Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice
Letter to a Publisher
September 4, 2005
While I did not set out to gratuitously censure Islam, as a lay writer and an unbeliever, I don’t believe the accusation of blasphemy from some conservative Muslims can be avoided. From the fundamentalist believer’s perspective, parts of Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice could be considered "an act of disrespect or impiety toward something regarded as sacred."
From my point of view, a god whose religion would deny me the things I believe are important; the things that for me are sacred: my life, my liberty, democracy, freedom of speech, my right not to believe … is being blasphemous against my person and the society that shelters me and allows me the freedoms I hold dear.
I don’t condemn the God of the Koran for speaking His mind, even when He states that I should burn in hell for an eternity for not believing in Him. Do I spare the believer and condone what I don’t believe in? Allah would not do that. Allah is not an hypocrite and I would hope that believers who read Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice would appreciate that neither am I.
If I am to be accused of disrespect for offering a layman’s honest, if mildly irreverent opinion of a religious text, so be it. To paraphrase Mencius and that great English writer of impertinent plays and sonnets, “… above all else to myself I must be true.”
From your reviewer’s comments I would take it that she is a believer. I have no problems with that, even though from my own experience, believers can be notoriously thin-skinned when anyone dares challenge an article of their faith. Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice is not meant for the believer, it is meant for those who don’t know what the Koran is all about.
It is also meant to be light reading. Light reading when the topic is the Koran!!! I must be joking? No I am not. In my Layman's Guide To The Koran I attempt to make Allah more accessible by associating with him every day expressions, even slang expressions, although I agree with your reviewer, labelling a chapter People that Really Piss-off Allah was perhaps showing too much familiarity with the deity.
I also agree that many passages in Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice will seem “flippant” and for some believers even sacrilegious. But I ask you again, do I spare the sensitive believer’s feelings by sugar coating my remarks to make them more palatable to people who, because of their beliefs, are easily offended when the book is not even meant for them?
As to the critique of my writing style, your reviewer is again correct. It is a “certain mix of styles” but there is a reason for this, a reason I suspect a few believers may not appreciate but an unbeliever will welcome because it involves having a bit of fun at God’s expense.
Readings from the Koran can be somewhat depressing, with Allah never tiring of reminding the reader of the gruesome, painful fate that awaits the unbelievers when they cross over to His dominion. A slight comic relief – what your reviewer refers to as being flippant – which Allah seems only too eager to provide was called for. Would it surprise you to know that Allah has a sense of humour? Yes he does, although He plays it straight.
The Koran was revealed piecemeal to the Prophet Muhammad during the period of his Call (610-632). You have to read the entire Koran to get an overall idea of what Allah has to say on any given subject. This is where it gets interesting. What would happen if you re-arranged the Koran by topic? What you would get is Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice. What you would also get is chapters that elicit a wide range of emotions – including laughter. I don’t think Allah would have wanted it any other way.
When your reviewer states that in the chapter Visions of Heaven and Hell “it feels like he almost got carried away with himself, the Koran's version of heaven being probably the biggest example” she is pointing the finger at the wrong person, almost every word is Allah’s. If anyone is getting carried away it is You-Know-Who. The same can be said for the chapter Answering Your Questions About Judgment Day. Allah provides most of the answers, I only ask the questions.
Your reviewer writes that “I suspect he would not accept a critique of the Bible written in such a style.” WRONG!
I realize that your reviewer may not be familiar with some of our more celebrated writers. One of these is the late, much regretted, Timothy Findlay, author of Not Wanted on the Voyage. In his masterful retelling of the story of the great flood, God is a dithering old fool and, except for Mrs. Noah and Satan, most of the other characters of this biblical re-enactment don’t fare much better.
This has not diminished him one bit in my eyes or in the eyes of his admirers or his critics. We all understand that it is the message that is important, how that message is delivered is secondary, although Timothy Findlay, unlike perhaps yours truly, was a master in both its drafting and its delivery.
As I said before, each chapter will elicit a range of emotions, even when the Koran is not explicitly the subject under discussion, emotions to which the author is not immune. For example, my response to the note left behind by Muhammad Atta, the leader of the September 11th terrorists, prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center: “Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty, and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out.”
Your reviewer is wrong to equate my emotional response to the slaughter of so many innocent people for licentious rewards as showing a bias.
"One final point – which may also be about balance – but the description of the victims of suicide bombers seem to be very emotive but also in a vacuum when you consider what Christians did to Muslims, Jews and themselves through the Crusades and the Inquisition. The difference with suicide bombers is that they don't – as far as I know – have the official sanction of the head of the religion or the head of state."
As for not mentioning the Crusades and the Inquisition, it was not my intention in Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice to re-open old wounds and, at the risk of being accused of stating the obvious, Christians, for the most part, are no longer murdering the innocent in the name of Jesus Christ and doing away with heretics. But your reviewer did find things to praise and for this I am grateful, even when that praise is qualified.
"Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was putting it in a historical context when describing the life of Mohammed and how this could have affected the writing of the Koran but he doesn't follow the historical context through when discussing the content of the verses."
I am not a religious scholar and I don’t pretend to be. It would be extremely presumptuous on my part to think that I could properly mine the Koran for the purported hidden meanings behind many of the verses. Not being professionally accredited to comment on the professed word of God, I prefer letting God speak for himself.
Now for the most troubling observation, that Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice is an attack on Islam.
"In effect, what I think I'm saying is that it is perfectly ok to give a negative critique of a religion – and I think that in many places this book achieves that quite smartly – it is not ok to openly attack that religion."
What can I say? Is there any way that anyone can write critically about the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad without being accused of attacking Islam? When a gifted writer like Salmon Rushdie is sentenced to death for penning a satirical novel about mythical Koranic verses, can anything even mildly critical of the Koran be written without incurring the wrath of the true believers? I don’t think so, so why try … but I will try.
I value the time and effort that your reviewer dedicated to Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice and I will take her observations seriously. Perhaps she is correct, “it’s just an unfortunate choice of words.”
Thank you for your offer to help get my manuscript published. I understand your caution about not taking anything for granted. As you explained, “With the new race and religious hate laws coming through” after the London bombings “it could be considered illegal if Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice is deemed an attack on a person’s religious belief.”
I hope not.
What is to become of free speech if an honest critique of a religious text can be considered a crime while a public quote from that same text encouraging the faithful to hate, if not murder and maim those who don’t share your religious beliefs, is considered perfectly acceptable?