Islamic states live very much under “Islamic” law, and that many Muslims living in non-Muslim countries wish to have autonomy to implement their own law. This is largely to do with the recent politicisation of Islamic law “[in conjunction with] modernist legislation on the part of contemporary Islamic governments” (ibid:3). Thus, a compromise is necessary, and for my purposes, “Islamic law” shall refer to law directly related to Muslim religious beliefs and not to the laws implemented by political ‘Islamic’ states, regardless of the incorporation of ‘religious’ law into their codes.

There are two key points that should be made about “Islamic law”. Firstly, Islamic and “Western” law are two quite different things. In fact, “classical Arabic [has] no precise equivalent for the English word “law” in the ordinary, everyday sense” (Weiss, 1998:17). Whilst admitting that his “superficial” summary expresses the difference “in a wholly inadequate way”, Anderson plainly defines “Western law, as we know it, [as] essentially secular, whereas Islamic law is essentially religious” (1959:2). Western law is strongly influenced by Christianity, which “existed for three centuries within a polity that was very much not of its own making” meaning that “Roman law would become the foundational law of the Christian world” (Weiss, 1998:4). In contrast, “Muslims did not appropriate an empire but rather created one,” intending “to bring to the world a new polity and law, replacing all outmoded polities and laws” (ibid:5). However, the distinction is not simply one of sacred versus secular, as “the two other representatives of a ‘sacred law’ which are historically and geographically nearest to [Islamic Law], Jewish law and Canon law, are [also] sensibly different” (Schacht, 1964:1-2).

It is common nowadays to equate “Shari’a law” with “Islamic law,” however, “since the Shari’a includes norms beyond those which constitute law in the strict sense, it is incorrect to equate Shari’a and law simpliciter” (Weiss, 1998:5). Shari’a “is an all-embracing body of religious duties [which] comprises on an equal footing ordinances regarding cult and ritual, as well as political and (in the narrow sense) legal rules” (Schacht, 1950:v). Therefore, “Islamic law” may be characterised as “those rules of the Shari’a that the temporal authority and its judicial representatives are likely to apply and enforce” (Weiss, 1998:21). These important distinctions from the Western conception of law must be recognised in the context of this post.

A second point is, simply, that “there is no such thing as a, that is one, Islamic law” (Vikor, 2005:1). Not only are there geographical variations, accounting “for much of the divergences between the ancient schools of law” (Schacht, 1964:3), but there is another form of Islamic law, siyasa justice, which was/is administered by “the political authorities on the basis of custom, of equity and fairness” (ibid:55) in parallel with the religious courts. This post only focuses on the Shari’a inspired Islamic law which “both does and does not exist, through the many, different, and often conflicting views and individual rules that Muslim scholars have developed.” (Vikor, 2005:1).

Nazreen Kazi’s typical affirmation of Islamic law as a “preordained system of Allah’s commands” (1960:6) is unfortunately not as simple as it first appears. Weiss believes that “it is a presupposition of Muslim juristic thought that the law of God has not been given to human beings in the form of a ready-made code” (1998:22). God’s commands can only be accessed through His revelation which is commonly located in four sources – the Qur’an, the Sunna [traditions], “analogical extensions of rules already established” and the acceptance of an umma [community] wide consensus (Vikor, 2005:31). If the Qur’an is accepted as genuine revelation then a Qur’an based law is clearly a ‘divine law.’ However, “the Qur’an [only] contains some [350 to] 500 verses with legal content” (Hallaq, 1997:3 cf. Vikor, 2005:33) and thus does not provide Muslims “with an all-encompassing or developed system of law” (Hallaq, 1997:5), meaning that other sources are necessary to provide a legal framework. The Sunna of the Prophet are more problematic because of their human transmission. Hadith specialists were required to “evaluate the presumed hadith stories according to [external] criteria” (Vikor, 2005:39), and even among the “canonical” accounts there is the problem of context, which requires recorded laws/decisions to be analogised to fit with contemporary circumstances. This concept of analogical extension played a major part in the early development of Islamic law (Coulson, 1969:4) however, over time “the field of individual decision was continuously narrowed down” (Schacht, 1964:70), resulting in a “retrospective singling out of certain masters of the past as uniquely authoritative” (Weiss, 1998:10). This gradual compilation of legal opinion, resulted in the emergence of “an entire educational institution […] whose primary function was to train scholars in all the disciplines entailed in legal study” (ibid:15). And the concept of consensus is dependent upon the accepted definition of the umma meaning that “’society in some form – all Muslims, or the scholars, or most of them – through their agreement establish that specific legal rules are part of God’s law” (Vikor, 2005:76).

This all-to-brief summary of the four main sources of law raises some interesting points. It is important to realise that a fundamental of Muslim faith is that “law is the divinely ordained system of God’s commands” (Coulson, 1969:1), and that there is universal “refusal to accord to human reason any role in the creation of the law” (Weiss, 1998:38 cf. ibid:37; Schacht, 1964:70). However, there has been a recent resurgence of the belief that “the human reason provides a link between the divine mind and the human mind” meaning that jurists can evaluate, using reason, any legal judgements extrapolated from the texts and reject, on the basis of interpretive error, those judgements that cause conflict (Weiss, 1998:37). And, the concept of consensus means that all schools of law are “deemed to translate into individual legal rules the will of Allah […]; their alternative interpretations are all equally valid, their methods of reasoning equally legitimate; in short, they are equally orthodox” (Schacht, 1964:67). These observations clearly indicate that, at least in the eyes of Muslims, it is correct to consider Islamic law as a divine law. However, “divine authority [has] little value if it [is] not channelled through human instruments” (Weiss, 1998:10 cf. Coulson, 1969:1-2).

Quite apart from accusations that jurists have “invented” Islamic law, there are three main arguments to support referring to it as a jurists’ law. Firstly, the texts of revelation contain “few precisely worded rules of law,” and even if they did “it is the business of the jurists […,] not of prophets, to provide such statements” (ibid:22). Secondly, in opposition to the concept of a “politicians’ law,” Islamic law is very much a jurists’ law. Because the root of Islamic law is enshrined in texts enjoying “canonical status”, the jurists, “far from being beholden to [political regimes, are] in a position to make the regime answerable to them” (Schacht, 1964:16). Islamic Law “was expressed in textbooks as the doctrine of the jurists, not in law reports containing the decisions of the judiciary” (Coulson, 1969:9). And finally, Schacht importantly notes the incorporation of various pre-Islamic elements into Islamic law, such as “the ancient Arab concept of sunna”, the Roman “concept of the opinio prudentzum” and various Stoic influences (1964:17,20). This acknowledgement doesn’t directly support conceiving Islamic law as a jurists’ law, however it does pose a common objection to the ‘divine law’ appellation (which can admittedly be refuted by emphasising God’s omnipotence/omniscience).

This has been a brief discussion of a very complex subject, and unfortunately many aspects of the history of Islamic law, including a discussion of the main schools could not be included. However, it should be sufficient to demonstrate that it isn’t possible to provide a definitive answer to the question of Islamic law’s divine/juristic character. On the one hand, it is evident that its formation occurred “neither under the impetus of the needs of practice, nor under that of juridical technique, but under that of religious and ethical ideas” (ibid: 209). Yet the law is not implemented directly by Allah, but by jurists who have been left the task of interpreting and adapting His revelation to specific circumstances. Schacht importantly notes that “Islamic law is conscious of its character as a religious ideal” (ibid:199), and in this light, with jurists striving after this ideal, “Islamic law is both a divine law and a jurists’ law” (Coulson, 1969:19). Coulson provides a suitable conclusion to this discussion which, although brief and full of generalisations, “is perhaps sufficient to show that in the fully fashioned fabric of the law the threads of divine revelation and human reason are so closely interwoven as to be almost inseparable” (ibid).


  • Anderson, J.N.D., 1959. Islamic Law in the Modern World, London: Stevens & Sons.
  • Coulson, Noel J., 1969. Conflicts and Tensions in Islamic Jurisprudence, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press
  • Hallaq, Wael B., 1997. A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunni Usul-al-Fiqh, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kazi, Nazreen, 1960(?). “Sources of Islamic Law of ‘Fiqh’” in Some salient features of the Islamic law and constitution: this constitution safeguards the interest of Muslims and non-Muslims, Karachi: Pakistan Institute of Arts and Design.
  • Schacht, Joseph, 1950. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Schacht, Joseph, 1964. An Introduction to Islamic Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Vikor, Knut S., 2005. Between God and the Sultan: A History of Islamic Law, London: Hurst & Company.
  • Weiss, Bernard G., 1998. The Spirit of Islamic Law, Athens/London: The University of Georgia Press.

Shills by Day and Pimps by Night

If anyone else has listened to/performed Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” and been confused by the line “The crooks, the whores, the cathouse owners; the shills by day and pimps by night; and yes, those dogs in uniform…”, I have just come across an excellent definition of a “shill”, courtesy of Mr Erving Goffman:

Shillaber, n. An employee of the circus who rushes up to the kid show ticket box at the psychological moment when the barker concludes his spiel. He and his fellow shillabers purchase tickets and pass inside and the crowd of towners in front of the bally stand are not slow in doing likewise.

Goffman, Erving. 1990. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin. p. 146.

You learn something new every day, don’t you?

Facebook Users Take Heed: A Nineteenth-Century Lesson in Online Etiquette

In 1959, one of my new favourite people, Erving Goffman, wrote the following, seemingly common-sensical passage:

“There is hardly a performance, in whatever area of life, which does not rely on the personal touch to exaggerate the uniqueness of the transactions between performer and audience. For example, we feel a slight disappointment when we hear a close friend, whose spontaneous gestures of warmth we felt were our own preserve, talk intimately with another of his friends (especially one whom we do not know).”

Goffman, Erving. 1990. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin. pp. 58-59.

However, it seems that this message is not translating itself in to much of the electronic communication which regular passes below my ever tiring gaze. All over Facebook, I am bombarded with posts on “walls” exclaiming, in various guises:

“You were ALL unbelievably WONDERFUL”

“Love you SO much”

“You are literally the best person in the world EVER”


Or status updates along the lines of:

“<insert name here> LOVES <insert name here> SO MUCH!”

And it isn’t just Facebook… this emotional incontinence [also manifested in the need people feel to electronically burst into tears over various issues, form the most trivial to the most heartwrenching] is creeping in to all forms of communication.

In and of itself, a bit of enthusiastic praise is one thing, and pretty damn nice to be honest. But constantly dishing our ludicrious expressions of joy, love and admiration on a daily basis surely serves to diminish their impact, remove any credibility people might attach to your sentiments, and ultimately lead to a society where people need constant emotional reinforcement whilst never being able to appreciate these sentiments in anything but a trivial, watered-down form, when truly merited.

Maybe I am just being a grumpy old man. Maybe I am behind the times. But seeing this passage in Goffman gave me the push to speak my mind. It seems that the authors of the following nineteenth-century American guide to manners might agree with me.  I hope you will too…

“If you have paid a compliment to one man, or have used toward him any expression of particular civility, you should not show the same conduct to any other person in his presence. For example, if a gentleman comes to your house and you tell him with warmth and interest that you ‘are glad to see him’, he will be pleased with the attention and will probably thank you; but if he hears you say the same thing to twenty other people, he will not only perceive that your courtesy was worth nothing, but he will feel some resentment at having been imposed on.”’

The Canons of Good Breeding: or the Handbook of the Man of Fashion (Philadelphia: Lee & Blanchard, 1839), p. 87.


Humanities & Social Sciences Need Your Help

(If you don’t want to read my un-nuanced rant, please skip straight to the one from the Campaign for the Humanities and Social Sciences and consider signing their petition. I would much rather action was taken on this issue, than people spent time dealing with my ramblings).

The Humanities and Social Sciences are under threat at UK Universities. FACT.

Is this something we should care about? Especially in these ‘troubled times’ when budgets need to be cut? Damn right it is!

Yes I have a vested interest in my own specific subject area of Religious Studies, and I could go on for days about  how I think that it is the most important subject that anyone could study etc etc. But that is not the point. The point is that the UK Government has openly adopted a policy which seeks to protect the ‘worthwhile’ STEM subjects, whilst dramatically cutting funding from the Humanities and Social Sciences, which don’t appear to have immediate financial value to the economy.

Whilst I don’t have time to collect the links now, I can tell you that this tactic will end up costing the UK economy billions, and result in an intellectual and cultural drain on the country which may be irrevocable.  As far as my own subject area of Religious Studies goes, I recently attended a conference for aspiring academics, where the atmosphere was one of incredible doom and gloom. We were basically told 1) if you want to be an academic… don’t… there’s just no point in the UK any more 2) the Arts and Humanities Research Council may not even exist in the next couple of years, which will have dramatic effects on future research in a wide variety of fields 3) A large proportion of the UK’s small number of Religious Studies departments could end up having to close in the near future, as projected student losses of approximately 80 students per department start to take effect, as a result of the funding cuts.

I’m going to stop ranting now, because it is not my opinion that matters – it is yours. And to that end,  if you care at all about the future of Humanities and Social Sciences in UK Universities I urge you to read this (, and sign the petition. If you don’t, I urge you to read this and seriously consider your position.


I died from minerality and became vegetable

This poem was flagged up to me by “JimmyMarshall” on Reddit, and I thought it was worth sharing with the world. It is by the Persian poet Rumi, and well worth a read:

I died from minerality and became vegetable;

And From vegetativeness I died and became animal.

I died from animality and became man.

Then why fear disappearance through death?

Next time I shall die

Bringing forth wings and feathers like angels;

After that, soaring higher than angels –

What you cannot imagine,

I shall be that.

The translation on wikipedia is quite different,  but equally evocative:

I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels bless’d; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones,
To Him we shall return.

Make of this what you will. Every now and again, something just comes into my path that is worth sharing.

I hope you appreciated it.

Thanks JimmyMarshall!



Faith Guides

This is just a really quick post to point you all in the direction of the “Faith Guides” provided  by The Higher Education Academy: Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies.

Although they are designed to give “information to staff in the higher education sector on how best to support students with a variety of religious beliefs”, each guide starts with a proper academically researched introduction to six major “faiths” represented in Great Britain.

I haven’t read them yet myself, but I shall be printing them when I get home. It may turn out that I disagree with something in there… and if I do I shall let you know. But, for now, I think it is a great idea that they have produced these guides, and that they make them freely available on their website.

I hope you find these interesting/useful.



Religion Playing Peek-A-Boo

Love it… the perfect summary of a difficulty associated with the term “religion”:

“In the history of theorising “religion” the term has tended to fidget nervously in its own opaqueness and […has therefore] not infrequently transvested itself to play peek-a-boo behind substitute terms such as “the holy” […] or “the sacred” […]. However, both of these substitute terms are equally mysterious, making their use conducive to explaining obscurium per obscurious, to account for one mystery by means of other mysteries.”

Braun, Willi. 2000. Religion. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 3-18. London: Cassell, p. 5.