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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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To fast too furious?

Iftar (berbuka puasa)

Iftar (berbuka puasa or fast breaking) at Mesjid Raya al-Mansun (Mansun's Great Mosque) in Medan, Sumatera.

A blessed Ramadan to all!

Depending on which authority you follow, based on the observation of the first crescent of the new moon, the holy Islamic month of Ramadan began either last Wednesday or Thursday. This month of months is set apart by fasting.

Islamic practice is to refrain, during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, from consuming any food, drink, tobacco, and having sex. On the positive side, Muslims are encouraged to pray, give charitably and think on God more during the fast.

As the Islamic calendar is based solely on lunar phases without regard to tropical seasons, the months slowly move through the seasons each year. Ramadan falling in August means, in the northern hemisphere, around fifteen hours without food or water each day for around 29/30 days. (Mehdi Hasan has written some basic FAQs on Ramadan for New Statesman.)

As an Anglican I’m fascinated by the Islamic fast. The practice of fasting in Anglicanism is in a shabby state. For most it consists of ‘giving up’ something for the forty days of Lent, usually chocolate. It is not exactly taxing. Apart from the giving up of things, we do encourage Lent courses as a way of getting some positive spiritual input, but we have to admit that it’s all quite slim. The Roman Catholic Church has always been more legalistic when it comes to fasting, setting out what can and can’t be eaten, and how much. However, the history of Catholic pronouncements on fasting shows a steady rolling back of strictures. In contrast, Eastern Christianity has retained a more robust idea of fasting: animal products and alcohol are not consumed during fasts, making one a vegan teetotaler.

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How Arab learning laid the foundations for the European Renaissance

Alcázares Reales, Seville

Alcázares Reales, Seville.

I’ve just spent a restful evening on my sofa watching the last of Bettany Hughes‘s somewhat epic series of documentaries The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes: When the Moors Ruled in Europe. It’s always tempting to criticize this kind of documentary (as I have done in the past; mea maxima culpa!) on what it simplifies or leaves out. However, Bettany Hughes has been helped by having a two-hour time slot on More4 (or Mo-Fo as I’ve heard it called) for each episode.

Never explicitly mentioned, When the Moors Ruled in Europe is clearly set against the 21st-century backdrop of the War on Terror. Aired on the evening before the general election in which two parties — UKIP and the BNP — have anti-Islamic policies in their manifestos, this episode serves as a corrective to the unthinking assumptions of white/European/Christendom superiority. For here we glide endlessly through the mesmerising earthly paradises of Al-Andalus, through Granada’s Alhambra and Córdoba’s Grand Mosque (and not to forget Al-Karaouine University, Fez, Morocco), all set against a backdrop of golden mountains. Here we have liberal, tolerant and highly educated Muslims teaching ignorant Christians about ancient Greek learning before finally falling to the Talibanesque Spanish Inquisition. Although this was a little overwrought in places, there are plenty of moments in the documentary in which the complexities of Christian and Muslim relations and politics are explored, especially setting the Reconquista in the context of stability and cooperation among the northern kingdoms and the reliance of the southern kingdoms on mercenary soldiers.

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