Literally, the Quran in Arabic means recitation. Fulfilling this purpose, it is perhaps the most recited – as well as the most read book in the world. Certainly, it is the most memorised book in the world, and possibly one that exerts the most influence on those who read it. So great was the Prophet Muhammad’s, Allah bless him and give him peace, regard for its contents that he considered it the major miracle that God worked through him. He himself, unschooled to the extent that he was unlettered, could not have produced a book that provides a ground plan of all knowledge and at the same time is without poetic peer.
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The onslaught of technology has left us with little energy or mental space to ponder over creation. In times gone by, nature spoke the language of God; it still does but we fail to comprehend it. William Wordsworth, the celebrated English poet, repeatedly lamented the loss of the connection with the divine. His ode, ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ begins with these words:
‘There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
The glory and freshness of a dream.’ Continue reading →
John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887) version of Blind Men and the Elephant:
It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
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Excerpted from chapter one of Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press, 2011).
We live in a world in which ideas, institutions, artistic styles, and formulas for production and living circulate among societies and civilizations that are very different in their historical roots and traditional forms. Parliamentary democracy spread outward from England, among other countries, to India; likewise, the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience spread from its origins in the struggle for Indian independence to many other places, including the United States with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Manila in 1983, and the Velvet and Orange Revolutions of our time.
But these ideas and forms of practice don’t just change place as solid blocks; they are modified, reinterpreted, given new meanings, in each transfer. This can lead to tremendous confusion when we try to follow these shifts and understand them. One such confusion comes from taking a word itself too seriously; the name may be the same, but the reality will often be different.
This is evident in the case of the word “secular.” We think of “secularization” as a selfsame process that can occur anywhere (and, according to some people, is occurring everywhere). And we think of secularist regimes as an option for any country, whether or not they are actually adopted. And certainly, these words crop up everywhere. But do they really mean the same thing in each iteration? Are there not, rather, subtle differences, which can bedevil cross-cultural discussions of these matters? Continue reading →