Being, in a round about way, a meditation on a verse by Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri: ”When a blind man goes by, pity him and know for sure that ye are all blind, even if ye have sight”

Sculptor Fathi Muhammad with his bust of Al-Ma'aari

Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be True;
Ay, but weak is the chain of those who warrant their truth.
Consult thy reason and let perdition take others all:
Of all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.Al-Ma'arri (trans. Nicholson, poem 209)

Ye have gotten a long, long shrift, O kings and tyrants,
And still ye work injustice hour by hour.
What ails you that ye tread no path of glory?
A man may take the field, tho’ he love the bower.
But some hope an Imám with prophetic voice
Will rise amid the silent ranks gaze.
An idle thought! There’s no Imám but reason,
To point the morning and the evening ways.Al-Ma'arri (trans. Nicholson, poem 109)

When a blind man goes by, pity him and know for sure that ye are all blind, even if ye have sight.Al-Ma'arri (trans. Nicholson, poem 212)

Al-Ma'arri's bust today.
Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri (973–1057CE) was a blind Arab philosopher, poet, and writer who is regarded by many as one of the greatest classical Arabic poets. Born in the city of Maʿarra during the Abbasid era, he studied in nearby Aleppo, then in Tripoli and Antioch.

Described as a pessimistic freethinker, Al-Maʿarri was a controversial rationalist of his time, citing reason as the chief source of truth and divine revelation.

Al-Maʿarri was a sceptic in his beliefs who denounced superstition and dogmatism in religion and one of the recurring themes of his philosophy was the right of reason against the claims of custom, tradition, and authority. Al-Maʿarri taught that religion was a “fable invented by the ancients”, worthless except for those who exploit the credulous masses:

"Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce."
Al-Maʿarri is controversial even today as he was highly sceptical about Islam, the dominant religion of the Arab world and, in 2013, almost a thousand years after his death, the al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda, beheaded a statue of al-Maʿarri during the Syrian civil war. (Sources: HERE and HERE)


It is God who endowed you with hearing, sight, and hearts — how seldom you are grateful.
            Qur’an 23:78 (trans. The Study Qu'ran)

Strengthen the weak hands,
   and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
   ‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
   He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
   He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
            Isaiah 35: 3-6


Being, in a round about way, a meditation on a verse by Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri: 
 “When a blind man goes by, pity him and know for sure that ye are all blind, even if ye have sight”

It may come as a surprise to you to know that within the Christian sphere as it can be most broadly conceived, the largest Unitarian movement in the world — where the word Unitarian is used simply to refer to the single idea that God is One and that Jesus is not God but a being created by God — is not our own radically open, free-thinking, liberal one, but the secretive, sectarian, millenarian and restorationist one of the Jehovah Witnesses. Globally, they currently have approximately eight and a half million members compared to our own approximately eight hundred thousand.

Unlike us, however, they do not tolerate any internal dissent over their doctrines and practices and shun or expel any of their members who do so. They believe that the Bible forbids any kind of interfaith or ecumenical encounters because there is only one truth from God which is expressed only in and through their own community; no other religions and secular communities meet the requirements set by God and so, in time, they will be destroyed. Given all this, members are told they must keep themselves separate from the world which is believed to be morally contaminated and ruled by Satan. In turn, this means their members are taught that any significant association with “worldly” people represents a considerable threat to their chances of salvation and so they are encouraged to keep contact with those outside their community to an absolute minimum. As I’m sure you also know they are highly suspicious of modern medical practices and refuse all blood transfusions, even when the situation is life-threatening, and their secretive, coercive and hierarchical organisational structure has meant they have also consistently failed to report to the authorities cases of sexual abuse which have occurred within their communities. (For more information see this link.)

All in all — despite holding to a certain, very specific, kind of Unitarian doctrine — they are a religious body that is as radically different from us as it is possible to be. So many of their beliefs and ways of living are to us so problematic that in our encounters with them (which, at least on a daily basis, are likely to be few in number) our own predisposition towards toleration is tested to the limit.

Now why do I tell you this?

Well, as some of you may know last month I had the misfortune to detach a retina which involved a lengthy visit to A&E, an emergency appointment to reattach it and then a follow up consultion to check all had gone well. All did go well and I am very grateful to all nurses, doctors and consultants for their gentle, efficient care and professionalism.

As this little drama was unfolding I found myself standing outside the manse with Susanna when a blind man with a guide dog, overhearing our voices, asked us for directions to the Fire Station. Susanna suggested that, were the man amenable, it would be easier to walk there with him. He was amenable, I had time, so off he and I went.

After a few opening generalities he, let’s call him JW, told me he’d only gone blind in the last three years. Given the possibility that my detached retina could not be repaired this admission powerfully resonated with me and I told him so. He was already aware that I was the minister of the church outside which we met and his reply to my comment was “But, of course, you, like me have your faith to help”. To this he immediately added that he was a Jehovah’s Witness and he was coping with his blindness because he knew, for certain, that his sight would be returned to him very soon by Jesus at the Armageddon and he was eagerly looking forward to seeing him, Moses and King David and talking to them about their experiences. At which dramatic and, for me, wholly unexpected point, we arrived at our destination and our conversation was suddenly concluded with a brief exchange of thanks.

As I walked back home I couldn’t but help think of Isaiah’s famous words you heard earlier and about how wrong I thought they were, at least when taken in the literal fashion JW did.

To refer back to an address I gave a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that although I’m acutely aware that I’m sometimes certain, but wrong, and that there are many examples where, were I wrong, it would be unlikely I’d ever realise this, I couldn’t but help feel JW had been sold a pup in a sack and not a piglet. All the evidence I can gather and my own experiences together tell me he’s been lied to and deceived and I think that the way things have been sold to him have deliberately trapped him in a coercive and damaging religious body which promulgates untruths which, all too easily and all too often, go on to have dangerous and unpleasant consequences for all kinds of vulnerable people. As I say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses tests to the limit our — my — ideas of religious toleration.

It took a while, at least a week in fact, before I realised my own strong feelings and beliefs about the Jehovah’s Witnesses had served to obscure one thing about my encounter with JW that I, personally, would do well to address, namely his rhetorical question to me: “But, of course, you, like me have your faith to help.”

Were I to have gone blind in one eye a few weeks ago — or were I still to go blind in one or both eyes — how would my own faith help me? — a faith in which I have no belief that my blindness would be cured in some near, apocalyptic moment when I am taken up into heaven to meet with Jesus, Moses and King David.

Tempting though it may be, it neither seems right nor seemly for me to offer you now a detailed run down of my own faith and then to say, with great confidence, that “I know it would help me deal well with any coming of blindness.” Thankfully the “jury” remains out on this in a way that the jury is not out on JW’s faith for he did go blind and I did not. I, and you, will have to wait and see how my faith actually performs in the face of any major misfortunes which actually beset me — as in some coming day they assuredly will.

But I think I can say two useful things very clearly and strongly today.

The first is that, because they contain great wisdom and truth and are also filled with people I both like, admire and greatly value and without whom my life would be immeasurably poorer, my commitment and willingness to engage with other religious traditions saved the sight in my left eye. How come?

Well, in my capacity as your minister and as a member of the Green Party, the day before encountering JW in the street I had gone to a meeting at the magnificent new Cambridge Mosque with the Islamic Scholar Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) and Jeremy Caddick, Dean and Chaplain of Emmanuel College. It is a (carbon neutral) building whose beauty is born out of a pleasing plainness and restraint that is highly amenable to my (aesthetically speaking anyway) East Anglian Puritan sensibilities. The material plainness of the building is important here because it was in the building that my retina detached causing some tiny sparking visible at the extreme left of my vision. It was only because the building is so plain and so very subtly and naturally lit that I was able to see this tiny sparking quite clearly, not just once but three times. By the time I got out into the bright, busy and cluttered street (where I would not have had as much chance to see that tell-tale sparking) I became aware my vision in my left eye had significantly deteriorated. Putting the two things together rang alarm bells which was why I was able to seek medical assistance very swiftly.

My visit to the mosque on that day undoubtedly saved my sight in my left eye and that is why, although my understanding of in what consists “God” is different from that held within conventional Islamic circles (and indeed within monotheism in general), to honour this event I want to quote — and mean — the verse from the Qur’an you heard earlier: “It is God who endowed you with hearing, sight, and hearts — how seldom you are grateful” (Qur’an 23:78).

The second thing I can say is that, because I have faith in the amazing ability of the medical profession to, if not always or ultimately, stop blindness occurring then at least fix things like detached retinas, I was willing and able to let the future of my own sight genuinely be taken into the hands of the cosmopolitan (and inherently multi-faith and culturally diverse) team of people who readied me to see the eye-surgeon who was to fire a powerful laser into my eye.

So, I think I can say here, strongly and clearly, that my faith in the efficacy and value of interfaith encounters and of modern medical science coupled with my willingness to act on that faith — along with a faith in the revelations of reason (that formed so strong a part of blind al-Maʿarri’s faith) rather than the revelations of religion does help me to begin to form of some kind of meaningful answer to JW’s rhetorical question.

But, if I can begin to provide a meaningful, clear religious rationalist response at this level, there is a level at which my reply begins to lose a certain clarity and confidence and this fact should be acknowledged lest an unpleasant and ugly liberal hubris takes hold.

It seems certain that even were I one day ever able fully to articulate my own liberal, secular, Christian atheist, naturalist and materialist faith to JW it would simply not give HIM the necessary hope to be able to cope in the here and now with his blindness and, for me, as Shakespeare has Hamlet say, “there’s the rub” (Act 3, Scene 1). The hard truth is, as I said earlier, unlike in my case, the jury wasn’t out on the matter of the effectiveness of JW’s faith when it comes to dealing with HIS blindness. The “jury” had sat and found in favour of, at least, the value of the immediate consequences of his faith because, there he was, blind, and still living with great joy and expectation. That I thought the basis of his joy and expectation was utterly delusional makes no odds at this quotidian, very human level. So, despite remaining a severe and active critic of the beliefs and practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I am left standing here before you this morning most of all feeling the need publicly to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth of some of Hamlet’s other famous words, namely, that there are always more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy (cf. Act 1, Scene 5).

Or, to put it as blind al-Maʿarri once put it:

When a blind man goes by, pity him and know for sure that ye are all blind, even if ye have sight. (trans. Nicholson, poem 212)

For all of us, whether atheists or monotheists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims or Unitarians, it’s surely vital always to remember these words of Hamlet and al-Ma’arri even as one recognises we have no choice but to try to live as well and as honestly as we can by the very little of the whole one can see.

In the end is it not true, as al-Ma’arri also said (Source HERE):

All religions are equally strayed.
If one asks me, what is my doctrine,
It is clear:
Am I not, like others,
An imbecile?