05 mars 2007

Denys Johnson-Davies, Remembering God: Reflections on Islam, Charles Le Gai Eaton, ABC International Group, Inc., 2000. pp241 (reviewed by)

While addressed primarily to those who have converted to Islam and to Western readers in general, the present book has much of importance to say to those Muslims who -- in the words of the well-known writer Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his Introduction -- "are caught in the labyrinth of modern ideas and trends". Gai Eaton is eminently qualified to write a book on Islam that gives a fresh perspective to problems facing anyone who senses the need for a spiritual dimension to their life, yet finds that the society of today, and what the author terms scientism, are continually attempting to deflect him from realising the necessary faith and discipline.

Gai Eaton spent some of his early life in Egypt, where he converted to Islam some fifty years ago. In more recent years he has been consultant to the Islamic Cultural Centre in London and has become well-known as a writer and broadcaster on Islamic matters. He first made his name with his book King of the Castle, which argued with great effect for a religious attitude towards life -- though not necessarily a Muslim one -- as against the increasingly popular humanist approach. In that early work he showed himself to be a writer who could write about important and serious issues without being tedious or sanctimonious. The same qualities made of his Islam and the Destiny of Man, a book written from a specifically Islamic viewpoint, required reading for any serious student of the subject.

Each of the fourteen chapters in his latest book is headed with apt quotations from the Qur'an, while the text itself contains numerous references to both the Qur'an and prophetic Hadith. As someone whose life is so intimately concerned with the Muslim faith, he is naturally wholly familiar with the Holy Book. In this connection it is of note that some years back, a group of us met up at well-known recording studios in Athens to make a two-language recording of the whole of the Holy Qur'an, with a professional Egyptian reciter reading several verses, followed by the same verses being read by Gai Eaton in the English translation of Marmaduke Pickthall. This unique recording was sponsored by Sheikh Sultan, the ruler of Sharjah.

Gai Eaton exists in the tradition of such writers as René Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt and Martin Lings, thinkers from the West who entertained serious doubts about the values being blindly espoused by the civilisation in which they were living.

Right at the beginning of his book the writer informs us that he was brought up as an agnostic; he then makes the interesting observation that only those who have in some measure escaped from their European or American identity can know how suffocating this culture is. He goes on to discuss the present-day blind belief in "progress". He points out that Western culture looks to the future and rejects most of the past, while Islam on the other hand is inclined to look back at a past that was, in terms of spirituality, infinitely superior to the present. Progress for the West means of course technological progress: better means of communication, more reliable cars and more efficient weapons. Of all the so-called advances of the West -- an increase in life expectancy, better hygiene, etc. -- in the final analysis they count, in the estimate of the writer of the present book, for nothing. He quotes the Catholic philosopher Gustave Thibon who compares modern civilisation to a runaway train hurtling towards the abyss. What's it matter if the seats are continually being made more comfortable and the air-conditioning more reliable? For true Muslims, he argues, there can be only one test for measuring change -- does it promote piety? To many readers this may seem to be an extreme attitude, yet it is one that the author sticks to throughout the book. He is unwilling, like many others writing about religion, to make concessions to those who do not hold his opinions. He is not afraid to grasp such nettles as Darwinism and the theory of evolution, of which he points out that it has wreaked havoc in the ranks of many Christians. Revealed religion, he bluntly states, cannot cohabit with scientism.
Even such a "sacred cow" as democracy is questioned by the present author. It is presented by the West as a sign of political maturity and therefore of superiority. The modern age of "the common man" detests elitism: today quantity not quality takes precedence. The writer maintains that the modern age has lost the readiness to look up to an elite and try to rise from mediocrity to something better. It seeks its heroes from among the ranks, and he deals at some length with the extraordinary popular reaction to the death of Princess Diana and the image of her that was created by the media: "an icon composed of just those weaknesses which afflict so many people in the present age". And all the while the Muslim world is being engulfed by the inexorable spread of Westernisation whose products carry with it, like an invisible infection, its convictions, values and illusions.

In the West, traditional religion is being more and more rejected. One of the reasons for this rejection is the plurality of religions. This is particularly so where the so-called revealed religions are concerned. Gai Eaton puts the situation succinctly from the point of view of the sceptical man of our time: that since all religions, with their obvious contradictions, cannot be true, all must be false. Once again, though, our writer does not seek to dodge answering a proposition that would seem to have no satisfactory answer.

For me, one of the most important chapters in the book is that entitled "The Earth's Complaint". In it he quotes the words of the Qur'an: "Work not confusion in the earth after the fair ordering thereof." The Qur'an is full of references to nature and yet our so-called civilisation removes us further and further from God's creation. There are, he points out, children in Europe and America who are not aware that the packaged meat in super-markets was once the flesh of living creatures.

No religion lays greater stress than Islam on the treatment that should be accorded to animals, and he gives numerous examples of the consideration given by the Prophet to all animals, even the unclean dog and the derided donkey. Today in the Muslim world the example of the Prophet is unfortunately seldom followed.

The chapter "Cityscape" deals with the way in which the spiritual comes to play less and less of a part in our daily life, as, for example, the "unholy" cities in which most people live, packed together yet making every effort to remain strangers.

Remembering God has for its basic premise the belief, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr puts it in his foreword, "that the alpha and omega of life should be the remembrance of God through all the diverse experiences that together constitute our brief journey here below which we call life, but which actually is but the prelude to that veritable life everlasting..." For many, therefore, it will make for uncomfortable reading, though the excellence of the writing, the author's underlying sense of humour, and the numerous apt quotations and anecdotes, make it an edifying book for those of us who, whether we like it or not, recognise that we are passengers on the Gustave Thibon train and would dearly like to know where it is heading.

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