Another excellent epistle from Father Frank…
“80 strokes of the lash. The had – penalty – for inebriation. According to the learned Abdur Rahman I. Doi’s text, Sharia: The Islamic Law. Four drunken Somali girls in the news for brutally attacking another girl might have rated the flogging but…were they actually Muslims? ‘Not really’, a caller said on LBC radio: ‘No Muslim would be like that.’
Leaving aside the celebrated ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, the question arises whether some sins are so heinous as to make the sinner ipso facto into an unbeliever. How many divine commandments do I have to break, to cease being a Christian, for example?
Islam first. The Qur’an (Surah of the Cow:219) condemns the drinking of khamr, wine: In it ‘is a grave sin’. The Book’s position is nuanced, however: it also admits that in wine is ‘some profit’. Still, the sin is ‘greater than the profit’. Surah 5, al-Maida, is more forthright: khamr is ‘filth from Satan’ – pretty stark, as well as an excellent definition of sin in general, the priest must say. But is being intoxicated technically really kabira, a big sin that makes a Muslim guilty of kufr, unbelief?
Parenthetically, the Somali girls were spared jail because, the British judge ruled, being Muslims, they were not used to wine. A Qadi, a Sharia judge, might have argued differently: exactly because of their faith they should avoided the filth from Satan. A fortiori, they merited the lash – perhaps an extra 40 strokes? Somali ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali and our sad Druid-in-Chief, the Archbishop of Canterbury, would scream ‘cruelty to women’, of course. The priest is tempted to side with the Qadi here – interfaith solidarity, eh? No, I jest, I could never countenance harm to ladies, no way. (Another line the girls’ lawyer might have taken was that it had been British yobbish youth culture that had debased them – I doubt the judge would have liked that.)
On the consequences of sin, there is a complex discussion going back to Hasan al-Basri. The rationalist school of Islam, the Mutazilis, sensibly distinguished between sins entailing infidelity or otherwise. Light sins, or peccadilloes, do not comport kufr. Grave sins involve the perpetrator in real infidelity, hence excluding him from the community, without, however, making him into a sinner in an absolute sense – a position with its own difficulties…
Will Muslims guilty of kabira suffer both in this world and in the next? I believe most authorities opine that undergoing sharia punishments here is quite enough but I seem to recall that Imam Abu Hanifa would confine them to Hell even in the Hereafter. I trust he had his own, shrewd theological reasons.
What about the Christian view? In Vino Veritas but wine can be treacherous: ‘It goes down smoothly’ but ‘at last it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder’, warns the sage in the Book of Proverbs (23:32). Still, wine is certainly not satanic – it is not forbidden in Judaism nor does the New Testament make wine-drinking illicit. Jesus was not a teetotaller – a great embarrassment to Methodists ever since. Indeed, as one of the elements of the Eucharist, wine can have a high sacramental quality. Thus, it is not drinking which is wrong but drunkenness – two quite different things. Anyhow, drunkenness is run-of-the-mill sinfulness. For the really big sins you must look elsewhere.
Where? There is the sin against the Holy Ghost, the only unforgivable sin. Unfortunately Christ never said what that is. Well, think about baptism. You become a Christian by baptism. Nothing can efface that sacrament. (Even those who renounce Christ and apostatise – a horrible thing – retain that indelible sacramental character.) The standard distinction between mortal and venial sins applies. Mortal sins are those deadly to the soul – the equivalent of eternal death. Nevertheless even a Myra Hindley and a Dr Shipman, if baptised, were still technically Christians. Heretics were anathematised, i.e. cast out of the Church, so I suppose that means they were no longer Christian? Ultimately, it is up to God to decide, surely?
Past ages knew all about sin. Not today. When I heard confessions, I quickly realised penitents did not know how to confess, because they did not know what counts as sin. ‘We hardly ever mention the word “sin” here’ calmly confessed Alastair, the Vice-Principle of Cuddesdon Theological College, where I was trained. The English people, by and large, are in the same league. The Church of England has completely given up on sin – venial or mortal, it matters not. So the subject is as dead as a dodo. No more ‘filth from Satan’. Aren’t you happy?
Long ago, when sin really haunted Christian men, priests sometimes contrived ways of making the burden lighter. The most ludicrous of all must have been the notion of ‘philosophic sin’. It claimed that you were not guilty of a sin if you were not thinking about God at the moment of committing it. The great Blaise Pascal poured scorn at it: ‘I had always thought the less a person thought of God, the more he sinned. I was wrong. Just never think of God at all and you’ll never sin. So pass your life in a constant round of sins, amuse yourself, cheat, rob, lie, fornicate and forget God. Brilliant!’
‘Philosophic sin’ was condemned in 1690 by Pope Alexander VIII – good bloke! But…you know what? I got a sneaking feeling that fraudulent idea is back with a vengeance. Because one thing is clear: our society has given up thinking or caring about God. All England today is like Cuddesdon College. The word ‘God’ is fast disappearing from public and private discourse – it remains only in swearing. Back in their original homeland, the drunken Somali girls would have been reminded of their Creator all the time – clearly, here in post-Christian UK they found it easy to forget about him. Could that be possible? Muslims are slowly getting like the Christians – they gradually forget about God and hence also about sin?
Small sins, big sin – such fine casuistry is now beside point. What remains is that old ‘filth from Satan’. It grows bigger and bigger. It destroys institutions, finance, schools, society, all men and women. Until they again start thinking of God.”