In 1991 or ’92 I attended a talk by a Muslim academic at the University of Edinburgh on a topic related to Islam, the specifics of which escape me. Relevant is that the talk took place in Ramadan. He started by explaining to his audience, with more than a little pride of distinction, that he had sought and received special dispensation from a local cleric to be exempted from fasting that day on account of the talk he’d have to give that evening. I remember being struck by the idea of an academic at one of the most esteemed universities in 20th century Britain having to beg some mediaeval ignoramus for permission to eat. I wondered whether the one possessed of such power over the one possessed of such learning could even read.
I was reminded of this proudly-declared indignity again recently, when I came across What happened in Najaf? an account of Abdulaziz Sachedina’s inadvertent submission to an inquisition by Ayatollah Ali Sistani. On 20 August 1998, with staggering naivety, Sachedina sought out the Ayatollah to clear up a small misunderstanding concerning the former’s lectures at the University of Toronto. If Sachedina were familiar with Galileo’s little run-in with the Pope, he might have thought better of going to any such trouble at all. Galileo, at least, did not kowtow to the Holy See. In a series of deepening humiliations over the course of a “total time of three hours and ten minutes” stretched out over two days, during which Sachedina tried to explain his job as an academic to the Ayatollah and the latter tried, with increasing irritation and rudeness, to prohibit Sachedina from ever saying anything about Islam again. Sachedina, growing increasingly exasperated, recalls:
I informed the Ayatollah that I was among the seven American professors who were invited …to participate in a workshop in Tehran …on Civil Society and Civilizational Dialogue… He [Ayatollah Sistani] interrupted me saying that I could speak on civilization because that “is not Islam.” “Civilization and Islam are two different things,”
Muslim apologists take note. I have it on fatwa-wielding authority! Civilisation and Islam are two different things. But I digress. Just as Pope Paul V had no interest in taking a look through Galileo’s telescope, so Ayatollah Ali Sistani had no interest in Sachedina’s arguments. In the end, the Ayatollah tried to bribe Sachedina into resigning his lecturing position. Sachedina recalls:
I had already sensed that something was fundamentally wrong with that demand because it involved giving up my freedom of conscience and expression that were not, as far as my inalienable human rights were concerned, for negotiations at any cost. The entire exercise was designed to deny me the freedom of conscience and to coerce me to surrender my right to speak with the youth of my community, including my own children, through my own act.
It stands to this brave man’s eternal credit that he stood up to faith in defence of humanity. He managed to get out of Najaf and return to the world in which freedom of conscience and expression actually mean something. Sachedina, despite his inability to tell the mediaeval freak exactly where to stick his precious Islam, nevertheless came away from the encounter a very angry man, and one somewhat shaken by his disillusionment. Perhaps the experience had set off sleepless nights of soul-searching for the septuagenarian. Who knows, perhaps he even went so far as to think the unthinkable. At least he wasn’t beaming with pride at how he, a man of such high learning, had stooped to begging a mediaeval ignoramus for a favour.
Someone has got to write a play about all this. On 26 February 1616, Galileo was summoned to Cardinal Bellarmine’s residence to receive Pope Paul V’s dressing down: “… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the centre of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.” On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for his predecessor’s behaviour towards Galileo and issued what amounts to a mea culpa that the Catholic Church had abused him for telling the truth. Perhaps Bertold Brecht, were he still with us, would have given us a reworked Life of Galileo. Perhaps not; the parallels are too clear. How can I do otherwise, but agree with Ayatollah Ali Sistani that civilisation and Islam are, indeed, two different things.