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Christianity tells stories; Islam finds designs

  • 31 October 2018


My year ten class studies Islam, one of the most formative influences in the world that my students will inhabit and hopefully improve. I have a profound respect for Islam. Westerners, and especially western Christians, often fail to acknowledge the debt they owe to Islam, a tradition that had a huge role in bringing Europe through the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.

I tell students and anyone else who expresses a mindless contempt for Islam that if they truly feel that way then they should have the strength of their convictions and stop using Arabic numerals. The reason we use Arabic numbers in the first place is that they embody a philosophical concept that was inaccessible to Roman numerals and that, indeed, was threatening to medieval Christianity. That is the idea of zero, the representation of nothing, the articulation of the void.

Zero is a wonderful image of eternity. If you try to divide anything by zero, you have an experience of both the eternal and the absurd right before your eyes, beneath the tip of a cheap pencil. Zero is a perfect circle with nothing to enclose: it has neither beginning nor end. Christians sometimes scratch their heads when Muslims speak of the impossibility of creating visual images of the divine. Mosques don't have statues or pictures. But zero is, in fact, not a bad representation of the sacred.

Christianity tells stories; Islam finds designs, patterns, mosaics. These communities should love each other. Often enough it looks like there is zero chance of that. The prophet Muhammad was one of the liberators of history. It's a pity that a small number of his followers are hell-bent, to use the expression literally, on poisoning their own water. I wouldn't want Christianity judged by the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.

I offer my students a more sympathetic account of the mysticism of Islam than they are likely to get from the media at large. We visit mosques. On one occasion, an imam explained the beliefs of Islam, then quickly moved on to a range of herbal cosmetics and medicines which he was selling, clearly as part of a pyramid scheme. There was comfort in knowing that dodgy practices could cross religious boundaries.

Another mosque, in a northern suburb, occupied a former showroom on top of nondescript shops. It was so plain that, looking for a minaret or a dome shining in the sun, we