Melvyn's newsletter - The origins of Islamic law - 05/05/2011

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Hugh Kennedy had to leave immediately after the programme and could not stay for the customary cup of tea. I'm afraid to say that as soon as he had left the room, there was a tremor of demur from the others as to whether it was true (as, by implication, he suggested) that there was no recording of a woman having been stoned. This is not to question Hugh's scholarship for one instant - who would dare question the Professor of Arabic in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London? But there do appear to be some sources - perhaps rather uncertain - where stoning is recorded.

I say that not to doubt Hugh Kennedy in any way, nor to draw too much attention to the Western love of the lurid aspects of Sharia, but to point out yet again that once the programme finishes on air, a new programme begins with the guests themselves. It seems that we ought to do a programme on the ideas of the Trinity and the Cross, over which, between Christians and Muslims, there has been enormous tension. There was a discussion as to whether Islam is best seen as an original movement from inside Arabia, or a construction which drew its elements from other countries and other cultures. It seems also that in the Middle Ages some Christians regarded Islam not as an independent religion but as a separate, heretical, branch of Christianity. I wish I'd asked what Muhammad's religion was before he - in his middle age - left Mecca and went into the mountains. It seems that in Mecca - a great trading city - he would have come into contact with Christian scholars and with Jewish scholars. It was from them, possibly, that he imbibed his monotheism.

I, too, had to rush off soon afterwards, first to the office, a most unwelcome walk in the pouring rain, carrying two heavy bags as I am en route to a five-day span of filming the Reel History of Britain, this time in Sheffield, Leicester, Birmingham and Watford. But before that I hopped on a train to Newcastle and thence to Hexham Abbey to speak on my new book.

I first went to Hexham Abbey when I was seventeen and was then most struck by the Night Stair in the south transept. This wonderful staircase, down which the monks came for their night prayers, has such worn treads that you can almost hear the sandals still slapping down the stones. The abbey was originally built by Wilfrid, an enormously powerful figure up here in Christianity in the 7th century. There is still some of the 7th century church remaining - the crypt.

It was strange to be talking in that abbey about the 400 years' airbrushed history of the effect of the King James Bible, because here was a place where Christianity had been assiduously practised for hundreds of years, with no questions asked. One thing I find intolerable is that people simply dismiss Christianity. Atheism, agnosticism, secularism and even indifference are to be given equal respect with other religions and no religions. But to call foolish or to sneer lightly at what people like us, but in a different context, with different intellectual means, did is not only mean, it's unimaginative and sterile.

And yet the idea of night prayers, the idea of intelligent men and women devoting entire lives to prayer and seeking the merest glint of response as proof of providence is extremely difficult to grasp. It happened across what we might now call Europe at a time when the most magnificent artefacts were being made, laws were being formed, languages being developed, sciences being translated out of Greek into Arabic and then into Latin and later into national tongues. To ignore those who devoted themselves to the churches is not anything like as interesting as to wonder why they did it. Just as the attack on, say, the Aborigines' culture by some current atheists as being mere "clutter" is to miss the point entirely. Human beings work with what they have and the extraordinary thing about successive civilisations is that they are working to the same ends, often in poetic ways and increasingly in scientific ways, but do we think that our current ways are the final definition of four and a half billion years of struggle?

I think I've strayed off the point. Off now to Sheffield. Tally ho! (Now where did that come from?) Up in Cumbria over the weekend the fields were van Gogh vivid with gorse - my favourite plant - and carpets of dandelions, which used to be my favourite when they turned into clocks.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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