Peace, one and all…
Here in (not so) sunny Merthyr Tydfil, it’s shortly after 9:30 pm. The kids are asleep (al hamdu lillah) and I’ve just finished watching a really fascinating documentary on More4 (a subsidiary of the UK’s Channel 4). The topic of this documentary was The Doomsday Code and was hosted by Tony Robinson (of Blackadder and Time Team fame). Having watched many of Tony’s programmes (including an excellent and deeply personal account of his mother’s dementia), I was deeply fascinated by his careful navigation through this difficult area.
For those unfamiliar, the Doomsday Code Robinson was referring to is the End Times prophecy of certain evangelical Christian churches (of Left Behind fame). Such beliefs focus on the biblical Book of Revelation and see in it a very literal account of the ending of the world and what that means for humanity in the near future. Essentially, they see the text of Revelation as predicting a series of imminent and deadly plagues, famines and other disasters, amidst scenes of appalling violence. This culminates in the Rapture (in which the Christian faithful are taken up into heaven), and eventually, the rise of the Anti-Christ and the ending of the world at the Battle of Armageddon.
Heady stuff, then, perhaps. Robinson’s main purpose was twofold. Firstly, he wanted to understand the ideas behind these teachings. To this end, he spoke to a number of key preachers of End Times philosophy. Secondly, he was keen to understand the imapct that End Times beliefs are having in the world today. Although I tuned in late, his first main point was with regards to the Middle East. He pointed out the strong links between the promulgators of these beliefs and the state of Israel. He argued that the stark and radical deployment of this doctrine was having an adverse effect on relationships with Islam and the Muslim world.
He then explored the impact of End Times doctrine on the developing world, namely Uganda. He quite rightly cited the many good works performed by Christian missionaries (of this particular strand). However, he noted (and very effectively in my opinion) the impact on Ugandans themselves; a number of commentators described the rise in HIV infection rates (as a result of a new insistence on abstinence rather than condoms), and other such social ills. These were directly related to the world-rejecting and world-abandoning ideas behind this teaching (according to Robinson).
In the third and final section of the programme, Robinson went to Patmos (the Greek island on which the Book of Revelation was said to have been written), where he explored more traditional ideas, as well as those of some academic/professional theologians. The basic upshot of this part was an attempt to offer all-important historical and theological context for Revelation (something lacking it seems from most contemporary readings).
All in all, it was a deeply fascinating programme, well researched and sensitively handled and executed. As a historian (it still feels odd describing myself in this manner), and as a Muslim, this documentary raises some interesting and important issues.
Firstly, modern readings of religious scriptures in general, and apocalyptic texts in particular, often completely fail to understand the context of the work in question. Although there is a distinction, perhaps, to be drawn between literal and more esoteric interpretations of text, the failure to understand context feels rather like cutting away a ship’s anchor: the ship is then left to drift, or more precisely be driven, in any number of directions.
This has theological implications. I am, of course, not a Christian, but it seems to me that this reading of Revelation is unconditionally exclusivist. This is a strong and well recognised thread in Christianity (and indeed, in religions in general), obviously. On a personal note, I’ve never been able to get my head around the idea that God saves only one group (usually, disappointingly small) and damns all others. [There are many Muslims, and others, who share this approach to salvation]. It just doesn’t tie in with my own experience of God. But, then, these are matters of faith, I suppose and not readily available to the same kinds of rational exploration.
Tony made one very good point: radical and unflitered belief in End Times philosophy ultimately removes the need to work in this world, as all that believers are required to do is await the imminent end. Seeing this with my inner eye, this feels like a cop out: an attempt to pass over responsibility for our human shortcomings. It feels similar to that understanding of Jesus (alayhi al-salam) which credits him with the ability to take our sins for us. In a Muslim context, it also feels very much like the need to find the Imam, or the Murshid. As a believing Muslim, and as an aspirant to the Inner Way (one who, moreover, has the utmost respect for the Shia tradition), I am not here referring to these people themselves. Rather, the need that we ordinary mortals (myself included) have to find that person who will carry our loads for us.
My reading of the Path of Tasawwuf is that, ultimately, we must carry our own loads ourselves. Or, as the traditional expression has it:
- Shariah: what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours
- Tariqah: what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is yours
- Haqiqah: there is no mine and yours
Al hamdu lillah, an interesting programme. May God reward those responsible, as it has offered me an opportunity to reflect on life, its purpose and myself. Amin.