Saturday, 5 May 2012

What Christianity can teach Islam. With a Jewish story to make the point

It is a truth universally acknowledged, or at any rate, a point of view widely acknowledged to be true by self-styled ‘Christian’ circles in the West, that Islam is a religion badly in need of an education.

And those same circles imply that no-one is better placed than they are to provide the necessary lessons.

That is a belief with a long pedigree or, at any rate, since a pedigree suggests nobility, a long track record. Certainly, it motivated Christendom in the Middle Ages, when it decided to teach Islam decency and a love of peace at swordpoint in the Crusades, and it continues today with tanks and drone attacks replacing such less flamboyant weaponry, in Iraq or Afghanistan.

One of my favourite Jewish stories concerns two friends working together in the City of London for many years: Moishe, of my people, and Seamus from County Cork.

One day, Seamus announced to Moishe that he would be travelling home to Ireland for the weekend and suggested that his friend might like to accompany him. Moishe was more than happy to accept the invitation, and the weekend started brilliantly with an outstanding dinner with the family on Friday evening, a day’s fishing by the local trout stream the next day, followed by another dinner, practically a banquet, with all the neighbourhood had to provide in the way of good company.

On Sunday morning, Seamus admitted slightly shamefacedly, ‘you know, I’m seen as the squire over here, and if I’m around on a Sunday morning, it’s generally expected that I attend mass.’

‘Why,’ says Moishe, ‘I’ve never been to a Catholic service. Would you mind if I joined you?’

Father O’Connor made no objection when Seamus told him that ‘though he’s not of our faith, my fiend Moishe would like to attend mass this morning.’

The service began and was going along just fine. Then there was a ring of a bell and a collecting plate came round. Seamus put in a ten euro note and Moishe did the same. A little later there was a second ring and another appearance of the plate, but this time Moishe had no ten euro notes left, so he put in a twenty. Not long before the end, there was a third ring of the bell, and this time he was obliged to contribute 50.

As they were walking back to the Church door, Seamus asked what he’d thought of the service.

‘Very interesting,’ replied Moishe, ‘in fact I’ve a few questions for your priest.’

They approach Father O’Connor, and Moishe asks his first question.

‘Tell me, that Jesus Christ. Wasn’t he a Jew?’

‘Why, yes, most certainly he was.’

‘And all those disciples, weren’t they Jews too?’

‘Yes, indeed, good God-fearing Jews, every one of them.’

Moishe shakes his head. ‘You mean we started this business? How on Earth did we let it slip from our control?’

To this day there are Christians who would deny that the religion is a business at all. Some point to the tale of Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple. But Christianity has evolved down the ages, and the mainstream has long known that there are certain naive aspects of the early Church that need a more sophisticated rationality, to help interpret them and accommodate them to reality.

These days the moneylenders don’t ply their trade in the temple. They basically own it.

Some years ago we went to St Peter’s in Rome. The entry charge made no concession to understatement. As we approached the door, we discovered that the men in the group, dressed in shorts on a baking hot Italian summer’s day, were going to have invest another fine sum in disposable plastic trousers, just to cover our knees.

Oh, yes. There was a good commercial brain behind that gig.

Yesterday, we visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. In passing, let me say that for sheer lofty beauty and an atmosphere of contemplative tranquility, I’ve never seen anywhere to surpass it.

As we approached the door, I pulled out my wallet ready to pay the undoubtedly steep entrance fee. And then I saw the sign: women would have to wrap themselves in skirts, available at the door, if their knees were showing, and the Mosque also provided headscarves to cover their hair. I checked to make sure I could cover this additional expenditure too.

And then — imagine my delight when I discovered that entrance was free (we were asked to make a donation on leaving, but without compulsion, and many visitors made none). I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the over-skirts were being provided free of charge. And the staff on the door were welcoming women visitors with a smile and telling them that if they chose not to wear a headscarf, they didn’t have to.

Ah, yes. Islam has a lot to learn from Christianity. And Christians have a lot to teach it. But I’m in no hurry to see the lessons delivered or received.

The Blue Mosque looming majestically over our hotel
In Suleyman the Magnificent's Mosque,
Breda and Danielle show they can be respectful
And Danielle can even blend in


There are certain drinks I can't abide outside their original environment. Guinness is a drink which I wouldn't normally touch if you paid me, but when I was in Dublin a few years ago, I drank it every evening.

Similarly, while in Istanbul, I've developed a strange predilection for Turkish coffee, which I've not felt anywhere else. Still, in one restaurant at least, it seemed the only safe option: an advertising poster rather suggested that they had no idea how to navigate the vagaries of the Western European varieties.

If you advertise cappuccino with an illustration of long espressos,
just what can you be trusted to serve up?

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