Monday, 16 March 2015

Bangladeshi Muslims, Sin and the Wolf Hall

I recently watched Wolf Hall, a great historical drama series produced by the BBC on Thomas Cromwell’s (1485- 1540) life. History remembers him as a great English lawyer and statesman who served as the Chief Minister to King Henry the VIII of England from 1532 to 1540.

Can’t wait for the next season, I hope BBC will make another series to depict the life of Thomas Cromwell in full, as this series has so far focused on King Henry the VIII’s troubles with his first wife Catherine of Aragon and his mistress who later became his wife, Anne Boleyn.  The series ends (spoiler warning) with Queen Anne Boleyn being hanged at the Tower of London because of her multiple affairs with King’s associates. At times it also seemed that she was also flirting with Thomas Cromwell and the wise man somehow passed her tests.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540)

King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell
I am fascinated by British history, in particular, with the Age of Enlightenment or as some put it as the ‘Age of reason’ (1650s to 1780s). I think it is wise to start looking at the context of this age of reason which certainly was born out of England’s politics in the 15th and 16th century. I believe the events in Henry VIII’s life and Thomas Cromwell’s mastery in government played a role in shaping the mind of the 16th century thinkers like another Thomas, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who has written extensively on liberty, government and the social contract, a great philosopher of the modern time.

King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s life is particularly significant in British history because of the separation of state from the Church and the fall out between the King and the Pope on the matter of King Henry VIII’s divorce from with his first wife Catherine of Aragon who failed to give him a masculine child (to borrow The Godfather’s term).

Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII(1491-1547)
The drama is based on famous English author Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies which chronicle the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a humble blacksmith who became the right-hand man of the King Henry VIII. I think apart from his political skills and great ability to manipulate in power, Thomas Cromwell’s unprivileged background made him a great subject of British history. Otherwise, why is that we don’t hear of the other chief ministers of many kings who came and went in those times.  

Sense of Sin | 16th Century England and 21st Century’s Bangladeshi Muslims
One observation I made during the drama is the significance of sin in 16th century British people’s life and the constant reference of it in many dialogues between the actors. This reminded me of the psyche of many in the Bangladeshi community in Bangladesh and here in East London and the constant reference of sin they make in everyday life. Bangladeshi Muslim society is probably as religious as the people of 16th century Britain.  The sense of sin plays a big part in our life. Morality is defined and enshrined in our psyche through the idea of sin which we are taught in childhood mostly though lessons from mullahs (religious teacher) and parents who were taught by mullahs.
My favourite philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) dedicated a whole chapter to this called ‘Sense of sin’ in one of his best work ‘The Conquest of Happiness’. He argued that ‘Sin is one of the most important of the underlying psychological causes of unhappiness in adult life.’ Another interesting quote his book cites is from the 13th century philosopher and Oxford scholar Roger Bacon, who says: 'for more sins reign in these days of ours than in any past age, and sin is incompatible with wisdom.’

In our life, I observe the idea of sin is mostly concerned with the contesting the oneness of God (shirk) and the status of the messengers etc. Interestingly however, I observe that a lot of practical moral issues we are burdened with in everyday life are not necessarily prevalent substance in defining sin i.e. lying, discriminating others especially for their economic or employment status or gender, promoting hatred, envy, bullying, physical, verbal and psychological abuse, etc. This is not to say our scriptures didn’t have instructions regarding them. I am just noting the apparent highlight of the sins related to sex amongst the religious community and its obsession with it.

Comparative sin
An example of the sense of sin amongst first generation British Bangladeshi parents is that they sometimes justify forcing their son or daughter to marry cousins from Bangladesh in order to fulfil responsibility to extended family in Bangladesh and provide them with economic security and also strengthen the family bond. Interestingly they are not likely to be concerned of their son or daughter’s choice and will. Uncles and aunties of Bangladeshi community often justify this because they think they are being loyal to the wellbeing of their extended family and clan.

Now there is dilemma they face when their son/daughter have chosen their partner and would like to marry them. Especially when they are concerned about the moral police that exist in society combined of extended family, neighbours and so on. It will be interesting to establish what plays the main role in influencing their decision. Is it the very idea of being immoral or is it the society that imposes the idea of right/wrong?

In some communities, I have observed that the belief that it is ones duty to look after his or her family than to give in to individual choice, allowing your daughter to marry a man she/he chose is to give in to an idea of sin. There are further gender implications in this as it is mostly the daughters that are subjected in this moral dilemma. Moreover, the idea of love and affection between two genders prior to marriage is probably the biggest general sin to exist in our society. In fact I have observed this in Islam that the second most significant idea of sin is hugely concerned with sex after the sin of ‘shirk’ which is to associate partners with God. I wonder why that has become the second key issue in the idea of sin. Wolf Hall demonstrates Christianity’s obsession with the same issue in 16th century England.

The English Quran

One particular scene in the drama was when at a church the priest was shocked to suddenly hear some attendees rebelliously starting to recite the Bible in English. An English version of the Bible was commissioned by King Henry VIII called the Great Bible and was translated from Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament). I imagine a similar situation and shock if someone in the East London Mosque was to start reciting the Quran in English. I wonder why the exclusivity of people of certain language that earns God’s blessings by default. Will God discriminate his creations based on the languages He has blessed them with or will God hold language as a big criterion in how He will bestow his forgiving on the Day of Judgement? 

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