Lecture given at the University of Oslo, 18 March 2011
Since the 1960s, the screenwriter Alan Bennett has kept his thumb unerringly close to the British national pulse. He began with the comic series ‘Beyond the Fringe’ with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and then moved through Talking Heads and the Madness of King George, to his recent hitThe Habit of Art, which played last year at the National Theatre. A North Country man who once thought he would be a vicar, formed in the now unimaginable England of the forties and fifties, his humour and determinedly humane scrutiny of the national character make him, perhaps, the nearest thing England has to Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. He remembers the Christian values of close-knit Yorkshire towns of the 1940s, but unfailingly observes the comedy of the new Britain of the iPod, the iPad, and the metrosexual generation.
Bennett recently emerged from a bout of writer’s block to deliver up a short story. His head had been full of ideas, apparently, but they were ‘too bleak to visit on the public’. The story that finally appeared, ‘The Laying On of Hands,’ is, he says, ‘as dark as I could let myself be publicly without being rejected altogether.’ At first blush it is not clear what he means. The story is written with a light touch, and is in places riotously funny. But it does have a sharp point.
The chief character is a young and moderately high-church vicar, and the action takes place entirely in his church, as he conducts a memorial service for Clive, a masseur and rent boy whose services he had himself enjoyed. The congregation, made up largely of the Cool Britannia elite, includes many of the discreet masseur’s other clients. Chat-show hosts and academics are disproportionately represented, of course, but there is also a bishop, a senior Treasury official, and an architect. Some are men, but there are grieving women also, since Clive, like Bennett himself, had been of ambiguous preferences. (In a postmodern world that resents fixed essences of any kind, even the idea of a gay identity seems to have become passé.)
The liturgy cannot, of course, presume any religious commitment on the part of the bereaved. Readings and prayers are generic, and the life hereafter goes unmentioned. Yet the spirit of judgment is in the air. This takes most immediate form in the shape of a diocesan inspector, Archdeacon Treacher, who sits at the back to make notes on the incumbent’s performance. Of course, he is interested only in his liturgical delivery; in the Noughties it is not the vicar’s homosexuality which is the object of judgment. As Treacher reflects,
‘Once upon a time homosexuals had made excellent priests and still could so long as they were sensible. The homosexuals Treacher preferred were dry, acerbic and, of course, unavowed; A.E. Housman the type that he approved of, minus the poetry, of course, and (though this was less important) minus the atheism.’
The other judgment that hangs in the air is that of HIV/Aids. The congregation, free of any concern for their friend’s fate in an afterlife, are pondering their own mortality. Towards the end of an embarrassing and very un-English addition to the liturgy, when the congregants stand up to reminisce about the deceased, it becomes clear that Clive had been killed not by the modern plague, but by a poisonous caterpillar while holidaying in Peru. As this revelation dawns on the congregation, the church seems filled with light, and the burden is lifted. The priest, too, feels that he has been saved.
The dismayed diocesan inspector, formed in a very different age, slips out. ‘He is not entirely to be deplored,’ says Bennett, ‘standing in this tale for dignity, formality, and self-restraint.’
‘Less feeling was what Treacher wanted, the services of the church, as he saw it, a refuge from the prevailing sloppiness. As opportunities multiplied for the display of sentiment in public and on television – confessing, grieving, and giving way to anger, and always with a ready access to tears – so it seemed to Treacher that there was needed a place for dryness and self-control and this was the church. It was not a popular view and he sometimes felt that he had much in common with a Jesuit priest on the run in Elizabethan England – clandestine, subversive and holding to the old faith, even though the tenets of that faith, discretion, understatement and respect for tradition, might seem more suited to tailoring than they did to religion.’
‘Once out of the churchyard the Archdeacon lit up, his smoking further evidence that there was more to this man than has been told in this tale. There had briefly been a Mrs Treacher, a nice woman, but she had died. He would die soon, too, and the Bishop at least would be relieved.’
Of course Bennett seeks neither to edify nor to warn us with this yarn. He merely invites us to reflect on the ironies implicit in a national life where a national church, whose superb buildings and ceremonies offer an image of dignity and restraint to an age in which those principles are strange, still tries to accommodate the diversity of godless Britain. The price, however, is its commitment to kerygma. Preaching, conversion, truth itself, can hardly be appropriate features of such settings.
The ‘tarnished throng’ in Bennett’s church might, he says, ‘be taken as a version of England.’ And a battalion of sociologists will agree. The church today can resemble an eggshell, a membrane of propriety and dignified forms, behind which throbs the secular drumbeat of the modern Mardi Gras: the aspirational yuppie culture cultivated by Thatcher, the feelgood spin of a Labour without socialism, the National Lottery, pole-dancing clubs, Facebook and Myspace.
British Muslim communities have been studied in many ways; but the surely obvious backdrop of the decline of the nation’s religious life has not been sufficiently noted. Perhaps this is symptomatic of the training of many researchers in the older paradigms of the study of that vague thing, ‘race relations’: it was understood that the default normalcy in Britain, a kind of generic whiteness, was permanent. Shift the focus from race to religion, however, and it is not clear that there is an unchanging British default. Understanding the journey British Muslims have made from the 1950s and earlier, to the current new decade, cannot properly be attempted unless we recall that British religiosity, and the value system it supported, have changed almost beyond recognition. At the beginning of this period Muslims found themselves in a largely churchgoing society ruled by Mrs Miniver, where queers were in the closet and nice girls said no. Now, in the words of the Anglican essayist Michael Hampson:
‘Christianity today occupies the same space on the fringes of mainstream culture as any other major or minor religious cult or claim from any continent – spiritualism, astrology, reincarnation – perhaps more respectable than Wicca or clairvoyance but less respectable than reiki or domestic feng shui.’
The statistics need only brief citation. In a 2004 poll, only forty-four percent of British citizens responded affirmatively to the question: ‘Do you believe in God?’ A 2007 Tearfund survey found that 53% of adults in the UK identify themselves as Christians, and only 7% as practicing Christians. Two thirds had not gone to church in the past year. The same survey determined that sixty-six percent of British subjects, that is to say, 32.2 million people, have no contact with the Church or with any other religion. Half of these were once religious, but are now lapsed; the other half (16.2 million) have never experienced membership of any religion.
A British Social Attitudes survey suggests that the percentage of those who say they belong to Christianity has fallen from 66% in 1983 to only 48% in 2006.
The decline of the national church has been even more precipitous, so that in 2007 a survey by Christian Research indicated that for the first time since the Reformation, more people in this country attend Catholic than Anglican services. The average attendance at the Roman mass was 861,000 people, compared with 852,000 who appeared at Church of England services on an average Sunday. The decline in Anglican worshippers reached a vertiginous twenty percent between 2000 and 2006; the decline in Catholic attendance was somewhat less, at 13%, thanks in part to immigration from Catholic countries such as Poland.
Religious illiteracy also appears to be widespread. A 2003 Mori poll found that only 55% of the population could name one of the four Gospels; while slightly more, 60%, could name the sacred book of Islam.
A contest is underway among sociologists of religion who ponder these data. An older school maintains that Britain has seen a steady decline since the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. What we are now seeing is simply the endgame of a very slow process. Steve Bruce, in his book God is Dead, is one example of this view. Other recent scholars, however, have suggested that the evidence simply does not support this image of a slow and steady decline. Callum Brown, for instance, claims that as late as the mid-twentieth century Christianity was moderately thriving, and that its current weakness is the result of a very recent and precipitate collapse. Compare the figures for religiously-solemnized marriages. In 1962, seventy percent of the population was married in a religious ceremony; a figure commensurate with nineteenth-century norms. Only eight years later it had fallen to sixty percent, slumping to 39% in 1997.
The figures for Anglican baptism tell a similar story. In 1900, for every 1000 live births, 609 baptisms took place. In 1927 the number had actually risen to 668, dropping back to 602 in 1956. And then the same slump can be observed: down to 466 in 1970, 365 in 1981, and 228 in 1997. The de-baptism movement is a particularly striking sign of this: according to the National Secular Society, by the year 2009 a hundred thousand people had felt strongly enough to fork out three pounds to download forms and officially register their rejection of their baptism.
Church membership, too, indicates that the older model of a gently secularising Britain needs to be replaced by a model of robust religiosity which endured well into the mid-twentieth century, followed by a sudden decline. Church membership rose in the nineteenth century, reaching a peak in England and Wales in 1904, and in 1905 in Scotland. The figures decline until the Second World War, when they pick up again, rising to a second climax in 1959. Then the sudden decline begins, and it is continuing apace. On current trends the Church of Scotland calculates that by the year 2030 it will have ceased to exist.
In the context of this talk we need not spend time considering the various explanations of this trend, or the odd, and to many analysts still confounding, contrast with the continued buoyancy of churchmanship in America. But it helps to remember that integration today, whatever it means, must signify something radically distinct from what it was thought to require in the Britain which Muslim migrants reached before, say, the Wolfenden Report, the Chatterley Trial, and the Beatles’ first LP. Integration signifies not the deepening engagement of an essential Muslimness with an essentially static Britishness. It looks more like an eternally renegotiated process whereby a religious minority, like the majority religion, is expected permanently to keep up with values of markedly utilitarian and secular provenance, values which are themselves subject to recurrent amendment and change. In other words, the current Government or academic agenda on integration, social cohesion, and its study, is always highly provisional. Perhaps Muslims should be encouraged by this: a Britain that required accession to values conceived as true or absolute would be theologically far harder for Muslims, who believe that theirs are the true absolutes, to engage with.
Having begun by sketching the odd situation of Muslim believers, who find that the religious culture of the land they migrated to has substantially collapsed, I will now change the subject rather precipitately, and offer some reflections on the nature of the Islam which is being invited to experience integration, as seen from a pre-1960s British perspective. I will do this by enlisting two neglected and underestimated observers: G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
Chesterton first. As a revanchist English Catholic, he was certain about the old, preconciliar formula of Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus. His view of Islam was far from the ecumenical and interfaith mood of Vatican II, and he would have frowned in amazement upon the John Paul who kissed the Koran and addressed Muslims as brothers. But like some other brilliant Catholic conservatives, such as Louis Massignon and Louis Gardet, his own life of faith and his deep intelligence allowed him insights into Islam as a religious force that, in an age of that superficial ballo in maschera known as Interfaith, are now seldom to be encountered. His view of the clash of Christendom with Islam as a struggle of truth against falsehood is clear enough, evinced, for instance, in his best-known poem, which is nothing less than a celebration of the Battle of Lepanto. But his take on Islam turns out to be a perceptive one.
Chesterton was uninterested in abstractions. He was a popular applied theologian, a realist who enjoyed pointing-up the dangerous if farcical agendas of utopian reformers. He clearly savoured the writing of his novel The Flying Inn, first published in 1914. In its pages we discover that following a revival in Ottoman military fortunes, England is in the grip of profound Islamic influence. Throughout British society, old beliefs and values are giving way to an inexorable tide from the East. On the seafront of coastal resorts, Muslim soap-box preachers are boldly holding forth. We meet one of these:
‘A little owlish man in a red fez, weakly waving a green gamp umbrella. His face was brown and wrinkled like a walnut, his nose was of the sort we associate with Judea, his beard was the sort of black wedge we associate rather with Persia.’
The preacher is explaining how England is only superficially Christian. At root, he says, everything thought to be characteristically English turns out to be of Islamic origin. The evidence he uses is striking.
‘Loo-ook, he said, wagging a curled brown finger, ‘loo-ook at your own inns … Your inns of which you write in your boo-ooks! These inns were not poo-oot up in the beginning to sell ze alcoholic Christian drink. They were put up to sell ze non-alcoholic Islamic drinks.’
The preacher then offers a list of pub names which indicate a distant Islamic etiology, beginning with the Bull, which was once the ‘Bulbul’. The ‘Admiral Benbow’ is in fact the great Moslem warrior Amir Ali Ben Bhoze. The ‘Saracen’s Head’ is a corruption of ‘The Saracen is Ahead’. Even the word Alcohol is of Islamic origin, and so, claims the preacher, we may claim for Islam everything that begins with the Arabic definite article, including Alsop’s Beer, and even the Albert Memorial. The Islamic influence in London is also plain for all to see: some deluded souls may point to King’s Cross, and Charing Cross, but wickedly fail to mention Denmark Crescent, Grosvenor Crescent, and Mornington Crescent.
‘Everywhere, I say, homage paid to the holy symbol of the religion of the Prophet! Compare with this network and pattern of crescents, this city almost consisting of crescents, the meagre array of crosses, which remain to attest the ephemeral superstition to which you were, for one weak moment, inclined.’
In this new Britain, Government and the busybodies of Whitehall, inspired by such preaching, and also, more substantively, driven by the need to cooperate with a reinvigorated Turkish empire, incline to an acceptance of Islam, and thus Prohibition comes to England. The remainder of the novel follows two fugitives, who travel around the land with the country’s last barrel of rum, encouraging the habitués of now dry pubs to sing and be merry.
This is a romp; but Chesterton does have a point to make. He is not predicting our current secularity, he is warning about alienation. In particular he is taking aim at the Edwardian middle-class fad for Eastern religions, adopted by a vapid generation simply on the grounds of their exotic and unconventional surface. More seriously, however, the Flying Inn seems to be a parable about the ideology of the Temperance movement. True religion, for Chesterton, consists in a kind of acceptance of traditional British normalcy, a Tory scepticism about radical projects of any kind, and a repudiation of a Puritanism which is foreign to Merrie England. Islam, for him, is where reformed Christianity may finally lead us, if wiser heads don’t look out.
It is not clear whether Chesterton had actual Muslim missionaries in mind. He might have heard of Abdullah Quilliam, many of whose first converts were picked up in temperance halls, and there is certainly a strongly Nonconformist feel to Quilliam’s writings and hymns. One imagines that Lord Hedley is another, possible, target. For Chesterton it would have been unsurprising to learn that British Islam, as a contiguous movement, emerged not as a radical xenotransplant from a foreign place, but as a continuation of the world of congregationalism, pledges, and Temperance Hotels.
This convergence between nonconformity and the Muslim way of doing business with God is dealt with by Chesterton only here, in the pages of an essentially frivolous novel. But it is developed much more carefully by his contemporary and fellow Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc, as we learn in Chapter Four of Belloc’s polemical work The Great Heresies, entitled ‘The Great and Enduring Heresy of Muhammad.’
Belloc was close to Chesterton; so close, in fact, that Bernard Shaw referred to them collectively as ‘Chesterbelloc’. Like Chesterton he knew his history (in which he had gained a first at Oxford), and regarded Islam as a historic enemy, regretting bitterly the failure of the Crusades to destroy it. That failure, he wrote ‘ is the major tragedy in the history of our struggle against Islam, that is, against Asia’. We don’t know if he feared an Islamic future emerging from Chapel Christianity; but he would surely have sympathised with the moral of the Flying Inn.
Yet his account of Islam deserves respect, and cannot be dismissed as simple prejudice. Take, for instance, his explanation of the mass conversions of Christians to Islam in the wake of the early conquests. He has no time for theories of the bloody scimitar. Instead, he writes that Islam ‘zealously preached and throve on the paramount claims of justice, social and economic. […]. Wherever Islam conquered there was a new spirit of freedom and relaxation.’ Not only did it offer a more just social order, it was easy to understand, evincing ‘an extreme simplicity which pleased the unintelligent masses who were perplexed by the mysteries inseparable from the profound intellectual life of Catholicism, and from its radical doctrine of the Incarnation.’
For Belloc, the success and persistence of Islam are to be explained by its combination of Christian truths, such as the Virgin Birth, the messiahhood of Christ, and the second coming, a staunch life of prayer and fasting, and a kind of social gospel which medieval Christianity, in its feudal and ecclesial structures, could not accommodate. That is why, like John of Damascus, he treats Islam not as a new religion, but as a Christian heresy. It is ‘not a denial,’ he writes, ‘but an adaptation and a misuse, of the Christian thing.’ Muhammad ‘preached and insisted upon a whole group of ideas which were peculiar to the Catholic Church’.
Like Chesterton, Belloc lived in an English Catholic world of converts and recusants eternally pinched between an Englishness usually associated with the established Church, and the universal but foreign church of Rome. The Protestant triumph in his native land was eternally on his brain. Hence, just as Chesterton imputes to Nonconformity the capacity to turn Britons into Musulmans, Belloc ends by defining Islam as a kind of Reformation.
Belloc was not the first to classify the rise of Islam in such terms. Carlyle, in his Heroes and Hero-worship had made this connection, largely implicitly, years previously. So had Oswald Spengler. And a specifically Catholic polemic against Islam as a precursor to Protestant error dates back to counter-reformation polemicists such as Ludovico Marracci (d.1700), who, according to Robert Irwin, viewed Protestantism as ‘essentially a variant form of Islam’.
But Belloc makes the link explicit. The most lethal threat to the Roman church comes from a direction which may be very generally described as Arian, Islamic, and Calvinist. All these heresies denied the ordained priesthood and the communion of saints, downgraded or abolished the sacraments, and insisted on a programmatic return to a supposed apostolic age before Chalcedonian strictures turned the God worshipped by Jesus into a Greek conundrum. It was heresy in the name of sancta simplicitas.
Belloc writes this:
‘There is thus a very great deal in common between the enthusiasm with which Mohammed’s teaching attacked the priesthood, the Mass and the sacraments, and the enthusiasm with which Calvinism, the central motive force of the Reformation, did the same. […] It insisted upon the equality of men, and it necessarily had that further factor in which it resembled Calvinism – the sense of predestination, the sense of fate; of what the followers of John Knox were always calling ‘the immutable decrees of God’.’
He goes on to repeat the longstanding theme of an alliance satanée between Islam and the rise of Lutheranism: ‘One of the reasons that the breakdown of Christendom at the Reformation took place was the fact that Mohammedan pressure against the German Emperor gave the German Princes and towns the opportunity to rebel and start Protestant Churches in their dominions.’ It is true that both Luther and Calvin had railed passionately against the Turk, but this does no more than disguise a real sibling rivalry or even envy. In the end, all were against the fond superstition of the Mass, against images, against the ordained and celibate clergy, and against the Petrine principle without which there is no salvation.
In contrast to the Orientalist consensus of his day, Belloc does not, then, see Islam as sui generis, an eternally dissimilar Levantine Other. Muhammad is simply an Arab Calvin; and Medina is Geneva in a hot climate. But he claims that Islam’s reformation is stronger, having succeeded permanently, while Protestantism is failing. He points to the ongoing possibility of a great Islamic awakening:
‘In Islam there has been no such dissolution of ancestral doctrine or, at any rate, nothing corresponding to the universal breakup of religion in Europe. The whole spiritual strength of Islam is still present in the masses of Syria and Anatolia, of the East Asian mountains, of Arabia, Egypt and North Africa. The final fruit of this tenacity, the second period of Islamic power, may be delayed: but I doubt whether it can be permanently postponed.’
‘That culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no reason whatever why it should not learn its new lesson and become our equal in all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over it whereas in Faith we have fallen inferior to it.’
Here we are back with Chesterton: ordinary Nonconformity, a milksop affair, can never win England, but Islam, Protestantism’s strongest strain, just might. Protestantism, as Weber thought, led to fragmentation and secularity; but the more successful and enduring reformation, that of the Prophet, has been better than Christianity at resisting this. And in contrast to Hegel, who voiced the usual assumption that Islam’s energy was spent, following which it ‘has retreated into oriental ease and repose’, Belloc warned that ‘the power of Islam may at any moment re-arise.’
The subsuming of Islam into the general category of Protestant heresy, as here suggested by Belloc and Chesterton, has not gone unchallenged. Traditionalists of the school of René Guénon will see Protestantism as a decadent fundamentalism, a superficiality, and contrast it absolutely with Islam, the very essence of authentic traditional religion. It might also be claimed that the Protestant-Islamic equation represents a misprision of the centre of Islam as scripturalist and unmediated; upholding an older Orientalism and ignoring Massignon’s paradigm shift towards a Sufi authenticity in the Qur’an which implies a Catholic contiguity with Islam, as a religion of miracles, saints, relics, rosaries and scales of perfection.
Who is right? At root, we might perhaps say that the contest is over Abraham. Derrida’s well-known treatment of Massignon proceeds from the assumption that the category of Abrahamic religion is itself Islamic, which although revived aberrantly by Kierkegaard in emphatically Protestant mode, is properly appropriated by Massignon, who constructs Abraham as a sign of sacramental origins and purpose. Derrida calls the Abrahamic a ‘volcanic’ principle, which purports and can indeed supply hospitality, but which also is a figure of iconic difference and alienation. Abraham, as seen particularly in Gil Anidjar’s meditations on Derrida’s reception of Massignon, figures as the contested archetype for essentialised oppositions: ‘Europe and the Jew’, ‘Islam and the West’, Letter and Spirit, Isaac and Ishmael. As Anidjar writes: ‘The Abrahamic confronts us as a divisive and repetitive machine, and an explosive ghost that interrogates hermetic histories and their dividing modes of operation.’ But Derrida has missed a further antinomy: Abraham is not only the vorlage of the supposed three-way schism of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Islamic. Massignon’s sacramental reading of the binding of Abraham’s son makes the patriarch a contested theme for Protestant and Catholic belonging, and therefore, using our link between the Reformation and Islam, for Islam’s engagement with the two main forms of Western Christianity.
Abraham’s sacrifice of the lamb, the anticipation of the Paschal mystery, is received in Islam’s self-image as the Ishmaelite cast out, but vindicated at the Hajj. Hence Azraqi’s report that the horns of the ram were once hung from the veil of the Ka’ba. In his life of relationship with Muslims, Massignon stressed the vicarious and substitutionary: Hallaj as a Christ manqué, the Badaliyya sodality, le deuil de Fatima, joint Marian pilgrimages. But this need not be taken as proof of an inbuilt Roman instinct in Islam. In all this, we find Massignon emphasising Islam as mere aspirant to Catholic fullness, as a proleptic, indeed the proleptic, Semitism, showing Arabs (and also Jews) the way to experience Christ through sacraments only dimly intuited in the Koranic data. Massignon’s disciples (including those who joined Islam, like Vincent Monteil) have generally not taken this proleptic theory further; Monteil, indeed, frankly retreated from it. Islam as a ‘sign to Semites’ pointing to the fullness of the Incarnation and of the Petrine succession has generally lapsed; one would be hard put to find advocates of this notion today.
So Massignon’s project may finally be read as a support, rather than a challenge, to Belloc’s assumption that Islam was the first and greater Reformation. Just as Ishmael and Isaac are, in the West’s story, signs of a failed fraternity, so that Derrida’s hope for a reconciling category of ‘Arab Jew’ turns out to be without a resolution, so too Ishmael will always signify the non-sacramental, since Isaac was the one redeemed. Speculations about a ‘first binding’, which have Ishmael as the first sacrificial victim in his banishment to the desert and apparent certain death, are marginal, and in any case do not end with fida, with a ransom. Isaac is undeniably the forerunner of the sacramental; Ishmael of the suffering servant who is to generate no priesthood.
The Abrahamic volcano, then, produces this outcome: the recurrent internal schism in the Western Church yields non-sacramental, non-conformist, non-confessing sects, whose etiology is more likely to conflate with Ishmael, than with the churches of the priests. Belloc and Chesterton would surely have agreed.
To turn back the clock again: how did this apparent congruity find expression in the moment of Reformation itself? The actual history of the role of Islam in the Reformation has yet to be adequately attempted, beyond historiographies of the theme of the Turkish scourge. In Germany Islam was a positive theme not of Reformation, but of Enlightenment – witness Goethe’s Mahomets Gesang and Lessing’s Nathan the Wise. As a non-mediative relation with God it is implicit also in Rilke, where he writes:
‘Muhammad was immediate, like a river bursting through a mountain range; he breaks through to the One God with whom you can talk so wonderfully, every morning, without the telephone called ‘Christ’ into which people constantly shout, ‘Hallo, is anyone there,’ and no-one replies.’
In France, too, a sympathy for the Prophet accompanies some dimensions of the anticlerical early Enlightenment: the Comte de Boulainvilliers, writing in 1728, held that ‘there is no more plausible system than his, more agreeable to the light of reason’; but his concerns here are those of the lumieres: it is the simplicity and purity of the desert, not Ishmael specifically, that have allowed Islam to avoid the superstitions of the Catholic Church. For such French islamophiles, institutions such as wudu, circumcision, and the prohibition on pork, are worthwhile because they are reasonable and hygienic, not because they enact a submission to a personal God.
The English evolution, however, here as on other matters, was decidedly different.
I have written elsewhere on this (British Muslim Identity, 2003), outlining what I take to be an enduringly Pelagian streak in the national religious style, reinforced in various ways by the rediscovery of Plato during the Reformation period and subsequently. Figures like Henry Stubbe, physician to James the First, and author of the first appreciative biography of the Prophet ever written by a Christian, indicate the real convergence which his contemporaries noticed between Islam and a certain kind of Puritanism. He writes:
‘This is the sum of Mahometan Religion, on the one hand not clogging Men’s Faith with the necessity of believing a number of abstruse Notions which they cannot comprehend, and which are often contrary to the dictates of Reason and common Sense; nor on the other hand loading them with the performance of many troublesome, expensive and superstitious Ceremonies, yet enjoyning a due observance of Religious Worship, as the surest Method to keep Men in the bounds of their duty both to God and Man.’
The history of reformed Christianity in England is intricate, and it is important to note that the established Church represents a settlement substantially less protestant than was normal on the Continent. In her new book Reason and Religion in the English Revolution, Sarah Mortimer documents the role of Socinianism, associated polemically with Islam, as the trigger for an Arminian reaction which led ultimately to the settlement of the 1650s, which to this day defines the relations between church and state in the United Kingdom. In other words, on Mortimer’s view, the Socinian and, by implication, the so-called ‘Mahometan controversies’ in England were an antithesis that fed only weakly into the final Anglican synthesis; the role of Unitarianism and crypto-Islamic currents at the time of the Civil War was only to goad the bishops into the definition of a reaction which was firmly Trinitarian and also sacramental.
British Christianity continued to claim apostolic continuity; while not in communion with Rome, it remained avowedly ‘catholic’. Only in the last twenty years has the exodus of Anglo-Catholic priests, triggered by the admission of women to holy orders, reconfigured the power-balance in favour of the Protestant wing of the church.
A few have claimed even this will to synthesis and mediation as indicative of an Islamic convergence. Most notable here is the former Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic, whose book Islam between East and West concludes with an odd eulogy to Anglicanism as a middle way.
The debate over Izetbegovic’s claim will continue. However my point here is not dependent on its outcome. I wish only to signal the continued hospitality, at the energetic margins of British religion in the early modern period, of forms of radical dissent which were descended organically from the Socinian disputes which produced the likes of Henry Stubbe, or John Toland’s Mahometan Christianity, indicated for instance in his 1718 attempt to repristinate the Christian religion ‘before the Papal corruptions and Usurpations’.
One might, then, make this claim for British Islam. It originates as a community in the temperance halls of Liverpool: Quilliam’s mosque cleverly replicated core dimensions of their form and function, to the extent of adding a pedal-operated organ to the adjacent meeting room. This matrix is unsurprising and the continuity persuasive, as Islam, seen as Protestant heresy, was a theme already of the English Reformation. And the Reformation itself was a kind of, in Belloc’s language, second Islam, revisiting the old errors of the Arabian reform and bringing them to the north of Europe, where Berber and Turkish invasion had never reached. Chapel Christianity, in particular, would be seen from this perspective as a victory for the Ishmaelite error. Hence the growth of Islam here is not so much the transplantation of a quintessentially foreign essence; instead, from the viewpoint of Chesterton and Belloc, it can be seen as a belated incorporation into the country’s religious life of a principle which is superficially exotic, but is already partly indigenous as one of the themes of the Reformation, and of some of the most characteristically English chapel-going forms of dissent. If the Protestant settlement in this country envisaged the existence of marginal groups – Quakers, Congregationalists, Ranters, Unitarians and others, many of which may be seen as partaking in this convergence we have noted between Islamic and Reformation principles – then British Muslims might potentially be seen as best incorporated in the nation’s religious life by expanding the principle of the settlement. This may be more helpful than to treat them in an ad hoc fashion as an immigrant community which sometimes upsets the DCLG by seeking recognition in confessional rather than conventionally ethnic terms. Such a model does seem to have potential. On this view, mosques might be viewed by unbelievers not as exotic temples to an unknown foreign God, but as Socinian meeting houses of a particularly successful kind.
The parallel and the continuity, it must be constantly stressed, will not be at all exact. For instance, the model of community life in the dissenting sects is substantively different from the Islamic notion of the umma. The jama’a, the mosque congregation, might seem, in its obedience to an elder or presbyter, rather than a priest appointed by a bishop, to set Muslims well within the familiar Protestant order; however the larger community is defined not as ‘church’, but as the Ishmaelite ecumenical world, the umma. One boundary marker of this is the purity laws; which are all but unknown to Protestantism. Of course they are not, as with some Old Testament religion, understood as defining solidarity and identity against a hostile Other. Still, Islamic and Reformed notions of sociality will be considerably different. The Reformation proposed an often charismatic spirituality, but one linked to an individualism which, in its idea of the equality of every believer’s reading of scripture, sometimes seemed to reduce the spiritual value of human community. This is the alleged, and widely-admired, Reformation root of modern individualism; in an Islamic context, where bodies are collectivised through purity laws, and where a principle of ijma’ controls scriptural reading, the more fissiparous tendencies of the Reformation moment are avoided. It is significant that it is Shi’ism, a more hierarchical, mediative form of religion, which in Islam has generated sects; while the Sunni, apparently Protestant mainstream, has usually managed to remain integrated.
This lecture has moved rather widely, from a survey of the collapse of local Christianity, to an assessment of the claim that Islam could meaningfully be seen by outsiders as a kind of Reformation. The conclusion is perhaps already evident. Chesterton and Belloc, looking forwards a hundred years ago, expected Britain to move in one of three general directions. Firstly, it might follow the Tractarian course until it accepted full communion with Rome, heralding a new era of faith when England would be rededicated to the Virgin. Secondly, it could mechanise until Merrie England was no more and the churches were turned over to secular uses. Thirdly, it could continue with the Whiggish instincts of the nonconformist Reformation, as revived in Wesleyan and other anti-alcoholic movements, a trajectory which Chesterton warns us is a sort of Mahometan Christianity.
In this scheme, only Catholicism, the deep stratum of English religion, will allow us to be indigenous: the Church of Rome is the true Church of England. Anglicanism, following the rupture of the Henrician and Elizabethan inquisitions, is a kind of alienation from the indigenous, although still, in its prayer book and vestments, nostalgic for the forms and habits of the Old Sarum rite. Chapel Christianity comprises the furthest point of the alienation.
We are likely to be impatient with this anachronism. To define medieval England, ‘Mary’s dowry’, as the ultimate source of authenticity, is arbitrary, and may open the way to the neo-pagan claim, currently gaining ground, that monotheism itself is inauthentic, a Middle Eastern intrusion into a Celtic Eden. As with all arguments for ultimate identity, this one essentialises a past which was itself always a time of difference, transition and synthesis. What is religiously most authentic in the valleys of Wales, for instance? Rood screens and the Ambrosian chant? We are more likely to say Methodist revivals of Handel’s Messiah. As the Islamic conception of isnad and silsila makes clear, authenticity hinges on attachment to a tradition that is still alive. All else is a kind of abstract fundamentalism.
We do not possess a fixed culture, we share in a process which is forever in a state of becoming. Authenticity eludes us as soon as we propose an essence. Muslimness has no single essence; neither has Britishness. British identity, like all social identities, has historically been constructed primarily in relation to a set of differences: not being French, or Catholic, or Republican, for instance; and these have hugely shifted or even vanished. Take one example. The early 20th century novelist E.M. Delafield proposed an English Creed, in the following four articles:
Firstly, God is an Englishman, probably educated at Eton.
Secondly, all good women are naturally frigid.
Thirdly, it is better to be dowdy than smart.
Fourthly, England is going to rack and ruin.
Compare this checklist to the values espoused by the congregation in Alan Bennett’s story. Englishness has not only been revised, it has been inverted.
Islam, as a category used in the social sciences, can boast more metaphysical substance; but it still, as Clifford Geertz has shown, seems to operate as a historically-conditioned kaleidoscope of perceptions and practices, united in the Sunni doctrinal and liturgical core, no doubt, but variously interpreted by madhhabs, mujtahids, and a non-magisterial consensus, not least when in a minority condition. Part of that kaleidoscope, as we have seen, can helpfully be seen as converging with the themes of the English Reformation. In that sense, once we abandon what is superficial (all British people wear duffle coats and like warm beer; all Muslims eat curry and support the Taliban), and recognise that certain deep structures of religious coherence lie beneath, it is not hard to see how we may set aside the failed race relations paradigm of integration, and recognise that an integration is already present. But it is not an integration based on shallow and opportunistic liberal claims about ‘shared values’. In fact, liberal secularity, on our model, may turn out not to ease integration but to obstruct it. For if Islam’s appropriateness to the United Kingdom is to be sought mainly in the fact of a shared monotheism, then the diminution of the religious will make Islam’s difference all the more salient.