R4 Moral Maze on ‘Islamic Terrorism’

Moral Maze

In the wake of last week’s killings in Paris, I was on Radio 4’s Moral Maze programme (it can be heard by clicking on the previous link) this evening on the topic of “Islamic Terrorism” (yes, I don’t like the title either).

Those of you who have listened to Moral Maze previously will know that each guest faces a grilling from two of the four regular panellists. I faced a grilling from Anne McElvoy of the Economist (she was previously at the Evening Standard) and Michael Portillo.

I used the encounter to criticise the nihilists of ISIS and also the Western warmongers who keep insisting on dropping bombs on the people of the Middle East and then expect no response in return.


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Book Review: Brief Candle In The Dark by Richard Dawkins


Here’s a proud confession. I have all of Richard Dawkins’s 11 science books (or 10 if we are strict and discount the massive best seller The God Delusion) on my bookshelves and have read them all. He certainly arouses strong feelings in others, both positive and negative, but without question, he cannot and should not be ignored.

I have written elsewhere of how in my younger days my eyes were opened to the wonders of science – thanks in no small part to the books of Richard Dawkins – and my dismay at the realisation concerning the ignorant claptrap about science and especially evolution that I had hitherto imbibed from Muslim religious figures.

In this second of his two part autobiography (the first part was 2013’s An Appetite for Wonder), Dawkins says:

…I dare to hope that my books, starting with The Selfish Gene in 1976, are among those that have changed the cultural landscape, along with the works of Stephen Hawking, Peter Atkins, Carl Sagan, Edward O. Wilson, Steve Jones, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Pinker, Richard Fortey, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Kahneman, Helena Cronin, Daniel Dennett, Brian Greene, the two M. Ridleys (Mark and Matt)… (p7)

If Dawkins sounds a bit arrogant here then we ought to remember (and as Dawkins himself says about the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA James Watson) that he has a lot to be arrogant about. As former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Dawkins regularly took to print and to the airwaves to champion science and to ridicule what he regarded as unsupportable superstition. The targets of his criticism included the poor state of science teaching in some Muslim faith schools.

One of my most memorable encounters was being on the same team as the above-mentioned Professor Steve Jones and Matt Ridley on BBC1’s Big Questions (YouTube video here) as we debated the truth of evolution with some religious deniers.

In this autobiography, Dawkins accepts that he can perhaps come across as being almost too bullish about science, but in his defence recounts a funny anecdote to show that he is not alone.

A former and highly successful editor of New Scientist magazine – he actually built up New Scientist to great heights – was asked: ‘What is your philosophy at New Scientist?’ He said, ‘Our philosophy in New Scientist is this: science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.’ (p262)

Naturally the targets of his ire – often followers of the main world religions maybe do not see it this way. Is Dawkins being unfair? Let’s take a more detailed look at the observations he makes in this autobiography regarding Christianity and Islam and see for ourselves.

First Christianity:

I have tried but consistently failed to find anything in theology to be serious about. I certainly take professors of theology seriously when they use their expertise to do things other than theology: jigsaw the fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls, for instance; or minutely compare Hebrew and Greek texts of scriptures, or sleuth out the lost sources of the four gospels and the other gospels that didn’t make it into the canon. That’s all genuine scholarship, fascinating to read and deserving of respect. It’s even true that historians need to study theological logic-chopping in order to understand the disputes and wars that have stained European history, for example the English Civil Wars. But the vacuous deepities (Dan Dennett’s splendid word) of ‘apophatic theology’ (Karen Armstrong’s obscurantist smokescreen), or the expenditure of precious time arguing with other theologians over the precise ‘significance for us today’ of Original Sin, Transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, or the ‘mystery’ (sorry, ‘Mystery’) of the Trinity, none of that is scholarship in any respectable sense of the word, and it should have no place in our universities. (p177-8)

Dawkins does appear to have a fair point here. After all, can we really justify university money – subsidised by taxpayers – being spent on such studies?

Later in the book, Dawkins draws our attention to a passage from the autobiography of his hero, Charles Darwin. Beginning by noting that “Darwin, as a young man, was a devout believer, destined for a career in the church”, Dawkins shares with us Darwin’s own words later in life in which he said he could:

…hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine. (p253)

Again, the words are very strong, but are they really unfair?

And here is Dawkins on today’s Muslims. He is at a dinner hosted by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks with some of London’s leading Jews:

It was at that dinner that I learned the stunning fact that Jews, who constitute less than 1 per cent of the world’s population, have won more than 20 per cent of all Nobel Prizes. This makes a poignant contrast with the derisorily low success rate of the world’s Muslims, who are orders of magnitude more numerous in the world. I thought – still do – the comparison revealing…how could it not be revealing that one of them has a success rate per head which is literally tens of thousands of times higher than the other, in the fields of intellectual endeavour celebrated by Nobel? Islamic scholars were notable for keeping the flame of Greek learning alive during the middle ages and dark ages of Christendom. What went wrong? (p249)

What indeed? The words may be uncomfortable for Muslims to listen to, but they are surely worth reflecting upon with an open mind.

Back in 2010, Dawkins was one of the co-presenters (along with Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough, James Dyson, Robert Winston and others) of the marvellous five part Channel Four series, The Genius of Britain. The series (which oddly is not mentioned in this autobiography) took a look at the British scientists who kick started the scientific revolution in the UK and which was subsequently exported to much of the world. It noted how 500 years ago, Britain was still very much in a state of darkness where ‘witches’ were still being hunted and burnt. These scientists, beginning with the 17th century giants Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton dared to ask questions about the workings of nature and were allowed the space to continue their research and experiments unhindered by the state. This contributed to an explosive growth in our knowledge and understanding and in due course would lead to the development of the theories of gravity, evolution and the Big Bang which underpin our current understanding of how the universe works. It would lead to practical benefits such as inoculation and vaccination which would prevent millions of needless deaths across the world. It would usher in the technological age which has brought us the PC, the internet and the dazzling new useful gadgets that are being invented every week.

The title of Dawkins’s autobiography is “Brief Candle in the Dark” which is a nod to the great American astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan who talked about “science as a candle in the dark.”

Long may this particular flame shine a light for all of us.


Posted in Books, Islam, Science & Evolution | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Richard Dawkins and Neil DeGrasse Tyson Discuss The Mind, Science, Religion and Atheism

Very interesting discussion between two giants of science with slightly different approaches to teaching science. It’s full of challenging and mind expanding material and ideas. Amongst many highlights, Dawkins explains his metaphor of Mount Improbable and the evolution of the eye. Far better in inspiring wonder than any poetry. Warning: Not for the religiously sensitive.


Posted in Science & Evolution | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

The Times and “Rewriting Islamic History”


Last month, Birmingham University announced that they had discovered Qur’anic fragments that were carbon-dated to being amongst the very earliest to have ever been found. It was a fabulous story that thrilled Muslims worldwide.

Today, there is a peculiar story published in The Times  claiming that the Birmingham fragments “may predate the Prophet Muhammad” thereby calling into question the entire traditional account of the history of the Qur’an and Islam. By all accounts, this is a very serious claim, but what is the evidence behind these claims? Let’s take a look…


Sadly, The Times is behind a firewall so I can’t reproduce the entire article for you, but can tell you that the story, by Oliver Moody, appears to be a highly mischievous one.

Consider the following which is an extract taken directly from The Times article:

“At the time the discovery was hailed as confirmation that the Koran had faithfully preserved the words passed on by Muhammad for more than 1,350 years. Now, several historians think the parchment appears to be so old that it contradicts most accounts of the Prophet’s life and legacy, and may “radically alter the edifice of Islamic tradition”. These claims are strongly disputed by Muslim scholars.”

Who are these “several historians”? The Times article mentions only two.

The first is Tom Holland – who presented a laughably poor  documentary about the early history of Islam on Channel Four a few years ago and whose accompanying book In The Shadow Of The Sword (which I reviewed here) contained schoolboy errors about the Qur’an. After a big build up in his book which began by seeking the “solid bedrock” on which Islam is founded, he admitted – over 300 pages into his book, that:

“…the text of the Qur’an itself does seem to derive authentically from the Prophet’s lifetime…Such a resource is, in consequence, beyond compare: one that positively demands to be sifted for clues to the Prophet’s career and background. Identify these, and it may then be possible to find reflected in the Qur’an glimpses, not merely of the Prophet’s personal circumstances but of something even more suggestive: the broader context of the age.” (p310)

The second is Keith Small, whom the Times describes as a “Koranic manuscript consultant at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library”. This is true, but The Times omits his other title. Dr Small also happens to be on the staff of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

Nevermind. So, what is the evidence behind the claim that the Birmingham University “parchment appears to be so old that it contradicts most accounts of the Prophet’s life and legacy” that they have uncovered. Well, it turns out that these two “historians” have not uncovered anything new whatsoever! As Birmingham University pointed out last month, the fragments have been carbon dated with a 95% probability to the period 568 to 645 CE ie. to a period that very closely corresponds to the time (610 – 632 CE) when the traditional Muslim narrative maintains that the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an.

The straw the two historians appear to clutch at is that the earliest date in that range (568 CE) is just before the Prophet Muhammad was said to have been born (circa 570 CE). However, carbon dating is not an exact science which is why a range of dates is almost always presented by scientists when using the method to date objects. Secondly, the dating is of the parchment not the actual text of the Qur’an it contains. The parchment is logically bound to have been produced prior to the ink being written on it.

So, the story is really a non-story.

Indeed, compare what the sensationalised and badly-evidenced Times story says with what the actual academics who researched the Birmingham University fragments say:

“The tests carried out on the parchment of the Birmingham folios yield the strong probability that the animal from which it was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterwards. This means that the parts of the Qur’an that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad’s death. These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Qur’an read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration and that it can be dated to a point very close to the time it was believed to be revealed.”

Thankfully, we have the exhibition of the Birmingham University fragments to look forward to at the Barber Institute in just over a month from now, God Willing.

Update 1: The Independent reports that “Fragments of ‘world’s oldest known Koran’ unlikely to pre-date Prophet Mohamed, says expert

Posted in Exhibitions, Islam | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Qur’an Strikes Back


The BBC this week reported that what are believed to be amongst the earliest ever fragments of the Qur’an have been found at Birmingham University. The fragments have been carbon dated with a 95% probability to the period 568 to 645 CE ie. to a period that very closely corresponds to the time (610 – 632 CE) when the traditional Muslim narrative maintains that the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an. This means, as Professor David Thomas of Birmingham University has observed:

“The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally – and that really is quite a thought to conjure with.”

So, for Muslims, this finding will be received with immense joy as it confirms their belief in the historicity of the Qur’an and the manner of its compilation and preservation. But, what does this finding mean for Western scholarship about the Qur’an?

Back in the late 1970’s, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook (who both went on to occupy prestigious roles at Princeton University) published a book called Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, which called for a radical revision of the traditional Muslim narrative and insisted that the Qur’an took shape in the 8th century to fulfil a need of the growing Arab empire. The authors claimed at the time that “…There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century…”

Well, as it happens, Crone (who passed away earlier this month) later changed her mind about this as evidence began to accrue that supported the Muslim narrative, but the revisionists’ influence continues to be felt.

Three years ago, the British writer and historian, Tom Holland, published In The Shadow of the Sword which I reviewed here on this blog at the time. Holland argued that much of the Muslim narrative about the history of Islam was unreliable and that Islam as we now know it was largely shaped by the Arab Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. Holland added that the true location of the Prophet’s initial preaching was not the Makka that we know today, but much further north on the border with Palestine.

Accompanying the publication of his book, Tom Holland also presented a Channel Four documentary called “Islam the Untold Story” in which he outlined his case. But let’s return to his book for the moment. Holland’s book started off by posing some big questions.

“…how can we know for sure that the Qur’an dates from the time of Muhammad? How can we know who compiled it, from what sources, for what motives? Can we even be sure that its origins lay in Arabia? In short, do we really know anything at all about the birth of Islam?” (p43)

“Does the Qur’an really date from the Prophet’s lifetime? Where, if not in Mecca, might he have lived? Why are the references to him in the early Caliphate so sparse, so enigmatic, and so late?” (p55)

As I said at the time, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Holland had uncovered something shocking about the Qur’an. It was only over 300 pages into his book that you found out Holland’s actual conclusion about the Qur’an:

“The text of the Qur’an itself does seem to derive authentically from the Prophet’s lifetime…it is true, the Qur’an records a very specific moment in history: a moment that internal evidence, as well as tradition, identifies with the early decades of the seventh Christian century.” (p310-315)

So, after that intriguing build up, we were told that the Muslim narrative about the history of the Qur’an was accurate.

Interestingly, Tom Holland did not mention this rather vital fact in his C4 documentary. Why not? This was surely important and relevant in a documentary seeking to look at the historical foundations of Islam? In a Twitter exchange I had with Tom earlier this week, he said it was not necessary to explicitly mention that modern evidence supports the traditional Muslim narrative about the historicity of the Qur’an because his documentary simply assumed the Muslim dating of the Qur’an was correct.

Personally, I can’t help but feel that the more likely reason Holland did not mention this was because it would have severely undermined his entire thesis for the C4 documentary.

Still, let us let bygones be bygones. Looking forward, British Muslims have cause to be grateful that these latest Qur’an fragments have been found in the UK. They will be placed on public display initially at the Barber Institute in Birmingham in just over two months time. I can’t wait to go and see them.

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Reflections on 7/7

Looking back

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the July 7 2005 bombings in London, as the country remembers the terrible events of that morning, I thought it was worth recalling some of the events in the lead up to that fateful day.

Just over two years previously in February 2003, over one million of us had marched to oppose the upcoming war against Iraq and had congregated in Hyde Park to urge the Blair government to desist from joining the Bush administration’s rush to war with Iraq. It was clear that the US government could not give a fig about the results from the on-going inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and was impatient to launch a war on the pretext of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq allegedly possessing weapons of mass destruction (which as we now know did not exist). The fact that the British Prime Minister Tony Blair enthusiastically went along with this criminal deceit remains an incredibly sore point to this day.

Many of us were convinced that a war against Iraq would be both premature and illegal. The UK government at the time had said it would seek a second United Nations resolution to allow it a mandate to attack Iraq. When it failed to obtain the necessary votes in the UN Security Council, Blair’s government simply said that they didn’t need the second resolution after all and would be joining the US in the bombing and invasion of Iraq. This breath-taking disregard for international law and democracy was hugely dispiriting and was also, at the same time, a tremendous gift for the recruiters in al-Qa’ida and their insistent narrative that the United States and its lackey the UK were intent on crippling any Muslim nation in the oil-rich Middle East that would not do their bidding.

One year after the beginning of the Iraq war, in March 2004, came the train bombings in Madrid believed to have been carried out by an AQ-inspired cell, which killed 191 people. The Spanish government, in the diminutive shape of its Premier, Jose Maria Aznar, had stood right alongside Bush and Blair in their warmongering in Iraq. We could no longer be in any doubt that the UK also was now a prime target for AQ-inspired terrorists.

At the Muslim Council of Britain, we came up with the idea of launching a pocket guide on rights and responsibilities. It would give a summary of the rights of British Muslims at a time when the government was introducing ever more terror-related legislation, but it would also emphasise our responsibility as UK citizens to come to the assistance of the police and authorities in helping to prevent and foil any terror attacks on our soil. I obtained the advice of a senior figure in ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) in the wording of parts of the booklet.

My memories of 7/7 start off with the confusion of that morning. I was working in the IT department of a major news organisation at the time and we were getting up to the minute news feeds which initially said that there had been suspected rail incidents on the London tube network. Very quickly it became apparent that there had been a series of explosions both below ground and above ground. The tube network was shut down. Terrorists had unleashed a series of painful blows in our capitol city. Who were they? It was pretty clear that there was a high likelihood that the attacks had been carried out by Muslims. I do remember a senior figure at a Muslim news magazine insisting that Muslims would not have carried out such attacks – it was far more likely to have been the work of the French, he said. France had just lost out to the UK in the hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games, you see.

A few days later, the MCB’s Secretary-General, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, got a call to notify him that the police had identified the suspected bombers behind the 7/7 attacks and that this information was going to be released to the media in a few hours. We were called urgently to the Home Office for a briefing in advance. We met a senior civil servant who told us that the police were going to say that the preliminary results of their investigation had revealed that four UK Muslims were believed to have carried out the suicide bombings that killed 52 people a few days previously. This was devastating news. I had certainly thought that the bombings were most likely to have been carried out by Muslims – but AQ-inspired Muslims from overseas. A foreign terror cell. Yet, here we were in London, the London with its wondrous free museums and fabulously vibrant and unequalled cultural life, and we were now learning that the cell that had carried out the horrific attacks on our beloved London was comprised entirely of British Muslims. This was really demoralising news. We were then ushered in to see the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, who to his credit was very calm and said that what the terrorists would have wanted above all was to polarise our country and create divisions between communities, and it was the task of all of us to deny them their shameful goal. A few minutes later I was in front of a computer in the Home Office drafting a press release expressing our horror at the news that four British Muslims had committed such an atrocity.

In the coming days, we would hear of some anti-Muslim attacks on schools and mosques, yet overall, my recollection is of just how remarkably understanding the public was about the bombings. British Muslims were not singled out for blame. Not by the public anyway. A couple of years later, at an event in London I was asked by the risible Nick Cohen why it was that if there was a bombing in the UK tomorrow, the first reaction would be to suspect British Muslims. What was it about British Islam that led to such a suspicion. I told him that had such a bombing occurred only fifteen years earlier, the first reaction would have been different – the most likely suspects would have been IRA-affiliated terrorists. And there would have been a number of political reasons for suspecting that. Similarly, at the present time, there were a number of political reasons that some British Muslims were being drawn towards radicalisation.

Since the 7/7 bombings and the failed bombings just two weeks later, there have been a number of successful convictions of British Muslims and foiled terror plots which leave no doubt whatsoever that AQ’s narrative had found receptive ears in the UK. And twelve years on from the Iraq war, far from becoming a successful democracy as we were promised by the warmongers, oil-rich Iraq is an unmitigated disaster. Where prior to the Iraq war, there was no al-Qa’ida, the aftermath of the war saw the growth of AQ in Iraq and the subsequent rise of ISIS.

In Britain, the years since 7/7 have seen the rise of the explicitly anti-Muslim street movements, the EDL and Britain First. And Tony Blair remains free, having brought the British political system into gross disrepute. It is grimly ironic given the woeful record of British intervention in the Middle East that just last week, the Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative government was floating the idea of bombing ISIS in Syria.

In the summer of 2014, ISIS declared the establishment of an Islamic State in the parts of Iraq and Syria that was under their writ. An Islamic State with its own Caliph. It is exceedingly unlikely that this “Islamic State” will become a beacon of learning and tolerance. Quite the opposite.

So, the future seems apparently set to provide us with yet more polarisation and yet more nihilist violence. The UK is by no means perfect. But neither is it the caricature of an Islamophobic state that AQ and ISIS would have us believe. It remains a far more attractive place to live and learn than the “Islamic State” or perhaps any other state in the Muslim world.  A secular state where all citizens enjoy the same rights and protections is surely more preferable than a religious state in which the rights you enjoy are dependent on whether you happen to be of the “right religion”.

In my earlier years I was thrilled to discover that it was Islam that united the Arabs and propelled them to build a beautiful civilisation which valued learning and tolerance. How tragic then that today much of the Muslim world appears to be shackled by narrow-minded interpretations of Islam that are holding back progress in the areas of personal and political freedoms, human rights and the furtherance of knowledge.

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British Muslims and the IS Blame Game


It is an incredible and baffling story. Why would three UK Muslim mothers take their nine children away from Britain and to live in war-torn Syria? Admittedly, their home town was Bradford, but nevertheless!

The Prime Minister David Cameron, urged everyone not to play the blame game and then – ironically – promptly blamed a section of British Muslims for “quietly condoning” IS and urged British Muslims to do more to confront the propaganda of the extremists.

This evening, we now learn that the solicitors for the family are accusing the police of being “complicit” in the radicalisation of the three women by allegedly encouraging them to contact their brother who had already travelled to Syria. More blame.

A couple of days ago, Myriam Francois Cerrah, in an otherwise typically thoughtful piece, blamed “government failings” in allowing the Bradford mothers to leave the UK despite what was known about their brother. For once, it is difficult not to sympathise with the authorities. They get criticised for being too intrusive and heavy-handed in their dealings with UK Muslims, and now for not being intrusive enough and granting the mothers too much freedom.

Ultimately, only the three mothers themselves can tell us about their motivations for leaving the UK for Syria with all the danger that entails for them, their children and their future. I do hope that we will hear from them, not only to better understand this tragic story but perhaps to be able to help others.

Posted in Extremism, Government, Islam | Tagged , , | 16 Comments