Theologian and scholar Karen Armstrong says the great religions’ sacred texts have been misused to inflame selfishness, bigotry and even murderous hatred.
Karen Armstrong, 74, theologian and scholar, is on the phone from her book-lined study in an 18th-century house in Islington, London, where she has spent much of her life studying and writing about humanity’s search for god.
And she is just warming up to the topic of her latest book, The Lost Art of Scripture, in which she argues that the original sacred texts of religion – not just Christianity but all religions – have been misread, misinterpreted and misused to inflame selfishness, bigotry and – as seen in the March attacks in Christchurch – hatred.
“There’s a lot of inequity and literalistic interpretation, which goes entirely against the scriptural genre. I was brought up badly as a Catholic child: we didn’t think Protestants were going to go to heaven, never mind Muslims or Jews. We are horribly tribal and ideologically divided from one another in this respect.”
That level of tribalism is growing. Most of the world, Armstrong says, is becoming more religious (the UK and New Zealand are exceptions). “If you look at China and Russia, where religion was banned for many years, they are now coming back to all kinds of religion.”
In 1969, after seven years as a sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Armstrong turned her back on Catholicism. Her intention, she wrote in 2009, was to have “nothing whatsoever to do with religion”, but decades spent studying other religions led her to “revise” her views. In 2008, she founded the Charter for Compassion, an international initiative seeking support from practitioners of all religions for the so-called golden rule, that we should treat others as we want to be treated.
What concerns her now is not the rise of religion in itself, but the fist-pounding, gun-toting, scripture-waving fundamentalism sprouting from a bed of biblical literalism, ideological misuse, political fervour and theological misunderstanding that has nothing, nothing she insists, to do with the original intent of the world’s sacred texts.
“There is a lot of crazy religion around,” she says, “so it is important we understand the complexity of the scriptural genre because people are reading it with a kind of simplicity that distorts it.”
That simplification could be a 101 class in extremism. Christian premillennialism, for example – the belief in Jesus’ return to Earth – anticipates an “end time” when born-again Christians “will relish the torments of their enemies from the safe vantage point of heaven”. And there is no shortage of those who believe in that as literal fact.
The Christian Reconstructionist movement is one of a number of American evangelical organisations trying to transpose Bronze Age Hebrew law into the 21st century. Founded in the 1980s, it is seeking a return to ancient biblical laws, including the reintroduction of slavery, the execution of homosexuals and the stoning of disobedient children.
US President Donald Trump has recently sought to dial back his statement that he was the “chosen one” in relation to trade with China, insisting it was a joke, an instance of sarcasm. But the comment was an uncomfortable echo of the new Netflix mini-series The Family, based on US journalist Jeff Sharlet’s investigation of the evangelical, right-wing Christian organisation called The Fellowship, which has been secretly influencing US politics since the 1930s. It reveals a disturbingly totalitarian ideal of a world run by “key men” chosen to rule over the rest of us, and identifies Trump as perhaps the ultimate Fellowship president.
In Islam, the 19th-century teachings of reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab encouraged all Muslims, men and women, to study scripture and the customary practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet and his companions. Like Martin Luther, Armstrong explains, al-Wahhab wanted to return to the earliest teachings of his faith and eject all later medieval accretions. He therefore opposed Shia and Sufism, until then the most popular form of Islam, as heretical innovations. Since then, however, his teachings have been co-opted into a more militant version of Wahhabi ideology and a more intransigent interpretation of the Quran, “which has not only revived seventh-century Islamic punishments but has also condoned the persecution of Shia and Sufi Muslims [because their branch of Islam] developed after the Prophet’s lifetime”.
When the US supported Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, she explains, the Saudi-led Opec imposed an oil embargo on the West, sending the price of oil skyrocketing and giving the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to impose anti-Shiite Wahhabism on the entire Muslim world. Armstrong likens it to a tiny sect in the US Bible Belt suddenly given vast sums of money and international approval to export their form of Christianity around the world.
A whole generation of Muslims, she writes, “has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own”.
Quranic scholar Sayyid Qutb, one of more than 1000 members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood imprisoned by the country’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1954, was radicalised by the brutality of the Egyptian jail where he wrote Milestones, regarded as a foundational work of Islamic extremism. Milestones is based on the Sunnah, the body of traditional social and legal custom and practice of the Islamic community, rather than the Quran. The final “milestone” is jihad, a military campaign ending in the conquest of Mecca. “But Qutb had distorted the Sunnah,” Armstrong argues. By making violent jihad the climax of Muhammad’s prophetic career, he ignored Muhammad’s non-violent peace initiative, which was “the true turning point for Islam”.
In a number of her books, Armstrong has seen it as her civic duty to defend Islam, blaming the extremism and intolerance that have surfaced in the Muslim world in our times on intractable political problems: oil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and the West’s perceived “double standards”.
The Islamic notion of jihad, which had been all but dead, was resurrected, says Armstrong, in response to the second Crusade of the 12th century and the invasion of Mongol armies, which conquered vast swathes of Muslim territory in Mesopotamia and the Volga region. It was not an outgrowth of the inherent violence of the Quran, but the response to a sustained assault from the West.
“But the Quran is not about jihad. After the first four centuries [after Muhammad’s death in 632], the so-called jihad verses that are quoted so much today were declared to be no longer viable or important; they referred only to events in the Prophet’s life and the world had moved on.”
The treatment of women? Entreaties in the Quran for women to “make their outer garments hang low” were designed, she says, to protect Muslim women in Medina from Muhammad’s enemies. Tolerance of other religions? Seventh-century Arabs had no idea of an exclusive religion. “Muslims saw all religions as basically compatible – there is more about Mary in the Quran than there is in the New Testament, but they have worked very hard misreading their scripture to endorse their particularism.”
Even the shahadah – the famous profession of faith that states “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”, which is recognised as the first pillar of Islam – Armstrong translates not as the denunciation of other gods but as an insistence that a Muslim should be devoted to Allah rather than the false gods of wealth, power and status.
Christian belief has gone through similar waves of radicalism. As Puritans in early Massachusetts riffled through the pages of the Old Testament looking for life’s instructions, their counterparts in England were smashing religious statues in cathedrals.
In the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants were so much at each other’s throats they founded the Church of England – “a nice compromise”, says Armstrong. The Reformation now stands as a crucial moment in Christianity’s estrangement from its premodern roots, bringing with it a more “reductive” view of God, based on belief rather than ritual and practice, reflecting our own prejudices and bringing with it some “awful” modern hymns.
Centuries-old habits of misreading the scriptures have less to do with spirituality than with fear, ignorance, politics and, in more recent times, nationalism.
“Nationalism is a form of religion,” says Armstrong. “It gives us a sense of purpose; it makes us feel we belong to something greater than ourselves, something we are ready to lay down our lives for. When you hear the national anthem, your heart swells and you feel you belong. But look at what nationalism has done in the short history of the nation state.”
The question is of urgent relevance at a time when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stripped Indian-controlled Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, of its autonomy. The move has stamped India – the world’s largest democracy – as a Hindu country rather than a secular republic.
In her 2015 book, Fields of Blood, Armstrong writes that Zionism is rooted more in secular nationalism than in any religious imperative (although the two, she has admitted, are difficult to disentangle). And Brexit, she says now, is “viscerally anti-immigrant”.
“After the referendum, hate crimes in London increased by 48%. I was a trustee of the British Museum at that time and visitors were coming in and yelling at members of museum staff who were not Caucasian, saying they had to go home. That is what has been unleashed by this hideous vote. Let’s make Britain great again – that means let’s not have foreigners here, which is insane. We need them.”
Again and again, Armstrong hammers home the belief that it is not religion at fault, but the misuse of religion. After 9/11, she highlighted the perpetrators’ ignorance of Islam. “Only 20% of them had a regular Muslim upbringing,” she said in an interview. The rest were new converts, non-observant or self-taught.
The Taliban, she says, were originally war orphans from Afghanistan. “About three million were brought into Pakistan and put into these very hard-line madrasas [schools] – traumatised war orphans being instructed in Islam by very right-wing retrograde exclusive mullahs. This has produced the mess of the Taliban. It is as much Afghan tribalism as it is Islam.”
Two young men who left Birmingham in 2014 to join the jihad in Syria prepared for their mission by reading Islam for Dummies, which they had ordered from Amazon. The two Kouachi brothers who took the lives of 12 people in the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris the following year weren’t devout Muslims, Armstrong says. “They met in prison for petty crimes and were living in those dreadful slums outside Paris. One of them couldn’t even tell the difference between Islam and Catholicism. He got radicalised when he saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib, then became rabidly anti-Christian and anti-West.”
How did the apple fall so far from the scriptural tree? Armstrong argues that it is only recently that more authority has been ascribed to the written text than to the oral tradition. Traditionally, very few people read their scripture: many were illiterate in any case and few could get their hands on the original texts, so the teachings “were memorised and performed with music, which evokes the more intuitive and inclusive and empathic activity of the right hemisphere of the brain”.
“It made it easier for you to be inventive and you were told to be inventive about it so you get the essential dynamic of what the religions are trying to do: to transcend ourselves, our selfishness and bigotry – all of these incredible insights into how we can live together creatively and justly and kindly.”
All the scriptures, she insists, should be read as myths, as “works of the imagination intended to achieve the moral and spiritual transformation of the individual in a spiritual, allegorical and moral sense as demanded by the times”. Instead, we treat them as historical documents, recording facts that are immutable and inviolable. We extract isolated passages, or “proof texts”, to be read as literal endorsements of uncertainty and intolerance. We read them cold on the page, she writes, “like studying an opera libretto without the music”.
Search for transcendence
In The Lost Art of Scripture, Armstrong ranges across the ages to help us hear that “music”, unravelling the sacred texts of India, China and the three Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Common to all of these, she argues, again veering down a side path of left brain-right brain theory, is the idea of transcendence, the sense of something bigger than ourselves.
“That is part of our human condition. We have all had moments when we were touched deeply within and lifted momentarily beyond ourselves – in dance, poetry or music. Our brains are constructed in this way and that is part of our lives.”
But the major religions also have in common a focus on empathy and justice.
“All the scriptural traditions, from the biblical to the Chinese, insist on that fundamental duty of compassion and empathy, of not building my own little nest in heaven – that is no more religious than paying into your retirement annuity for a comfortable life in the hereafter. We are supposed to go back into society and work for a better and more just world.
“In China, for example, very early in the 11th century BC, they developed the Mandate of Heaven, which said heaven would take away the mandate to rule from a ruler who abused the peasantry. All states misused the peasantry; that is the great injustice of the agrarian society. And that is the story of Buddhism: we often see images of Buddha locked in contemplation, but he insisted, after enlightenment, that the monks go back into the world and try to heal the suffering.
“The message is political – it is about equality and justice – but we are living in a world that is utterly inequitable, where there is massive disparity of wealth. Britain is a relatively rich country, yet this year record numbers of people have been sleeping on the streets in London. I don’t hear the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Archbishop of Westminster or the Chief Rabbi coming out to say this is not right, that something must be done.”
If we forget that religion is about the imagination and moral striving, rather than the strict observance of unvarying doctrinal truths, she says, “we are going to hell in a handbasket”.
True to her urban-hermit reputation, Armstrong’s study is her religion. When not on tour – she visits Pakistan regularly to give talks on Islam – she is working from 9am until 6pm.
“I am studying intensively all the religious traditions – it is a spiritual quest for me. I was enthralled by the Chinese in writing this book and I felt I learnt so much from them, but I can’t see any of them as superior to any other. Each has its own particular insight and each has its particular flaws or failings.”
Should we be teaching our children about these similarities – and differences – between the main religions?
“Yes, I do think so, because the way we read religious texts today borders on the idiotic.”
She quotes the UK’s former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks: “Every scriptural canon has within it texts which, read literally, can be taken to endorse narrow particularism, suspicion of strangers, and intolerance towards those who believe differently than we do. Each also has within it sources that emphasise kinship with the stranger, empathy with the outsider, the courage that leads people to extend a hand across boundaries of estrangement or hostility.”
And now, more than ever before, she says, we need that courage. “We are now one world. Our economies are profoundly intertwined, we all share the same possibility of environmental catastrophe, we are drawn together more closely now than we ever were before. So, we need to go on studying them – not just saying what they say, but saying, ‘How can we bring some of these important insights to bear on some of the problems we are struggling with today?’
“Religion is a part of us. We are tribal peoples, but we can’t afford to be tribal peoples now.”
This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.