Thursday, 19 May 2011

Charitable giving & education - Islam and an investment model of morality

Call it synchronicity, call it mere coincidence, call it an over-active imagination, but - 

Not long after my recent post on lifelong learning, I went to a Quran reading for a friend’s deceased parents held at a London mosque.  The mosque was  frequented mostly by Pakistanis, was an impressive structure and, given the leaflets and notices on display, seemed popular and well run. 

I assumed that it had been funded by money from Saudi Arabia, but a lady assured me that it had, in fact, been built through donations from the local community.  She went on to explain how her husband, a veteran fundraiser, had discovered over the years that money was always forthcoming for mosques, cemeteries and Quran schools.  However, when he had tried to raise money to build ‘ordinary’ schools 'back home', few seemed interested.  This struck me as strange – and depressing. 

Later, I reflected on the short sermon given by the imam at the end of the reading.  Apparently, according to the Prophet, such Quran readings generated extra credit in the deceased’s ‘good deeds account’ on Judgement Day - or in common parlance, brownie points to aid entry into Paradise.  Sweet.  (So, if your parents end up in hell, it'll be your fault for not holding enough Quran readings on their behalf!)  This triggered a chain of thoughts:

-> hadiths quite often link the doing of a particular deed to benefits on Judgement Day –do this and X sins will be forgiven, do that and you will receive so many good deeds, recite this so many times ... ->

-> The religion appeared to have a rather low opinion of its adherents if it felt that moral behaviour could only be induced by offering these ‘bribes’ – as if there was no other reason for doing good.  (Granted, Islam is not alone in this and it is common to most religions.)  ->

-> I remembered a saying I had heard quite often as a child: paradise lay at the feet of your mother.(No, I was not horrid to my mother nor particulary naughty!)  Thinking about this now, I find it shocking – what kind of people need to be bribed (with heaven or anything) to love their own mother? 

More generally, how might this trade in good deeds shape their view of morality?  And what does this say about the religion’s ability to win the moral argument? (Some would argue that it had long since lost it by the morally dubious if not plain ridiculous 'pricing' of martyrdom at 72 virgins, but we will leave that for another post!)

Of course, the Prophet was a trader by profession, so perhaps the metaphors of bargaining, pricing and returns came naturally to his thinking.  Perhaps the people he was preaching to also had trader mentalities, although this dents somewhat the much-trumpeted claim that Islam is a universal religion for all time.  Moreover, given that Islam was a new movement, spreading the word and bringing more people into the ‘fold’ were no doubt important.  (There are several hadiths regarding the benefits of building mosques, with one even promising an equivalent house in paradise.) 

But 1400 years later, Islam is a global religion with a significant presence.  The problem for it and Muslims today is not quantity, but quality.  There might be more than a billion Muslims in the world, but the vast majority are illiterate and live in countries that rank as the most dishonest, corrupt and dirty, with appalling human rights - hardly a recommendation for the religion now, is it? 

Schools on the other hand, are more ambiguous.  While the Prophet might have urged his followers to travel as far as China in search of knowledge, as far as I know this didn’t increase one’s chances of getting into Paradise.  So, like canny businessmen, were people merely following earlier advice that offered the best and surest  ‘returns’ in the next life?  And with morality so firmly based on rewards in the afterlife, no wonder the Prophet made such a fuss about the importance of believing in a heaven and the next world!  

Or am I just being cynical? 

But what are the effects of such a view?  Ostensibly, the strategy could be seen as clever – a win-win situation: the donators get into heaven, and the money brings in not just more recruits but hopefully observant Muslims that benefits the rest of society.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way.  I think this is due to a combination of adopting a narrow view of what constitutes religious practice and of education generally.

In his book Desperately Seeking Paradise, Ziauddin Sardar mentions an encounter with a minister for science and research in one of the Gulf states.  Mr Sardar was anxious to discuss the ministry’s research, but always received the same response:  “‘Why bother about it when we can afford to buy it?’” (p120)  (This cavalier attitude hasn't dimmed over the years, it seems.  Amidst the recent Arab Spring of protest against oppressive regimes, the Saudi king announced huge increases in stipends for Saudi citizens - no doubt to buy their loyalty and acquiescence.)  With such an attitude, it might explain why these ‘nations’ import architects to design their hideous and inappropriate buildings (that are built by labourers mainly from the Indian subcontinent and who are treated almost like slaves – not much after-life credit to be gained in being humane to them, I suppose?); and why the tar on roads – developed for a different climate - melts and bubbles in the intense heat.  They couldn't be bothered to use the few brain cells they have to come up with their own solutions to their own problems.

Meanwhile, it is well-known that that same wealth funds a significant (if not major) part of the madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan (and other parts of the world) - in the name of spreading Islam!  However, the issue is not of madrassas, per se - for these establishments can be a force for good.  Rather, it is the narrow notion of education that is limited to a religious context defined by the self-appointed 'clerics' or 'ulema'.

On 4 January 2011, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards for attempting to reform the obnoxious blasphemy laws in the country.  The next day, the BBC World Service’s News Hour featured an interview by Owen Bennett-Jones with Tariq Khattak, the editor of an English daily The Pakistan Observer.  Mr Khattak saw nothing wrong with the murder, thought the governor had it coming to him and appealed to the opinion of certain mullahs in Pakistan to support his outrageous view.  It is worth mentioning that for an editor of an English newspaper, his command of the language was rather poor.

Mr Bennett-Jones questioned both the rationale for killing merely for dissenting, the issue of differing interpretations of texts and the editor’s acceptance of the views of men whose education was limited to a theological framework.  Limited only according to him, the editor replied defiantly, but in their eyes (and presumably the editor’s) these mullahs were sufficiently educated.  And there the matter rested. 

Had it been just the editor, one could have dismissed him as a lone idiot, but there are many in the country who support his view.  More alarmingly, a significant number of lawyers were keen to defend the murderer in court.  One has to question the moral reasoning of such lawyers - to say nothing of the quality of education they received - to want to defend such cold-blooded murder.  What hope is there of building a civil, law-abiding society - something sorely lacking in most Muslim countries. 

Alarmingly, this attitude is not confined to the backstreets of Pakistan, but is alive and kicking in London as well - as is evidenced by the sickening story of a Religious Education teacher beaten up (and almost killed) by four conservative Muslims - who remain unrepentant.  (see )

So, on the one hand it is heartwarming to see Muslims giving so generously to help themselves, even if motivated by self-interest - especially, given the huge amounts of money governments spend on defence compared with education, unaware that their biggest enemy is not India, Israel or Zionists, but the ignorance that festers within their own borders and their own minds. 

However, would it not also be admirable if thought were given to how that generosity is employed?  If morality is to be based on an investment model (and I am not suggesting that it should), is it not advisable for investors to periodically check the performance of their ‘portfolio’?  Is it not incumbent to ask if the enterprise conforms - and continues to conform - to what the religion claims to uphold?  And if the charity benefits the giver, is it not also incumbent that it does likewise to the receiver too?

Or do the givers prefer to remain blissfully unaware of the havoc it wreaks on others?  Is that havoc also part of the credit system and religion they subscribe to? Do they think they get a ‘commission’ on each atrocity committed – the better to secure their entry into paradise?    

But wouldn’t it be ironic if on the Day of Reckoning, their accounts were shown to be swollen by misdeeds – misdeeds generated by the money they gave with Paradise in mind, and now good only to propel them in the opposite direction?  No number of Quran readings, then, would be of any use.  Unfortunately, it would also be too late for the country and of little comfort to those whose lives have been ruined by this sordid trade in ‘good’ deeds.

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