I thought I would reflect on one of the overriding impressions I have had of this desert kingdom over the past 3 months or so. It has struck me like the chill of an Arctic breeze.
Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy; less politely stated a dictatorship where people cannot freely exercise their rights by way of voice or vote. Perhaps the one freedom they do have is to consume and the malls are enshrined for this outlet of personal spending gratification. So entrenched is the foundation of Wahabi Islam that religion defines everything from a 5.30AM prayer call to black clad women who almost don't seem present across the day. But is is its exclusivity and seeming contorted sense of itself that is arresting as to my own pursuit of spirituality.
As bewildering and dysfunctional as this can be one needs to suspend judgement. Jesus' injunction to 'love one's enemies' means in a sense viewing something that patently one doesn't like, differently from how ones default abhorrence reaction instinctively springs to life, it seems. This does not imply that one accepts unthinkingly, say the precepts of Islam as interpreted via culture then conflated as religion - Wahabiism, as 'truth'. That remains one's own prerogative. The vexing emotions, that one constantly has to deal with, are up for scrutiny here !
I have just finished a wonderful novel - 'Forty Rules of Love' (Elif Shafak) that explores Sufiism, mystical Islamic spirituality within a love story and presents the faith in a different light yet with many similarities to Christianity - where love over-arches fear; compassion and servitude duty, punishment and reward. Reiterated, I observe that one doesn't have to reject or deny the essence of Islam at source and I begin to understand this more and more albeit the practice thereof slower !Perhaps Jesus encourages us to de-emotionalize - walk with love in our hearts. Why deny yourself this to instead be fuelled by negativity which can cloud thinking, muddle emotions, deflate the spirit. So I must embrace this and attempt to practice non reaction to what slaps me in the face like a big, cold fish at times - to love what is apparently 'different' more. In so doing I in turn will learn to love myself deeper, to be slower to anger, which is imperative in order to love others more.
Paul teaches that we are transformed by spiritual renewal and awareness so that we are set free from legalism - we grow to do things because we 'want to' rather than 'have to'. This has brought my own faith into sharp relief and question. To what extent do I exclude others from my sense of faith or how accessible do I make that faith ? No non Muslim may come anywhere near Mecca or Medina. It is exclusively for the spiritual elevation of Muslims. How close can a non -hristian come to our centres of faith? Does the church make a separation between those who ostensibly are part of the 'church' and those who who aren't by declaration of non faith or non attendance. Sometimes in Saudi Arabia it seems that Wahabiism would work best in the 7th C. How contemporary is Christianity in the 21C? Does the appeal to spirituality resonate with real issues in the same century? How genuinely welcoming are we? Is our gathering one to warm yourself at - alive and heartening or otherwise?
I'd like to look at these questions more finely as they pertain to St.Barnabas and some of the thoughts I have had about the church and its future, next time.
For now I leave you with some words from 'Forty Rules of Love' which suggest the transformative power of love :
This world is like a snowy mountain that echoes your voice. Whatever you speak, good or evil, will somehow come back to you. Therefore, if there is someone who harbours ill thoughts about you, saying similarly bad things about him will only make matters worse. You will be locked in a vicious circle of malevolent energy. Instead for forty days and nights, say and think nice things about that person.Everything will be different after forty days, because you will be different inside.