The Mihna, the Inquisition and Religious Persecution Today

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SHAFAQNA-

With Muslims in the West  being subjected to scrutiny under polices such as Prevent and other counter terrorism initiatives the parallels to previous historical  persecutions and inquisitions of religious communities are frighteningly similar in many respects.
The Mihna. The name of the Inquisition of Muslim Caliphs. Shaykh Bahmanpour provides clarity on how it was set up by Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’moun (813-833). Successor of the famed Caliph Harun al-Rashid, he of the One Thousand and One Nights. Mihna, he explains, means an ordeal, a trial carried out against certain Sunni scholars who maintained the heretical thesis that the Qur’an is uncreated, eternal. Imprisonment, torture and death were penalties used to enforce conformity. The famous Ahmad al-Hanbal, after whom one of the four schools of Ahle Tassanun’s Muslim law was later named, was scourged. Other terrified ulama had recourse to the principle of taqiya, concealment or lying, to feign acceptance of the Caliph’s will but of course al-Ma’moun twigged it. He was not so easily fooled.
Why did the Muslim Inquisition crack down so ferociously on supporters of the view that the Qur’an is uncreated? Of course, God is par excellence the only Being who is eternal, uncreated. Were the Qur’an to be declared also eternal, there would be not one but two eternals. That appears to contradict the key dogma of Tawhid, the absolute unity and unicity of God. The rationalist thinkers of Islam, the Mu’tazila, claimed instead that the Qur’an is created, hence not eternal.”

In a brilliant lecture at the Islamic College last Monday, Dr Saeed Bahmanpour set out the fascinating argument in all its ramifications. He pointed out how the Mihna’s work was continued by Caliphs al-Mu’tasim and al-Wathiq, before being finally reverses by Caliph al-Mutawakkil. The thesis of the Qur’an’s eternity has since been the orthodox Sunni view. Not the Shia’s, though. It is worth noting that the Shia Imam of the time, Imam al-Hadi, stayed neutral from the diatribe. Maybe it was just political
prudence but Shaykh Bahmanpour’s opinion was that al-Hadi thought the subject ‘futile’. That was also the lecturer’s conclusion about the issue. The whole controversy was idle, based on linguistic misunderstandings and confusions over terms, he argued. Perhaps, but the people the Muslim Inquisition mangled and executed might have found that cold comfort.

Father Gelli reflecting on Shaykh Bahmanpours narrative pointed out that even “more notorious is the Christian Inquisition. “A juridical persecution of heretics by special church courts. Initially, the punishment for heresy had been excommunication, i.e. being excluded from the Sacraments. As late as the 12^th century St Bernard of Clairvaux taught that faith is a matter of persuasion, not an imposition. Later Pope Gregory IX feared Emperor Frederick II’s political ambitions to hunt out heretics and so appointed his own papal inquisitors. They were Dominican and Franciscan friars whose theological learning and presumed absence of worldly motives qualified them for the job. The Inquisitors travelled around, admonishing suspects to confess. If they did, fasting or going of pilgrimage were the main penances. If they hesitated, the trial started for real. Two witnesses were required for conviction and the accused was allowed a lawyer but the latter’s brief was not to defend his client but that ‘justice should be done’. (You get the drift…) If, despite many proofs, the poor (chap) showed obstinacy he was jailed under harsh conditions and tortured to break his resistance. The guilty man’s lot included confiscation of property, being thrown long-term into a dungeon or ‘surrendered to the secular arm’, i.e. being burned alive at the stake.”

The feared Spanish Inquisition is distinct from previous church courts because it was closely bound up with the Spanish state. Set up in 1470 by monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, it originally hunted the marranos, baptised Jews suspected to practice their old religion secretly. Then it was the turn of Moriscos – Moors also forced into baptism, Protestants and alumbrados, spiritual persons with unorthodox mystical leanings. St Ignatius of Loyola, no less, later founder of the Jesuit Order, was himself examined by the Inquisitors in Salamanca after being found preaching in the streets. When he inquired whether he had been found innocent, he was answered: ‘Of course. Otherwise they would have burned you’. Quite. Under the terrible Torquemada, Spanish Grand Inquisitor, public burnings numbered at least 2000 people. After the irreligious French invaded Spain under Napoleon, the Inquisition was finally dissolved.

Ancient history? Inquisitions now mercifully as dead as a dodo? Well, up to a point. Secular, impeccably democratic and PC inquisitorial activities and are alive and kicking. Just try to write online, FB, Twitter or text touching on any of the sacred cows of our culture. Topics smacking, right or wrongly, of antisemitism, zionism, racism, abuse, homophobia, extremism, misogyny and…yes, why not say it, Islamophobia, and be aghast at your fate. No, the rack, the dungeon and the fire are no longer a prospect, thank God. But losing jour job, a heavy fine, public disgrace, even imprisonment might be real possibilities. Pretty bad, if you ask me!

All sorts of fearsome lay inquisitors are busy trailing through and collecting evidence of any subversive thoughts you might have expressed, even privately, yesterday or ten, twenty years ago. Did you perhaps in an intemperate moment suggest that biological and psychological differences between men and women exist and have an impact on their careers and social interaction? Or maybe you argued that the human contribution to climate change is not as substantial as the authorities assert? Or that ‘trans’ women are not real women? (Germaine Greer learnt the lesson to her cost.) Or that gay couples should not be allowed to adopt children? Or that violence for the sake of justice may be allowed? The list is long. Shake in your boots!

The inquisitorial drive, it seems, is intrinsic to the dark side of human nature.

 
Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour, raised in Iran, studied at Queen Mary College London, the London School of Economics and the Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran. He has been editor of several cultural, religious and political magazines, a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge and most recently a lecturer at the Islamic College for Advanced Studies in London. His latest book, Muslim Identity in the 21st Century, was published in London in 2001.
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