Maybe you think £21.24 sounds expensive for a paperback of 76 pages but that is easily explained by the inclusion of over twenty colour illustrations. I suppose it would have been possible to produce black and white copies of the icons though I think that would have been not so much to produce but rather to reduce the icons into black and white. For this is Ethiopic iconography and I always associate colour, even bright and vivid colour, with Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
It has been an absolute joy for this reviewer to review Father Haile’s book. The very first icon revealed on opening the book is entitled Heavenly Blessing and is basically, with minor variations, the same icon Father Haile wrote for the British Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour in Bournemouth and which is so admired and loved by the congregation. There is Saint Mary, Mother of God, holding our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and there are the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and, below, are various saints beloved of the Ethiopians such as Saint Ephraim the Syrian…
This is no dry academic book, no technical treatise for iconographers but rather a book for the common people to read gladly (see Mark 12:37). “Every man when he has a new home, furnishes it with new and costly goods and fine decorations; should not the house/church of the Crucified and Resurrected Lord be furnished and decorated even more so?” This is a book written from the heart by a priest, pastor and iconographer with the aim of enlightening contemporary Western Christians “about the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the art of iconography.” One chapter introduces briefly tabot, cross, maquamia or prayer staff, sistrum, drum; then briefly refers to Ethiopian writings such as the Book of Enoch, the fourteen original anaphoras, objects such as the solid gold cross of King Lailbela, before moving onto a very, very brief history indeed of Ethiopian Orthodoxy… Although this chapter touches on a lot in a very few pages it helps set iconography within the broader spiritual and cultural Ethiopian heritage.
As for why we have icons… “Because the Church is a living body, the life of our Lord and that of the saints are recorded as living memory in forms and ways that the believers can understand…written…icon…oral…” We have icons “to remember the saints and martyrs that have passed into heaven… helping the believers to focus on the things that are above and not below…” Hopefully “when these images are beheld they will somehow take the believer on a journey to the place in their soul where there is calmness, sincerity, and faith which will help us to understand divine truth through the power of the Holy Spirit… Icons evoke in our soul the actions of memory, stirring up in our minds the life of the saints and the beauty of those who served the Lord and help to lift up our hearts to heaven…”
Short chapters in turn briefly yet adequately make the distinction between worship of God and veneration of icons, then consider icons as instruments of teaching and learning.
The visual heart of the book is twelve icons accompanied by brief descriptions and Bible references. To look through them quickly is to experience a riot of colour and certainly answers those claims I used to hear about religion being boring. To look through them slowly, even more so to engage with them meditatively or prayerfully is to experience something of the author’s words on the relationship between the icon and the heart of the believer. The icons start with Heavenly Blessing, the Mother of God holding her Son and our God, with angels and saints and that glorious bright blue background that reflects the earthly heaven of the Ethiopian sky. In the icon of the crucifixion that bright blue is replaced by a dark, dark blue, black at the edges, vividly portraying “the darkness over all the land”, then there is the Resurrection, the Holy Trinity, the Covenant of Mercy, the Four and Twenty Elders, King David playing the psalms on his harp, his eyes fixed heavenward…
A House of Prayer is an astonishing chapter weaving back and forth between the Church as in the people of God and the Church as in the building and the “temple or house being our body where God dwells, our heart being the altar…” This is an extraordinary chapter, deceptively simple yet really profound, containing so much material, so much insight.
A consideration of why we bow before icons includes the distinction between bowing out of respect and bowing in worship and draws us onto the conclusion that the reason icons “have a special place in the House of the Lord and also a place in our hearts…is very simple “for the Glory of God.”” and this desire for the glory of God is emphasised verbally as well as visually with quotations from seven Ethiopian anaphoras, illustrating a pouring out of the heart towards the Divine. I do not recall seeing the word numinous in this book but that is very much a theme of this work, the encounter with and experience of God, the Holy, the Other. Both word and icon seek to express the inexpressible, to lift us beyond ourselves, to raise us higher, to take us above.
The final chapter is a consideration of colour which the author admits he has always found fascinating, the power of colours filling him with awe at such beauty. He begins with a consideration of colours created, through the colours of the rainbow and on to angelic colours, “the sheer beauty of created light, that manifests the grace of light in its first created form.” But he doesn’t end there but rather continues into a consideration of the light of colours Uncreated. This is a wonderful book that will repay more than one or even two readings, with turns of phrase to dwell on and to allow to enter deeply into mind and heart.
If I could make one suggestion for a future edition it would be to strengthen the bibliography or to add a list of suggested further reading for those whose interest in Ethiopian Orthodoxy and iconography has been aroused by this book – works such as Brahana Selassie’s Towards a Fuller Vision or Mahmoud Zibawi’s Eastern Christian Worlds or Heldman and Munro-Hay’s African Zion – the sacred art of Ethiopia.
Father Simon Smyth
In order to add a certain dimensional and depth to this review it is salutary to point out that Patrick Sookhdeo was born in Guyana in 1947, in South America. His father was a Hindu who converted to Islam to marry his Muslim mother. At the age of four, Sookhdeo was sent to an Islamic seminary, ormadrassa, and educated in the Islamic ethos, which invariably informs such an institution. In the early ‘60s, he came to Britain with his father and, as a result of his interaction with Christians as a student in England, he converted to Christianity and commenced studies to become an Anglican priest. Given that he is immersed in the theological traditions of both faiths, he is uniquely placed to offer insights and observations pertaining to these religious faiths. Unfortunately, there is a significant amount of ignorance associated with Islam and its doctrine and theology. While academic journals such asIslamochristiana go someway to provide an insight and overview of some of the similarities between Christianity and Islam, such journals are normally extremely technical and are not sufficiently accessible to the general reader.
In an article published by the BBC on their website, they show that the Muslim population of the UK is 1.6 million or 2.8% of the total UK population using figures from the 2001 Census obtained from the Office for National Statistics. It goes on to state that the “the UK favours multiculturalism, an idea shared by other countries which, in general terms, accepts all cultures as having equal value and has influence over how government engages with minorities.” That figure is now somewhat out of date, and more recent research by The PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life published in September this year examining Muslim networks and movements in Western Europe estimates that the current UK Muslim population is currently 2,869,000, equating to 4.6% of the total population. With the Muslim population of the United Kingdom rising steadily, it is therefore important to have a clear understanding of what exactly Islam is and what it stands for doctrinally, ethnically, morally and the implications for our wider contemporary society.
Sookhdeo writes impartially, objectivity and realistically about the difficult issues which inform and animate these two great world “faiths of the book” with none of the zeal that often informs converts. He is not afraid to deal with difficult issues and he writes systematically about the theological differences between Christianity and Islam with clarity, diplomacy and respect and without being vituperative.
His book is divided into a number of sections. It commences with an insightful introduction, which sets out the basis and an overview of the structure that the book will take, where he deals with the issue of multiculturalism and political correctness head on.
The second chapter entitled ‘Understanding Islam’ proffers an extremely concise and informative introduction to the theology and doctrinal tenets that informs the Islamic faith, and touches on issues such as eschatology, morality and contemporary issues within Islam.
In the third chapter ‘Comparing Islam and Christianity’, Sookhdeo points out that while Islam and Christianity have certain points of doctrine in common, such as a belief in one God, revealed scriptures and the Day of Judgement, there is an enormous difference between them in the crucial areas of understanding God’s nature and especially, Christ and salvation. He shows that the real difference lies in the issues associated with their respective sacred writings and the persons of their respective founders. His comparative analysis is excellent, and offers an extremely salient overview of the very real differences in a manner that is accessible to everybody who reads it. Within these first two chapters he clearly brings to our attention how Islam claims to supersede and be superior to Christianity, and that Muhammad is the final revelation of God; thus relegating the position of Christ to inferiority and Christianity to a malicious falsehood. Sookhdeo highlights that while there are some theological commonalities existing between Christianity and Islam; the differences between the two faiths are intractable and insurmountable
The fourth chapter deals with some of the issues associated with Islam that generate the most controversy: the treatment of women, education and freedom of speech. All of these issues have relevance for everyone who resides in the British Isles and in Europe. All of us are well aware of the issues associated with ‘faith schools’ in this country, and how issues of freedom of speech have resulted in death threats and widespread violence in Europe, as a result of the depiction of the Prophet by a Danish cartoonist.
The next chapter deals with Christian-Muslim relations. In many respects this is the chapter which can be most profitably read as a basis to begin meaningful dialogue between these two major faith groups. Contemporary British society is unfortunately animated by extraordinary forms of political correctness, therefore, it is refreshing to read the pristine critique and reasoning employed by Sookhdeo in his approach to this most difficult and potentially emotive of subjects. One of the extraordinary benefits of reading this book is the fact that Sookhdeo offers tangible examples to illuminate and to provide demonstrable evidence to some of the central tenets of his arguments.
Very carefully and very sensitively he deals with some of the issues associated with the construction of new mosques for the Muslim community, which often receive only the most cursory examination in contemporary British society. Nevertheless, as a relatively recent event demonstrates, plans to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from a mosque in Oxford over a loudspeaker, show this is something that can become incredibly emotive and decisive. Most disturbing to read is his analysis of Christian-Muslim co-operation on overseas aid, relief and development, where he proffers tangible example of how Muslim theological thinking animates Muslim aid agencies’ approaches to the handing out of relief aid in areas experiencing natural disasters. He highlights the practice in Indonesia after the tsunami in 2004, where Christians found that they were refused aid unless they agreed to convert to Islam, and this practice is by no means unusual.
Using any yardstick Sookhdeo’s book is genuinely fascinating overview in an accessible manner of the real issues between Christianity and Islam, which need to be addressed by all the major Christian churches. It is a work of remarkably fine scholarship, with incredibly up-to-date and well illuminated examples from all over the world, thus avoiding the criticism that book is a narrow, insular, intellectually indolent and one-dimensional overview of a particular place and time. Such a book is to be greatly welcomed particularly in light of the polarised and miss-information circulated about Islam as a result of the talk given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Temple Church, which highlighted certain aspects of Islamic law. The counter arguments that ensued were informed by ignorance and theological apologetics, which left people feeling confused about Islam.
The great strength of the book is the articulation of Islam in a condensed but accessible manner to an extremely wide readership. Sookhdeo’s work brings to our attention a dimension of Islam that is not usually articulated and that is ignored by many Christian churches, political institutions and the general media with an alacrity that is almost alarming. It would be a useful and worthwhile exercise for every civil servant to read this book because there is much to be learned from it; because it offers a concise articulation of Islam and its doctrine, which needs to be clearly understood for reasons of public policy. Members of the legal profession can also read this work with profit, as it offers an important insight into the cultural mindset that can often prove extremely divisive in family proceedings in court.
Far too often Islam is understood and examined as a sociological phenomena because of the intermingling and fusion of the various different diasporic groupings in the UK. Any meaningful analysis of the Islamic faith has to be understood in the light of its theology, and how that theology is informed by culture and place. This book is a significant steppingstone and bridges an important gap in our knowledge deficit about Islam in an accessible manner in the English idiom. Every Christian leader should read it to be informed about the profound theological differences that exist between the two faiths. It delivers an uncomfortable truth, which we ignore at our peril.
For the purposes of this review, a quick search was undertaken on Amazon’s UK website to ascertain the exact number of published works, Patrick Sookhdeo has published on Islam. Since 2001, he has been publishing one book a year on aspects of Islam, its various different impacts, and its manifestations in contemporary society, which of itself, is a pretty significant achievement and accomplishment. According to the Amazon website, this particular book came on the market in November, 2009 less than two months before the massacre of Coptic Christians in the Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi, on Saturday 7 January, 2010 as members of the Coptic Community were emerging from the Cathedral in that city, after celebrating the midnight Christmas liturgy celebrated in accordance with the Coptic Calendar.
Recently, the massacre of Catholic Christians has been at the forefront of our news media and agenda; due to the massacre in the Iraqi city of Baghdad at Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Church on 31 October, 2010, which left 58 dead, most of whom had been attending a Sunday evening Eucharist. The victims included two young priests, with an older priest seriously injured. More than 60 were injured, many seriously. This completely unprovoked attack on a Christian community raises extremely serious and profound questions about the nature of freedom, religious assembly, and the very nature of belief in Islamic countries.
During the course of this year, there has been simmering religious tension between Roman Catholics & Muslims in Malaysia due to a decision of the High Court in December 2009, which permitted the use of the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God in a Catholic newspaper, which resulted in Muslim journalists desecrating a consecrated host, and taking photographs of the defiled one for publication in a Muslim magazine.
With the above events as a framework it is perhaps timely that be reviewing Sookdeo’s book. Importantly, this book starts with an extremely perceptive foreword by the former Anglican Bishop of Rochester: Michael Nazir-Ali, who by his own admission had to flee his native Pakistan due to threats made against him and his family, because of his Christian faith and work as an Anglican missionary. Bishop Michael, is a man of great erudition, and has been studying the central tenets of Islam for a significant number of years, thus setting, an extremely interesting and engaging tone for the entire book. As with the author, this provides a particular pertinence and relevance.
Sookdeo, starts his book with an extremely interesting oversight; one which often does not spring to mind immediately in everyday discussion about Islam, but one that is nonetheless extremely relevant in our contemporary debate about religious faith and religious freedom; namely that the President of the United States Barak Obama’s late father and grandfather were Muslims, and that by embracing Christianity, Obama has made himself an apostate in the eyes of Islam, and as such, he deserves the death penalty. In extremely stark and sober language he points out “Islam stands alone among world religions in officially prescribing a range of severe punishments for any of its adherents who choose to leave their faith, punishments that include the death sentence.”
The first chapter is an excellent overview of what classical Islam teaches about apostasy, which draws together themes from the Koran, the Hadith, the Sharia Law, along with a perceptive overview of how the interpretation of apostasy is manifested in the four different major schools of Islamic jurisprudence, within their respective geographical locations. Sookdeo shows convincingly that all three strands, which contemporary Islam draws upon, give explicit approval for the punishment, and death of those who become apostates from Islam, as well as showing the eschatological punishment that traditional Islamic theology holds, for those individuals.
The second chapter proffers an overview about the debate and the various different interpretations of apostasy law within contemporary Islam. For this chapter, he draws on a number of sources, and he highlights one of the most fundamental differences between Islam and the Judaeo-Christian traditions in their radically diametrically opposed understandings of what it means to be a person. Importantly, he brings to our attention in this chapter that in 1990 Muslim leaders meeting in Cairo produced an alternative Islamic ‘Cairo Declaration on Human Rights’, which firmly subjugated all human rights to the authority of Sharia Law. However, what would have been most welcome and illustrative for readers of this particular section would have been a comparative note on how the conceptual differences between Human Rights, are understood from a ‘Western’ perspective when compared to this Cairo Declaration. What will undoubtedly be of interest to readers of this journal, in the section of the chapter dealing with ‘amending the apostasy law’ are some of the comments relating to Egypt, made in July 2007, by the Egyptian Grand Mufti, Ali Gomma, along with a statement by the deputy head of the Egyptian Supreme Court, which make for disturbing reading.
The third chapter perhaps most disturbingly of all deals with the application of Islamic apostasy law in the world today. It starts as an extremely considered and measured exposition of discernible trends, associated with jurisprudential developments in countries where Sharia Law is all-pervasive, and where the implications for the apostate from Islam are extremely severe. Sookdeo, then brings the reader on a tour of the respective jurisdictions where, apostasy from Islam has serious implications, which can include death, and the deprivation of the legal rights/protections and privileges afforded to the Muslim majority. Countries associated with the application of the Islamic apostasy law are mentioned, such as: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Malaysia and the Maldives. In this chapter, Sookdeo, in his analysis of the Egyptian situation, masterfully shows how the Egyptian Constitution of 1923, which guarantees equality before the law of all Egyptians, has been continuously reformulated to strengthen the position of Islam; whilst the rights afforded to both Coptic Christians and other religious minorities have been steadfastly eroded. Alarmingly, he brings to our attention that since the early 1970s there have been calls within Egypt by Muslim conservatives for the reinstatement of the death penalty for apostasy, which providentially, have been resisted by the Christian minority working in conjunction with liberal Muslims and secular elements within Egyptian society.
The second part of this chapter gives demonstrable examples of experiences of converts from Islam in Muslim majority countries. In particular, the experience of Tahir Iqbal in Pakistan makes deeply disturbing reading. Importantly, he brings to our attention the experience of converts from Islam to Christianity in the West, and the sharp delineation in the experience of people who have converted to Islam within the United Kingdom, who are publicly celebrated and applauded, and feel absolutely no fear whatsoever for the public profession of their newly found faith. This is contrasted with people who convert from Islam to Christianity and who live in a state of constant fear, being treated as second-class citizens by their communities, in the form of significant and continuous harassment, death threats and personal violence. In the United Kingdom, this scenario was investigated by Channel 4 in its Dispatches programme in 2007, which for the first time brought the situation experienced by these converts into the public mainstream consciousness.
Within this chapter, he also brings to our attention that certain Muslim groups are seeking to gain a privileged position for Islam on the international stage. He shows that the 57-member nations of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference have been heavily lobbying the UN and EU, to obtain preferential treatment for the Islamic faith, a position that not even Christianity enjoys. They are also pushing the UN General Assembly and other UN bodies to adopt resolutions, which seeks to prevent any negative criticism of Islam, something accorded to no other major religious faith grouping.
A discerning reading of the three chapters will leave even the most ill informed individual with the irresistible conclusion that religious freedom is not a hallmark of Muslim majority countries. The penalties for apostasy within Islam are severe and are routinely enforced due to the cultural and religious prescriptiveness that usually informs the vast majority of Muslim countries. These usually ignore, without fear of international condemnation, Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration Of Human Rights.
His conclusion is a sober, deeply depressing but accurate appraisal of the situation facing apostates within Islam today. However, I am more than a little disappointed given the author’s considerable knowledge of the subject that he does not offer any advice in his conclusion on how to bring about the reality, which he hopes for that: ‘freedom of religion within Islam lies in the abolition of all penalties for apostasy and permission for those who wish to leave Islam to do so’.
As I concluded in my previous review, Sookhdeo’s book can be profitably read by everybody. Its real strength is the fact it brings together strands of the most important information – from Islamic sources that are accessible in English – highlighting contemporary thinking about apostasy in the Islamic world. It offers a truly global perspective, and for the first time highlights the extensive use of lobbying by Islamic interest groups, on a geopolitical level to justify what is the most egregious action, and one which is contrary to well established universal norms. Given the rise of a militant and intolerant stream of Islam, and recent events, we should all very carefully consider and reflect upon what is contained within this book. Importantly, he does this in a way that is not alarmist nor inflammatory, but in a way that invites us all to reflect very carefully about the consequences of our passivity in relation to our own Christian faith.
Members of the legal profession can also read this work profitably, as it offers an important insight into the very real life and death situations that can inform the cases, which are often in front of immigration judges who are asked to make judicial determinations, especially when the Home Office is pressing for converts from Islam to be returned to their native country. The book calls into serious question the protections afforded to these individuals by the UN Charter on Human Rights. The index, with an extensive list of endnotes, provide a very rich basis for future research to any interested or concerned party demonstrating the fine academic training which the author invariably received as part of his academic formation for his Ph.D. research at SOAS.
I recognise and appreciate that this is not the kind of work that will immediately appeal to everybody. Nevertheless, that should not negate its pertinence and relevance, but it is a book that deserves to be widely read for its excellent and sensitive handling of an extremely emotive issue, and I heartily recommend it.
Readers of the Glastonbury Review will be familiar with the several articles on Glastonbury’s history which Paul Ashdown (Subdeacon Wulfric) has contributed over a number of years and will know that his breadth of knowledge and carefully documented sources ensure that folklore, tradition and history are carefully balanced in the presentation of his subject, but never confused.
The study of Glastonbury, with all its pre-Christian, monastic, Arthurian and New Age accretions has a long history of tending to attract those of a romantic disposition who have not always been satisfied with the limited evidence of recorded history or archaeology and have preferred to supplement these from their own preferences as to what should have happened and, sometimes, from spiritual revelations uniquely entrusted to them.
Ashdown has chosen to investigate the origin of the widespread modern legend that our Lord Jesus came to Britain in his youth in the company of Joseph of Arimathea; and it was this belief which inspired William Blake’s verse, “And did those feet in Ancient Time walk upon England’s Mountains green ?” sung with great gusto on patriotic occasions as the hymn, Jerusalem.
He follows up an interesting but inconclusive investigation made in 1989 by A.W. Smith in the journal,Folklore, and applies his own specialist knowledge of Glastonbury traditions, West Country folklore with a scholarly approach to sources – some of which were not available to Smith – to develop and amplify his thesis. In the process we are introduced to a colourful cavalcade of enthusiasts and eccentrics, many of them clergy of the Established Church, who elaborated what might even have begun simply as an attempt to promote a tradition of divine visitation to Cornwall but became entangled and confused with a competing range of legends dealing with Glastonbury and the West Country.
Like a Sherlock Holmes investigation we pick up clues from one source and hasten off in pursuit of the next stage in our quest, attempting to unravel riddles and conundrums randomly scattered in our path yet leading on to the next piece of the jigsaw. It was surprising to learn that this “ancient” tradition probably originates in the late nineteenth century and that many of the colourful additions were incorporated over less than a century. Ashdown’s narrative ascends to the remote village of Priddy in the Mendips in search of the links between Joseph and the tin trade, the supposed reason for Joseph’s voyage, where we find confusion over Mendip lead and Cornish tin mingled with the spiritual aspirations of a devout old Sunday school teacher that were cited as ancient oral authority within only a few years of his death. Scholars there are, like Henry Jenner, the “Father of the Cornish Language Revival”; Sabine Baring-Gould, the ‘Squireson’ of Lew Trenchard in Devon and Dom Ethelbert Horne, OSB, Titular Abbot of Glastonbury, but there are also those for whom the tradition had become an immoveable doctrine of faith, like Lionel Smithett Lewis. Churning out edition after edition of his “St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury or The Apostolic Church of Britain” he appropriated obscure and questionable “authorities” to elevate his theories into facts. This motley array of clergy, scholars and obsessives, like a fashionable cocktail party, represent volatile factions each promoting their own vision of Glastonbury, against a colourful background of secondary characters such the occultist Dion Fortune or Bligh Bond, the archaeologist whose science depended on messages from the spirit realm.
Chapter 15 “Foreshadowings”, which carefully re-examines and analyses with scholarly precision the historic authorities upon which the legends are founded, allows the reader to reflect on what William of Malmesbury and John of Glastonbury actually said and what they might have meant, and traces how their statements were developed by later writers such as Leland, Camden and Ussher. From there we are plunged into the phantasmagoria of Blake’s cosmology, regarded by Southey as “evidently insane”, and the little known Kentish gentleman, Kit Smart, who passed many years forcibly confined in St. Luke’s hospital for Lunatics. The fragments remaining of Smart’s great opus, Jubilate Agno treats of the evangelisation of Britain and Ashdown skilfully draws these and other threads together to tease out the different strands of the legend.
This pot pourri of Glastonbury cranks and their ideas is skilfully handled by Ashdown, whose narrative interconnects them in both an informative and entertaining way, mixing the sheer dottiness of English eccentricity with the transcendence of visionaries. At the end, like Smith, he fails to provide a conclusive answer but we feel that we have explored a full range of options; and whilst our heads might end up with a negative answer to Blake’s rhetorical question, our hearts share something with the devout Nonconformist preacher: “I wish,” he said somewhat wistfully, “that it could be so and that He still came to Priddy.”
 Pages 52-53
 Pages 83-85
 Pages 13-14
 Traditions recording what Muhammed and his followers said and did, which have been recorded in writing.
 Pages 50-51
 “King Lucius & the Evangelisation of Britain” (GR 111), “How Old is Chalice Well?” (GR 112), “A Second Depiction of the Holy Lance of Aethelstan” (GR 116), “Some Coptic Parallels in Glastonbury Legend” (117) & “The Earliest Evolution of the Glastonbury Legend. An Overview” (GR 118)