Saturday, 11 November 2006


And when thy Lord said to the angels, 'I am about to place a vicegerent in the earth,' they said, 'Wilt Thou place therein such as will cause disorder in it and shed blood? And we glorify Thee with Thy praise and extol Thy holiness.' He answered, 'I know what you know not.'


Verse 31 from Surah al Baqarah, the second chapter of the Qur’an
88 years ago today, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, across the widest front in warfare there had yet been, the guns fell silent. The Great War was to have been the war to end wars and today marks the anniversary of the armistice that brought the Great War to an end. And yet there was no armistice. It was not the end but the beginning of modern mechanised, industrial slaughter that marked the twentieth century as probably the most brutal in human history: Hitler's terrible holocaust; Dresden; Coventry; the prison camps of Burma; Hiroshima; Nagasaki; Malaysia; Kenya; Congo; Srebrenica; Rwanda; Liberia; Sierra Leone and the running sore of Palestine. The beacon of the twenty-first century too was lit with fire and blood. In Afghanistan; Iraq; Lebanon and Sri Lanka the cruel fires of hatred have continued to engulf human life. This planet has not breathed a minute of peace since that first Armistice Day.
Is this something within us? Some inevitable lust for destruction buried, not so very deep, within our psyche? I remember taking my young step-son to the Farnborough air show and feeling the thrill of the ground trembling beneath my feet, the sight, smell and thunder of the afterburners as the hugely powerful fighters ascended to execute their aerobatics. And on that warm day I felt a sudden chill pass through me as I realised that I was excited; thrilled; enrapt by the technology of death. These machines were designed only to kill.
The angels respectfully asked God why. I have often asked the same question. Our species seems like a cancer in the body of the planet and wouldn't it be better if some cosmic laser beam would destroy these ravenous and uncontrollable cells. And yet God replied that He knows what the angels knew not: That there is a Divine purpose to humanity.
The other night I went to a concert and heard Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 3 and I thought I gleamed a part of the answer. Interesting name, that composer, Rahman-inoff ‘of the Most Bountiful’ which is one of the primary attributes of God. The happiest time I spend at my university is in the library. The great libraries are the greatest wonders of existence: places where the minds of the long dead can reach out and touch living minds.
Religion is often blamed for the cause of conflict and nowadays Islam, particularly the most distorted manifestations of it, is in the frame. Religion itself is not to blame. Religion, sex and food are probably the most exploited desires because they are the most powerful human urges. But they are not themselves evil: on the contrary they are all necessary and wonderful. Religion should teach us that we are all brothers and sisters, all fashioned by the same Hand: the Jew and Muslim; the atheist and agnostic; the Christian and Buddhist; the princess and the prostitute; the wasp; the snake; the lamb and the lion; the dog and the pig. Every religious founder has tried to bring the same message: that love is stronger than hate; that unity is truth and that division is falsehood. That water puts out fires; not more fire. The biggest threats to mankind, and indeed the planet itself, are greed and consumption. It is time to say, ‘No more.’ Human beings have a tremendous capacity for destruction but we also have the capacity for thought and love and prayer. And prayer works. And prayer heals. Our identity should not be defined by flag or even creed but by love and our common divinity.
The devil often rides forth in priestly garb. It is time he was unfrocked.