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British Muslims and Political Participation

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This was originally written as “British Muslims and the Coming General Election” just before the May 2010 one that brought David Cameron and the Coaltion into power

British Muslims and Political Participation

By Daoud Rosser-Owen


British Muslims, in common with everybody else in the kingdom, will soon be placed in a pickle: whether to vote or not, and if so, for whom?

There are, of course, those who for whatever reason failed to register as electors by the deadline. For them, naturally, the voting problem doesn’t exist.

The British Muslim will also, uniquely, be presented with another dilemma.

This is the quandary generated for him or her by certain gurus, pontificators, and political figures about whether voting, or participating, in the British political process is in fact permissible. And thus, by extension, in those of its derivative cultures in the Crown Dependencies, the Republic of Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the countries of the Commonwealth.

This matter is usually couched for him or her in rather extreme and emotive language: voting (or participating) is haram – which the gurus et alios often choose to spell ‘haraam’; that democracy is unIslamic (usually without any definition or understanding of the political term ‘democracy’); that it is forbidden to participate in ‘kuffar’ politics (without considering just what is ‘kufr’); that to do so is a rebellion against the expressed Will of the Almighty, and in consequence is an act of apostasy; and so on.

Were this not so important in its consequences, it could be simply dismissed for what it is: a crude anti-Westernism, or more particularly anti-Britishism, born of a rather infantile and unnecessary post-imperial inferiority complex.

Let us take as a given the problematic choices facing all electors which are shared throughout the kingdom: flawed political parties with near identical manifestoes whose trustworthiness if elected to office to abide by their promises is highly questionable; the corruption of the government process through the rise and development of a Gaetano Mosca-esque classe politica; the cupidity and venality of many politicians, which can be attributed in many cases to the emergence and membership of this political class; the conscious subversion of the British Constitution and with it of the independence of the Civil Service, the Judiciary, and Her Majesty’s Forces; the mendacity, criminality, and outright treason involved in joining the USA in its illegal wars of aggression against two sovereign states that had not in any way harmed its and, more important, British interests; the burgeoning and serious problems deriving from the European Union; the destruction and curtailment of the ancient customs and usages of the British people, and the attempted replacement of the British concept of the Common Law being the Natural Law that inheres the subject with his or her God-given rights and liberties with the European Hegelian notion that these “rights” and “liberties” are granted to the citizen by government as a reward for dutifully obeying its diktats. And so on.

The ‘voting is haraam’ fraternity has been suitably addressed by many learned scholars. As “Abu Eesa” wrote on his blog

“The Big Voting Debate: Actually, is there really still a debate? Haven’t we dealt with all this before?

The answer: yes. Emphatically so. (please read all the articles in the link carefully because 99% of all queries have been dealt with therein)

I’m not one to waste my time re-hashing old arguments and arguing just for the sake of arguing with mostly young and new Muslims who perhaps weren’t around 4-5 years ago, and for them now the “voting is shirk” slogan fits their age and experience in Islam. Read: little.” []

That it continues to be a problem is a sign of the times: ignorant people, largely young, will not be instructed by those who are there to inform and guide them and all too often insist on following ignorant demagogues. There is a famous Tradition that begins yarfa’a-Llahu fi-l Akhiri-z Zaman sittati ashya (God will raise up – i.e. remove – at the End Time six things). One of the six is ḥurmatu-l ‘ulama (reverence of the learned).

The authoritative norm for Quranic exegesis is the Arabic text in which it was revealed. Translations will always be someone’s approximation, and with the depth of meanings inherent in any given Quranic text relying on a translation is hazardous at best. Yet, I have seen in the last couple of weeks the English statements “legislation is only for Allah” as an authority for the rejection of positive law and thus to deny legitimacy to elected governments because they will enact such laws; and “whomever does not rule by what Allah has revealed is a kafir” to demonstrate that the British system is “kuffar” because it doesn’t do that.

The second of these is demonstrably wrong. Although the Divine Law that underpins it is being progressively – and intentionally – eroded with time; nevertheless, as late as the 1980s Lady Thatcher as Prime Minister could still state that the twin values of the Conservative and Unionist Party were “belief in God” and “the preservation of the family”. It would be the duty of Muslims to fight against this programme of erosion.

The ‘nay sayers’ will claim that this is not “revealed law”. Yet the verse they quote, however, doesn’t actually say ‘revealed’. The Arabic is “wa man lam yaḥkum bima anzala-Llāhu fa ulā’ika humu-l kāfiroun”. The two operative terms are “yaḥkum” (‘governs’ or ‘rules’), and “anzala” (‘sent down’): ‘sent down’ is taken by scholars to include what was given to the Christians, Jews, and Magians (cf Quran, al-Shoura, 42:13 cited below), and what the learned and pious have received by inspiration (ilham or ilqa)(which include inductive and deductive reasoning). It is the basis of the Shari’ah known as qiyāṣ, or analogy – specifically with what contemporary Christian societies have done in analogous circumstances and under similar stimuli.

And the first of the quoted statements above reads “inna-l ḥukmu illa li-Llāh”: ‘governance is only with God’ – ‘governance’, not ‘legislation’. Anyway, it is generally agreed that positive law is provided for in the Islamic system.

The former State Attorney General of Singapore, Professor Ahmad Muhammad Ibrahim, wrote in his work Islamic Law in Malaya, “The word Sharī’ah is the name given to the whole system of the law of Islām, the totality of God’s commandments. Each one of such commandments is called ḥukm (pl. aḥkām). The Sharī’ah is defined as “that which would not be known had there not been a divine revelation”. This definition is wide enough to include all the divine revelations, including those made by the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus, but the divine revelations through Muhammad are considered as confirming the earlier revelations, and therefore constitute the Sharī’ah in its purest and final form. Only what is expressly stated in the divine revelations or as may be inferred from them properly comes under the Sharī’ah. The Sharī’ah embraces all human actions; it is, therefore, strictly not law in the modern sense but might be regarded as a guide to ethics.

The Muslim term which corresponds more closely to law is fiqh. Fiqh is defined as “the deduction of the Sharī’ah values relating to conduct from their respective particular (tafṣīlī) evidences.””

Tamara Sonn, Kenan Professor of Humanities at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, America’s oldest university of which HM Queen Elizabeth II is Patron, elucidated this when she was interviewed on 24 February 2005, “Fiqh is the effort of human beings to understand and implement divine will through legal codes – jurisprudence – not the divine will itself. Unlike shari’ah, which is eternal and changeless, legal codes can be adapted. Built into the roots that guide Islamic law is a method, called ijtihad, or intellectual ijtihad, to rethink and change these legal codes as circumstances demand.

The world is changing rapidly and legislation needs to keep up with it. The goal of legislation is to guide human life, so legislation has to keep up with human life.”

The links that Abu Eesa and others take one to are mostly deductions from the time of the salaf (the three generations of the Prophet and his Companions, the following generation, and the generation following that). Because of the influence of the Wahhabis and Deobandis, among other like-minded people, many like to speculate from these early sayings and practices but ignore much of the scholarship and experience that has intervened between then and now.

However, there is much from these of direct relevance to our present circumstances. There are three periods in particular: that in the Levant and Mesopotamia during and immediately following the Crusades and Mongol invasions; Islamic Spain between the 11th and 15th Centuries; and the Ottoman Empire. For example, referring to people living under the pagan Mongols, Imam Mawardi held that the ruler was to be obeyed as long as he permitted the prayer to be said – this has been interpreted to mean the Friday Prayer specifically. In each of these Muslim, Christian, and Jewish populations lived together in mixed societies – or, in the terms of Islamic Spain, a convivencia.

Generally, according to Shaykh Michael Mumisa, it is held that Muslims may participate in a system provided certain conditions are met: the state is committed to the establishment of peace and justice; the system guarantees freedom of religion; and allows for the participation of all citizens in decision-making.

He wrote in 2005,

“…there is no explicit textual evidence either from the Qur’an nor sunna… that can be used to substantiate the view that Muslims in Britain should not vote or that participating in voting is an act of apostasy” (“Muslims in Britain and the Elections: What does the Shari’a say?” p 2).

In other words no one can state that it is haram (or haraam) – the most that could be claimed for their position would be that it is tahriman makrouh, and that is not haram. And they would have to justify that stipulation very carefully because it is a principle of Islamic jurisprudence that everything is permitted unless it is specifically prohibited.

Both Mumisa and Hizbu-t Tahrir Britain have drawn attention to the work Al-Muwafaqāt fi Usouli-sh Sharī’ah (generally known as Al-Muwafaqat) by the Spanish scholar Imam Abu Ishaq Ibrahim bin Mousa bin Muhammad al-Shatibi al-Gharnati, who is usually known as Al-Shatibi and clearly from his name was from a family originating from Xàtiva (Játiva) and living in Granada where he died in 1388.

What is particularly interesting, and relevant, is that he was reinterpreting the bases of Islamic jurisprudence (usoulu-l fiqh) and the higher objectives of Sharia (maqāsidu-sh sharī’ah) against a contemporary context where major population centres of Spanish Muslims were now ruled by Roman Catholic Christians, and had been for around 300 years in some cases. For example, Toledo (Tulaytulah) had fallen in 1085, Zaragosa (Saraqustah) in 1118, the Caliphal capital Cordova (Qurtubah) in 1236, his home town of Jativa (Shatibah) centre of paper manufacture of mediaeval Europe in 1244, Jaen (Jayyan) in 1246, Seville (Ishbiliyyah) in 1248. Granada (Gharnatah) itself didn’t fall for another century after Al-Shatibi’s death. What was the legal standing of these Muslims, and what was the extent of their participation in the societies they were now involved in?

As Mumisa wrote,

“Al-Shatibi argues that the universal principles [kulliyyat] such as our knowledge that justice is good and injustice is wrong, the protection of people’s property and life, among others, are found in every religion because of the Qur’anic verse, “the same religion has He established for you as that which He enjoined on Noah – the which We have sent by revelation to thee – and that which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus” (Quran, Shoura, 42:13). The details of law (juz’iyyat) such as penal laws of Islam, the laws of inheritance for men and women, and other laws governing the individual and society as explained in the Qur’an or other religious texts differ from one religion to another, just as they differ according to time and space. Since such juz’iyyat are based on time and space, they should accept abrogation, revision, and change according to the needs of each society. In other words, the interests of society can override such juz’iyyat but they cannot override the kulliyyat. Simply put, the kulliyyat are the goals (or maqasid) of the Shari’a while the juz’iyyat are the means to those goals. The purpose of Shari’a is not to cut people’s hands or stone them to death (focusing on the juz’iyyat) but to establish a just society (focusing on the kulliyyat). If suspending the juz’iyyat (specific legal rulings) will ensure the realisation of the kulliyyat (universal principles), then such a suspension (naskh) will be legitimate under Shari’a.

“With the concept of maqasid al-shari’a (intent and motive of Islamic Law), it becomes possible to apply the Qur’an to changing times and changing conditions in society, so that the data revelata remain dynamic and creative, always applicable and always invigorating society. Unfortunately, due to the development of legalism in Islam, the focus has shifted from the kulliyyat to the juz’iyyat. Under correct interpretations of law in Islam, the change and the modification of juz’iyyat is acceptable in order to meet social change as long as such change does not undermine the kulliyyat.

“Therefore, any political and legal system that fulfils the kulliyyat is acceptable and considered as fulfilling the requirements of the Shari’a. The question is, do the British legal and political systems fulfil the kulliyyat as required in Islam? It is my opinion that the British legal and political systems as they stand at the moment meet the goals of the Shari’a.” (op cit p 3).

The verse cited above is, in transliteration, “shara‘a lakum mina-d dīni ma waṣṣa bihī nouḥan wa-lladhī awḥayna ilayka wa ma waṣṣayna bihī ibrāhīma wa mousa wa ‘īsa…”. The ramifications of it are extensive and important, as have been sketched out in the context of Islamic Spain above but many of which are not strictly relevant here.

Of equal relevance, and probably of greater immediate importance to the United Kingdom and Crown Dependencies and its derivative political cultures is the Ottoman Empire. This held the most recent manifestation of the Caliphate.

The late Dr Said Ramadan once wrote in an Editorial in the magazine Al Muslimoun that without a Caliph the Muslims are like orphans. It would seem to be apparent that encompassing the downfall of the Ottomans, the destruction of its society, and the removal of the Caliphate was a primary aim of forces driving the Great Powers during the final decades of the 19th Century until these nefarious designs were more or less achieved at the Treaties of Sèvres (1920) and Lausanne (1923). There the principal Ottoman negotiator General İsmet Paşa (later calling himself İsmet İnönü) shamed himself by showing indecent haste to sign away everything without making any serious attempts to negotiate anything; which makes one wonder just to whom he owed his loyalties.

In 1924, Lt Col Mustafa Kemal Bey, by then having removed the Sultanate in 1921 and made himself President of a new militantly secular Turkish Republic modelled on French lines, followed this abject procession by “abolishing” the Caliphate and sending Sultan Abdul Majid II Khan into exile and banning the Imperial Family from the realms. Legally, however, no matter how much it might offend against the amour propre of lieutenant colonels of infantry of obscure origins and doubtful loyalties the world over, the Caliphate is only in abeyance. The decisions it took still stand, have contemporary relevance, and may well still have force to this day. This especially applies to those of its learned and progressive Office of the Shaykhu-l Islam.

There is a well-known Tradition (ḥadīth) that states that whomever has died without giving fealty (bay‘ah) to a Caliph has died the death of the Jāhiliyyah (‘Age of Ignorance’).

This has been interpreted as meaning that a fealty to an authorised deputy or substitute of the Caliphate would suffice in lieu of one directly to the Caliph where that is not physically feasible. In the absence of the Caliphate, this would become the default situation, and so it would become urgent to find a political or religious figure who derives his or her authority of office from one endorsed by the Caliph. This is particularly relevant to subjects of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

It is a truism to say that the British political system as it stands today is largely a product of the late Victorian and the Edwardian periods, certainly since the premiership of Benjamin Disraeli (earl of Beaconsfield) and that of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury who followed him. It is this, in a mutated form, that is staging the General Election 2010.

As a kind of ‘punch line’, as it were, to the quandary concocted for the Muslims in the context of the United Kingdom and Crown Dependencies, and the successor states of the British Empire, there is the matter that that British system as it existed at the end of the 19th Century and first two decades of the 20th, was endorsed by the Caliphate through the cordial relations between the Queen-Empress and Sultan Abdul Hamid II Khan (jannat makan). These were formalised in their political realities for the governance of Muslims by the recognition of Queen Victoria as a beylerbeyi of the Caliphate (a separate legalism from the Devlet-i Âliye-yi Osmâniye or Ottoman Empire) by Sultan Abdul Hamid.

To the extent that it still preserves this nature, it maintains this endorsement. This would apply, too, to those successor states that acquired their independence from the United Kingdom and British Empire after the Sultan-Caliph’s recognition. A particularly important local one would be the Republic of Ireland.

It would, therefore, be a requirement of this endorsement to participate in the political cultures of these states. So, the proper questions for consideration for Muslims would be ‘what were the elements of that British political culture?’ and ‘to what extent have political realities preserved or fallen away from those that were endorsed by the Caliphate?’

It is my contention that, as it affects the United Kingdom today, although decadent and subverted the British political system is still to a large and demonstrable extent that which applied at the turn of the 19th Century and during World War 1 despite constant erosion by liberal-minded politicians and activists.

The significant elements that should concern British Muslims are that this is a Constitutional, or Limited, Monarchy headed by a direct descendant of HM Queen Victoria who swears an oath at the Coronation to rule according to the Laws of God; that the basic legal code is that of the Common Law which has always been regarded as Natural Law (that is, divinely inspired law), and – as Chief Rabbi Sacks stated in his 1990 Reith Lecture – the overarching public culture is that of the Church of England; that all the political parties claim to be Christian in their motivation as they recognise that this is still a Christian country.

Muslims should work actively to preserve this system, and resist further secular erosion.

Legally everyone who is resident in this country is deemed to owe allegiance to the person of HM Queen Elizabeth II. It is, in effect, a presumption of fealty. For some, who serve in Her Majesty’s Forces (and certain other activities, such as Members of Parliament, the Magistracy and Judiciary, and the Police Services), a direct Oath of Allegiance is administered which begins “I, (name), do solemnly swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors…”

Both of these, whether by presumption or oath-taking, would count as a bay‘ah under the above quoted hadith placing Muslims subjects of the Queen – whether in the UK and Crown Dependencies or elsewhere in the Commonwealth – in a favourable position.

It is, therefore, not merely permissible for Muslims to take part in the UK political system – and in the immediate situation – to vote in the May 2010 General Election but their duty to do so in obedience to the umour (commands) of the Caliphate, the Traditions of the Prophet, and the authority of the Quran.

wa Allahu a’lam bi-s sawab.
London 30 April 2010.

© D Rosser-Owen 2011 All Rights Reserved

Written by David Rosser Owen

February 15, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Na Fionnghallaich às a’ Chlàr-chè – The Nac Mac Feegle of Discworld

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A kind of Appreciation of Sir Terry Pratchett’s characters, by David Rosser-Owen

“The Wee Free Men! Nae quin! Nae king! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled again!”

Among the more colourful (literally) characters of the Discworld are the pictsies known as the Wee Free Men, or the Nac Mac Feegle.

That great anthropological work The Folklore of Discworld¹, describes them as having “shaggy red hair, and… covered all over with blue tattoos and blue paint, in patterns which indicate their clan”, that they wear the kilt, and that they’re about six inches tall.

It goes on to say that originally “they were denizens of Fairyland, and served its Queen as her wild champion robbers who went raiding on her behalf into every world there is… They themselves say they left in disgust because the Queen was a spiteful tyrant.” [Folklore p 103]

One of their clan chiefs is Rob Anybody, the Big Man of the Chalk Clan, who has stated proudly, “We’ve been robbin’ an’ runnin’ around on all kinds o’ worlds for a lang time.”

The Folklore says that for “many centuries, one of their favourite places was an area of the Earth called Scotland. They were already there in the time of the Ancient Romans… Later generations of Scottish humans were well aware of their presence.” [Folklore p 105]

They cross over into universes and worlds by a magical process they call the crawstep. Presumably by this means they arrived on the Discworld from Fairyland and initially took up residence on the high moors of Überwald before moving on to Lancre and elsewhere.

“The time that the Feegles or their ancestors spent in Scotland has had a deep influence on them (unless, who knows, it was the other way around). Besides the tattoos and the kilts, they have developed a taste for strong liquor, and even for haggis…

“The speech of the Feegles is markedly Scottish, to the point that, though it is not technically a foreign language (unlike, for example, that of dwarfs), most people in Lancre and Ankh-Morpork find it very hard to follow…

“Most of it is a form of Lowlands Scots peppered with Glasgow slang, but there are several words adopted from Gaelic, the Celtic language of the Highlands and Isles…” (Folklore pp 109, 112-3)

Yet Miss Perspicacia Tick, in her A Feegle Glossary, lists as one of their words “schemie: an unpleasant person”, which would clearly indicate a familiarity also with relatively recent Edinburgh argot².

“And what of their own name? Here again we see the influence of the Scottish and Irish lore they picked up during their stay on the Earth (or vice versa). ‘Mac Feegle’ means ‘Sons of Feegle’, and ‘Feegle’ is clearly a variation of ‘Fingal’, the eighteenth-century Scottish name for a great hunter and warrior hero in Celtic tradition.” (Folklore p 114)

From the above we can deduce certain things about them. Clearly their way of expressing themselves is through a form of Glaswegian Scots with other words added from elsewhere. How they acquired this is moot, but if the Folklore is correct then it is likely direct from the source.

In other words they are frequenters of that particular part of south-western Scotland that has historically drawn in people from all over the Highlands and Islands as well as from the neighbouring areas of Galloway, Dumfries, and Ayr.

But are the Lands of the ancient Scots and Picts their original provenance? In a way this is a redundant question, given that their presence and their apparent constant sojourning there has made them as effectively native as if it were their original home.

A conversation that the old kelda of the Chalk Clan had with Tiffany Aching, however, lends a persuasive substance to the notion that indeed they are Scot or Pict in origin.

“‘What was your name, now?’
‘Tiffany, er, Kelda.’…
‘A good name. In our tongue you’d be Tir-far-thóinn, Land Under Wave,’ said the kelda. It sounded like ‘Tiffan’.”³

Their presence, or that of their kindred spirits, is certainly widely known in that region, where they are called “brownies” in the Lowland speech – and, copying and adapting that, are sometimes called brùinidhean (“brownies”) in the Gaelic. Although the Gaelic word for brownie is usually ùraisg or màilleachan.

There seems to have been some serious confusion in the transmission of the folklore, for collectors of tales of the Highlands have recorded that they actually like dairy produce rather than the converse.

It needs to be pointed out that the exact nature and differences between the Cruidhne (Picts) and the Gàidheil (Scots) are quite obscure. There was constant intermarriage certainly between the neighbouring kingdoms of Dàl Riada, Fortrenn, Fìb, the Airgheallach, and Al Clwyd.

Whether or not the Cruidhne spoke a different language or simply a dialect form of Brythonic, it is clear that the related but separate language of the Gàidheil came to be dominant among all populations in Scotland so that at the end of the eighteenth century some 80 percent spoke it.

There are significant differences between the Gaelic spoken in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, apart from the arbitrary conventions for spelling. These represent developmental divergences over the centuries from the Old Irish that the followers and descendants of the Sons of Erc brought to Alba.

But from the internal evidence of the Tongue of the Wee Free Men it would appear that although it, too, is a slight divergence this represents more of a sub-dialect probably of Argyll or Donegal Gaelic. For example, the word ‘nac’ as in Nac Mac Feegle is actually ‘nec’ in Old Irish and ‘neach’ in modern Scottish Gaelic where it normally has a non-gender-specific singular usage (the conventional plural being luchd).

In the Feegle version, as recorded, of the name of the young ‘hag of the Chalk’, Tiffany Aching – “Tir-far-thóinn Land Under Wave… It sounded like ‘Tiffan’” we may well have the recorder’s approximation of the spelling, or the written form may have diverged from the spoken, as ‘under’ is fo both in Old Irish and modern Scottish Gaelic and faoi in modern Irish. Written in both her name would be Tir f’thuinn and would, indeed, sound much like Tiffan.

In explaining the usages ‘hag’ and ‘kelda’, the Folklore avers that both words relate to cailleach, the Gaelic for ‘hag’ or ‘crone’ (which has magical overtones).

In the case of the witches obviously this is as a translation, and in the word ‘kelda’ as a corrupt or misheard form of cailleach dhubh – “’the Black Hag’, a supernatural figure in Scottish and Irish tradition who shapes the landscape, rules the seasons, protects wild animals, and confers power on favoured humans” (Folklore p 113).

The Folklore, as mentioned above, suggests that Feegle derives from Fingal (Fionnghall) – a late corruption of the name of the leader of the Fiana, Finn mac Comhaill.

Given his exploits, and that of his band, it is hardly surprising that the patronymus of the Feegles should be called after him. It is likely that Feegle is the recorder’s attempt to represent the nasals in the middle of Fionnghall.

So it is possible to reconstruct what was said that the recorder wrote:

The Nac Mac Feegle would be the Neach Mhic Fhionnghaill – there is probably a dialect usage of neach here to mean ‘people’; kelda would be cailleach dhubh; and Tiffan would be Tir f’thuinn.

It’s probable that the names by which the Feegles of the Chalk Clan are known are not their actual given names (as they have an aversion to lawyers in particular knowing who they are) but are appellations or nicknames in Morporkian (a language staggeringly like British English).

It would be impossible otherwise to get, for example, the double entendre inherent in Rob Anybody, the Big Man of the clan, which would be absent from both Raib Neachsambith and Spùinneadair Neachsambith.

So, to conclude, it is possible to render their famous slogan, or sluagh-ghairm, (“The Wee Free Men! Nae quin! Nae king! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled again!”) into at least its Scottish Gaelic version as:

“Na Daoine Beaga Saora! Gun bhanrìgh! Gun rìgh! Gun cheannard! Gun uachdaran! Cha mheallar sinn a-rithist!”

¹ Pratchett, Terry, and Simpson, Jacqueline, The Folklore of Discworld: Legends, Myths and Customs from the Discworld with helpful hints from planet Earth, Doubleday, London 2008

² Pratchett, Terry, Wintersmith, Doubleday, London 2006, p 11

³ Pratchett, Terry, The Wee Free Men, Doubleday, London 2003, p 138

© D Rosser-Owen 2009, 2010, 2011 All Rights Reserved

Written by David Rosser Owen

February 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Selkirk Grace

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This is usually attributed to Robert Burns, although a variant of it was known in the 17th Century as the Galloway Grace or the Covenanters’ Grace. It is traditionally recited before eating the haggis at a Burns’ Night Supper on 25th January each year.


Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.


Tha biadh aig cuid, ‘s gun aca càil;
acras aig cuid, ‘s gun aca biadh;
ach againne tha biadh is slàint’;
moladh mar sin a bhith don Triath.

An English translation exists as:

Some have food and cannot eat,
And some would eat but have no food,
But we have food and we can eat,
And so the Lord be thanked.

© D Rosser-Owen 2011 All Rights Reserved

Written by David Rosser Owen

February 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Hallowe’en, Oidhche Shamhna and Romanisation

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By David Rosser-Owen

(Written at the approach of Hallowe’en in October 2010)

The British Isles – all of it, not simply the “Celtic Fringe” – is a profoundly Celtic culture; something that imbues and interpenetrates just about everything within them and that comes from these islands. This is a continuing spiritual dynamic, and is still working. It is, thus, at work now “celticising” whatever has immigrated and settled itself here.

It is profoundly wrong, therefore, that this is downplayed for the sake of perpetuating and furthering the claims of an anachronistic Christian orthodoxy that derives from south European and Mediterranean paganism.

The role of television and the film industry in this should not be underestimated. They have an impact beyond simply those who give their outpourings a credulous authority, in that they mould people’s ideas about how something happened by supplying them with a ready-made visual narrative that intrudes, overlays, and corrupts knowledge that may even have been gained from primary sources.

This is particularly pernicious with the young, who are increasingly, and at a rate unknown to previous generations of youth, taking their knowledge of things from television and the internet without further investigation. Studies have shown that even when they have learned that a thing (which has been acquired from those media) is wrong, the media still have that overlaying pull on that knowledge and its manisfestation.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, indoctrination or brainwashing at work. Whether this is intentional or merely the accidental effect of these media needs investigating by someone competent to do so.

On Saturday night, 9 October 2010, by mistake I watched bits of the BBC1 TV series “Merlin”; something that I had promised myself I wouldn’t do after having sat through several episodes previously with mounting annoyance.

There are several scholarly works on Myrddin (Merlin), 5th-6th Century Britain, and the Arthurian Cycle, in particular The Quest for Merlin and The Coming of the King by Count Nikolai Tolstoy and Adam Ardrey’s Finding Merlin: The Truth behind the Legend which come to slightly different conclusions but nevertheless fairly comprehensively deal with the historical environment and the Celtic mythology.

None of this seems to have had any effect on the authors of the TV screenplays and the producers of the series, which don’t even have too much of a connection with the cycle told by Chrestien de Troyes to the Poitiers court of Duke Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie de Champagne and which gave rise to the usual picture people have about Arthur, Camelot, and the various figures cited.

This accidental Saturday night experience set me thinking, though.

Myrddin’s antagonist, according to Tolstoy, was my ancestor Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde who was a (Celtic) Christian as was the contemporary figure St Mungo of obscure origin. All the mythology surrounding Mungo comes from the highly coloured and self-serving Roman Catholic hagiography authored by Jocelin of Furness in the late 12th Century. The Wikipedia entry is fairly typical of the sort of thing that passes for authority:

“Saint Mungo is the commonly used name for Saint Kentigern (also known as Cantigernus (Latin) or Cyndeyrn Garthwys (Welsh)). He was the late 6th century apostle of the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde in modern Scotland, and patron saint and founder of the city of Glasgow…

In Wales and the southern Brythonic regions of modern England, this saint is known by his birth and baptismal name: commonly Kentigern, more correctly Cyndeyrn. The name means ‘chief prince’. The epithet ‘Garthwys’ is of unknown meaning. In Scotland and the Northern Brythonic areas of modern England, he is called by his pet name of Mungo, derived from Brythonic munghu, meaning ‘dear one’…

The ‘Life of Saint Mungo’ was written by the monastic hagiographer, Jocelin of Furness, in about 1185. Jocelin states that he rewrote the ‘life’ from an earlier Glasgow legend and an old Gaelic document…

Mungo’s mother, Thenaw, also known as St. Thaney, was the daughter of the Brythonic king, Lleuddun (Latin, Leudonus), who ruled in the Haddington region of what is now Scotland, probably the Kingdom of Gododdin in the Old North. She became pregnant, after being seduced by Owain mab Urien according to the British Library manuscript. Her furious father had her thrown from the heights of Traprain Law. Surviving, she was then abandoned in a coracle in which she drifted across the River Forth to Culross in Fife. There Mungo was born.

Mungo was brought up by Saint Serf who was ministering to the Picts in that area. It was Serf who gave him his popular pet-name. At the age of twenty-five, Mungo began his missionary labours on the Clyde, on the site of modern Glasgow. Christianity had been introduced to the region by Saint Ninian and his followers welcomed the saint and procured his consecration by an Irish bishop…”

And much more in the same vein, all deriving from Jocelin’s work.

There is no evidence, other than the propaganda of the Church of Rome that any of these figures was a Roman Catholic and, given what else we know of the area and the chronology, it is highly unlikely they were anything but Celtic Christians: a belief system that was fundamentally at variance with the Church of Rome, that predated it by some three centuries, and which had a theological and liturgical connection to Coptic and Gnostic Egypt.

It was the style of the Church of Rome to eradicate or anathematise local saints, and where that was impossible to absorb them and rewrite them. Perhaps the classic example is St Patrick. As more of the ‘alternative’ biography of this Brythonic saint emerged, it was so at variance with the Catholic one that now we are unsure whether there may not have been two saints of that name (or description – patricius simply means ‘patrician’ in Latin) working in Ireland. As with Patrick, so with Columba, St David, and the rest including Mungo.

As an example of the dodginess – even speciousness – of the authority of scholarly claims take the statement, “Saint Mungo is the commonly used name for Saint Kentigern (also known as Cantigernus (Latin) or Cyndeyrn Garthwys (Welsh))… In Wales and the southern Brythonic regions of modern England, this saint is known by his birth and baptismal name: commonly Kentigern, more correctly Cyndeyrn. The name means ‘chief prince’. The epithet ‘Garthwys’ is of unknown meaning. In Scotland and the Northern Brythonic areas of modern England, he is called by his pet name of Mungo, derived from Brythonic munghu, meaning ‘dear one’”.

Both ‘kentigern’ and ‘mungo’ are descriptions or nicknames not proper names, and ‘cantigernus’ is simply the latinised form of the former. The word ‘munghu’ doesn’t look Brythonic, but it might be.

However, the claim “his birth and baptismal name: commonly Kentigern, more correctly Cyndeyrn” is sheer nonsense. ‘Cyndeyrn’ is the Strathclyde Welsh rendering of the word we know as ‘Kentigern’ which is, simply, the Old Irish Cen Tigerna (modern Gaelic, Ceann Thighearna) “head lord/ruler/prince”. The word ‘Garthwys’ is more likely to conceal the birth name.

What is interesting is the fact that Cen Tigerna is Goidelic, not Latin, Brythonic, or Pictish, and may therefore indicate that Mungo received his Christian education not among the Picts of Fíb (which was the epicentre of the Church of Rome’s activities to take over Celtic Scotland) but either in Ireland or, more likely, further up the coast in Dal Riada whose ruling dynasties were intermarried with the Haels of Strathclyde and, like them, were Celtic Christians.

The capital of Strathclyde was at Dunbarton Rock (Dún Bretan, modern Dùn Bretainn) a bit to the north of modern Glasgow – the river port where St Mungo established his abbey, presumably on land gifted by the king of Strathclyde. It’s likely that the place already had a settlement and trading point.

There was a column in a newspaper written earlier this year that claimed that Christianity was brought to Britain by St Augustine of Canterbury in 595 AD when Pope Gregory I sent him to proselytize the Saxons of Kent. This is a common misconception. Although there were Roman Christians in the east of the country left over from the Empire, St Augustine began the conversion of the Saxons settled in the east of England, not the Celts of the west and it seems to have come as an unpleasant shock to the Roman missionaries when they met Christian communities the further west they went, but which were the wrong kind of Christian.

The chronicler (and Roman Christian) Gildas, clearly upset by the awareness, wrote in De Excidio Britonum (“The Ruination of Britain”) around 540 AD, …donec Arriana perfidia, arox ceu anguis, transmarina nobis evomens venena… ac sic quasi via facta trans oceanum omnes omnino bestiae ferae mortiferum cuiuslibet haereseos virus horrido ore vibrantes… (“until the Arian treason, like a savage snake, vomited its foreign poison upon us… and as though there were a set route across the ocean there came every kind of wild beast, brandishing in their horrid mouths the death-dealing venom of every heresy…” [12:3]).

There actually was, in fact, a via facta trans oceanum (a set route across the ocean). The Celts of the west of the British Isles had an established sea-borne trade with Egypt, the Levant, and the North African littoral that pre-dated the Claudian Invasion in the mid 1st Century AD, as has been established by Professor Emrys Bowen among others, and they were well informed of developments in those parts of the world.

Gildas himself admits, rather grudgingly, this provenance of Celtic Christianity.

Interea glaciali frigore rigenti insulae et velut longiore terrarum secessu soli visibili non proximae verus ille non de firmamento solum temporali sed de summa etiam caelorum arce tempora cuncta excedente universo orbi praefulgidum sui coruscum ostendens, tempore, ut scimus, summo Tiberii Caesaris, quo absque ullo impedimento eius propagabatur religio comminata senatu nolente a principe morte delatoribus militum eiusdem, radios suos primum indulget, id est sua praecepta, Christus (“Meanwhile, to an island numb with chill ice and far removed, as in a remote nook of the world, from the visible sun, Christ made a present of his rays – that is, his precepts – Christ the true sun, which shows its dazzling brilliance to the entire earth, not from the temporal firmament merely, but from the highest citadel of heaven, that goes beyond all time. This happened first, as we know, in the last years of the emperor Tiberius, at a time when Christ’s religion was being propagated without hindrance: for, against the wishes of the senate, the emperor threatened the death penalty for informers against the soldiers of God” [8]).

Tiberius was Emperor from 14 AD until 37 AD, when he was murdered by the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Naevius Cordus Sertorius Macro. Christ’s Temptation in the Wildernees, typically used as the beginning of his mission, is conventionally dated at 30 AD, and the Crucifiction as 33 AD. Thus by Gildas’s chronology the Precepts of Christ arrived in the British Isles while he was still teaching in Palestine, or in the four year window between 33 and 37 AD. Tertullian of Carthage, 2nd Century AD commentator and originator of the word trinitas (Trinity), seemingly agrees with this.

The inference to be drawn is that the Christianity followed by the Celts of the West of the Islands was the pristine message.

Thus, when the Mediterranean Roman world was grafting Mithraism and Isisism onto the teachings of Christ that appeared in its definitive form at Nicaea in 325 AD and reached its culmination in the doctrines of the Church of Rome, the pure message was still preserved in the Eileanan Àigh (the Blessed Isles, as they were known to the ancients), and this state continued until some time after Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Straits of Hercules and defeated the Romanising Visigothic king Rodrigo at the Battle of the Transductine Promontories in 711 AD.

What sort of theology this was we can guess at from the invective constantly levelled at Celtic Christianity by the Church of Rome, which called it “hebraizing”, “nazarean”, “ebionite”, as well as the usual “arian” and “pelagian”. It would appear that the final demise of this Christianity was with the conquest in the mid-to-late-700s of the High Kingdom of Dal Riada by the Romanised Picts of Fortrenn. When Dal Riada was reborn under Kenneth mac Alpine of obscure origins in the 800s in the Kingdom of the Scots and Picts it too was effectively Romanised.

Nevertheless Celtic ideas and beliefs persisted, and do to this day, all over the islands, to the extent that the Benedictine monk, Dom Louis Gougaud OSB, could write in his seminal work Les chrétientés celtiques (The Celtic Christianities) in 1911 that Pelagianism was in effect the national heresy of the Britons: an observation that is still true.

The Church of Rome tried very hard to stamp these things out, but ironically most success was achieved by the Puritans of Cromwell’s era whose “Mission from God” was to purify the church from Romishness. Rome’s activities didn’t prevent the emergence of Lollardy under John Wyclif in the 14th Century, which effectively made much of Britain protestant some 200 years before King Henry VIII’s break with the Lateran, and which boosted the protestant movement in Europe with the Lollard convert Jan Hus and the Hussites who followed him.

Practically all Celtic beliefs to do with the Unseen have suffered from corrupt write-ups, mostly originating from biased works of Roman monks and later clerics, which the ruling dynasties after the Norman Conquest were quite happy to foster.

The British Civil Wars of the 17th Century ushered in a period of fundamentalist religious bigotry that wasn’t confined to the Puritans. This tragic period produced the notorious Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General (a kind of chief mutawwa), under whose campaigns many people accused of witchcraft were executed. Hopkins is thought to have put more than 300 women to death – more, in fact, that had been executed in the previous century. This Puritan passtime got exported to British North America with the emigrants of their sect.

This obsession can be seen in the screenplays to do with Merlin. The eponymus was probably a druid, and a person of knowledge, enlightenment, and healing. He has now become a wizard or sorcerer, and a purveyor of witchcraft, devilry, and evil.

And it can be seen most clearly in the event that happens at the end of October, and in preparation for which the shops and supermarkets are already laying in pumpkins and various items of clothing familiar from the movies. This is Hallowe’en.

The word itself is a corruption of All Hallows Eve – the night before All Hallows’ Day – ‘hallows’ meaning ‘saints’; hence its alternative name of All Saints’ Day, celebrated on 1st November, that precedes All Souls’ Day on 2 November. It was a blatant hijacking of a Celtic festival and its recruitment to serve the interests of the Christianity of the Church of Rome.

The triskele of the Arms of the Isle of Mannin represents the three connected realms of This World, the Next World, and the World of the Unseen, also called the Other World. The Celts were constantly aware of the proximity of this Other World, and its inhabitants. They had various names for that place, one of which (the sìth, pronounced ‘shee’, which means ‘peace’, ‘reconciliation’, or ‘spiritual’) is quite familiar through a loan word. This is banshee, which in its Gaelic original (ban-sìth) means, according to Edward Dwelly, “Female fairy. It was believed by the Highlanders of old that the wailings of this being were frequently heard before the death of a chieftain. She seldom made an appearance, but when she did, it was in a green mantle with disheveled hair”.

They knew that these beings existed “in phase” with this world of forms, but they didn’t entirely trust them. In fact, throughout their mythologies, and which found its way into the mediaeval fairy tales, the fairies are not portrayed as nice beings. But they could be bought off, or persuaded to go away and leave one alone, by baubles or pretty objects or items of food and drink (especially sweetmeats) or by beating them at a challenge (at which they’ll cheat). There is an odd story from the southern Hebrides called the Tale of the Balieveolan Glassrig that demonstrates these quite well, in which the hero (Sealbhach mac Shealbhaich or Selbach McKelvie) defeats the glassrig by beating her at the stamina needed to row from Gleann Sunndach (Glensanda) to Lios Mór (Lismore).

They knew also that there were certain places and certain times when the veil between that world and this was very thin, and even had breaches in it that formed gateways; and some of these, worryingly, were permanent. Their tales are full of cautions about passing through these, as time there for us is not the same as time here for them.

Such crossover points were typically where there was no clear division between the land and the water, or the land and the air (such as the tops of mountains), or of course the sea and the air, and certain votive sites. These included standing stones, clan or tribal religious centres, omphaloi, burial grounds. Also the equivalent times of day (first and last light, noon, midnight) and certain times of the year that became identified with the four quarter-days (each half of the Celtic year was itself halved), especially the eve of these: the Celtic day began at sunset of the day before, thus the eve preceded the day.

“The Celts honored the opposing balance of intertwining forces of existence: darkness and light, night and day, cold and heat, death and life. The Celtic year was divided into two seasons: the light and the dark, celebrating the light at Beltane on May 1st and the dark at Samhain on November 1st. Therefore, the Feast of Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, since it marked the beginning of a new dark-light cycle. The Celts observed time as proceeding from darkness to light because they understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Therefore, the Celtic year began with the season of An Geamhradh, the dark Celtic winter, and ended with Am Foghar, the Celtic harvest. The Celtic day began at dusk, the beginning of the dark and cold night, and ended the following dusk, the end of a day of light and warmth. Since dusk is the beginning of the Celtic day, Samhain begins at dusk on October 31. Samhain marks the beginning of An Geamhradh as well as the New Year.” []

It is heartening to find that one of the best and most appreciative sources on Celtic Spirituality which I quoted from above, is run by a Christian church – the Episcopalian parish church of All Saints at Brookline, Massachusetts. Having been brought up a Scots Presbyterian (with Free Kirk tendencies), and thus a slightly jaundiced opinion of Piskies, this is refreshing. And goes a long way to restoring what was lost through centuries of papist reworking and rewriting.

Samhainn, or Samhuinn, comes from the phrase sam fhuinn, ‘end of summer’. The All Saints’ author doesn’t elucidate, understandably, as it’s unclear how the spirits of one’s ancestors pass through the Other World from the Land of Youth (or the Land Beyond the Ninth Wave), but the Celts believed that they are always around one and communication takes place between them and onself.

“Whereas Beltane was welcomed in the summer light with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of Samhain was at night. Oidhche Shamhna, the Eve of Samhain, was the most important part of the celebration. Villagers gathered the best of the autumn harvest and slaughtered cattle for the feast. The focus of each village’s festivities was a great bonfire. Villagers cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. (Our word bonfire comes from these “bone fires.”) Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire. Many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. With the great bonfire roaring, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit their hearth from the one great common flame, bonding all families of the village together. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come…

The gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, as at all the turning points of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that Oidhche Shamhna was a very holy time, when the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld were broken and the dead could return to the places where they had lived. Many rituals of Oidhche Shamhna involved providing hospitality for dead ancestors: Celts put out food and drink for the dead with great ceremony, and left their windows, doors, and gates unlocked to give the dead free passage into their homes. Bobbing for apples, another traditional Samhain pastime, was a reference to the Celtic Emhain Abhlach [Emain Aballach], “Paradise of Apples,” where the dead, having eaten of the sacred fruit, enjoyed a blissful immortality. Swarms of spirits poured into our world on November Eve, but not all of these spirits were friendly. Celts carved the images of spirit-guardians onto turnips and set these “jack o’lanterns” before their doors to keep out unwelcome visitors from the Otherworld.”

It’s by no means certain that the Celts were polytheists. They certainly saw manifestations of the divine in many places and things, and gave them appropriate names of which there seems to be a confusing proliferation, but these were avatars – “windows to the face of God” (uinneagan na ghnùis Dhé) – so the statement above (“the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain”) is misleading, and probably wrong. What the author should have said, and which would have accorded with Celtic beliefs, is that the veil between the Spirit World and This World grew thin, or was lifted, at Oidhche Shamhna. And then all this has come down to us through the filter of Celtic Christianity whose divines were often also druids – so what the Church of Rome was reworking had already been “Christianised”.

So, this is the context (when beset with all that stuff in the supermarkets, or the kiddies wanting to do their “trick or treat” business) from which it all comes. It has nothing to do with witchcraft, evil spirits, paganism (as usually understood),… or, of course, American commercialism.

© D Rosser-Owen 2010, 2011 All Rights Reserved

Written by David Rosser Owen

February 5, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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By Daoud Rosser-Owen

“There is no compulsion in religion…” [Q2:256]

Blasphemy as a religious crime is not recognised by Islamic Law, and those communities which claim it is and have enacted legislation to enforce it are on unsafe legal ground. Whereas through positive law they may adopt what laws they choose, they should not justify the criminalisation of blasphemy by reference to Islam.

In the United Kingdom there was a Blasphemy Act, passed in 1698, that operated in England but only covered the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel against the beliefs of the Church of England. But these were abolished by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. It had been long assumed that the 1698 Act had fallen into disuse until it was attempted to be used to proceed against the author Salman Rushie in 1988-9 over the publication of his book The Satanic Verses. In the Republic of Ireland, the beliefs of the Church of Rome still enjoy certain protections under the law.

Those Muslim countries which would indicate the conduct of the Abbasids as authority are on shaky ground as their imperial practices were often of dubious legality under the Shari’ah.

There was, however, the famous case in Umayyad Spain of the Cordovan Martyrs of 850AD. These people wanted to be martyred for their Christian faith and set about reviling the Prophet in public, causing a public disorder. They were arrested and brought before the judge who dismissed the case on the grounds that they were probably affected by the hot sun. This happened three times in all. They were finally executed, but not for their “blasphemy” but because they had actively involved themselves with one of the Christian petty kingdoms that was at war with the Caliphate and were punished for treason.

Where the law does have an involvement it is only when a breach of the peace takes place as a consequence of the “blasphemy”. In this case it is likely that the “blasphemer” was reacting to provocation, and it is the duty of the authorities to investigate just what this provocation was.

The word blasphemy comes ultimately from the Classical Greek βλασφημέω (“blasphime-o”), from βλάπτω (“blapto”), I injure, and φήμη (“phimi”), reputation, and was bound up with pagan Greek and Roman views on the gods and religion and avoiding spiteful retributions on humanity. In Christian times it came to mean in English Common Law the offence of speaking disparaging words about God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, or the Book of Common Prayer with the intent to undermine religious beliefs and promote contempt and hatred for the Church as well as general immorality. The common Arabic translation is tajdeef or sabb, ‘imprecation’ or ‘cursing’.

Those who would import this concept into Islam use it supposedly to defend the name of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and that of the Almighty.

God Himself has given them clear guidance in the Quran as to how they should conduct themselves where the Divine Name is being reviled: “…when you hear the Signs of God held in defiance and ridicule, you are not to sit with them…” [Q4:140]; “when you see those who vainly discuss Our Signs turn away from them…” [Q6:68]; “leave alone those who take their religion as play and amusement…” [Q6:70].

It is not even allowed to respond in kind, where the offender is reviling the Almighty: “and do not revile those whom they call on besides God lest they revile God out of spite in their ignorance…” [Q6:108].

There is no compulsion or sanction revealed here. The believer is simply told to go away and leave them to it.

There was a number of occasions during the life of the Prophet peace be upon him when he was abused and reviled, even to the extent of inflaming the passions of his Companions. He never allowed any retribution legal or otherwise against the revilers. He would simply direct the person to the Companion Hasan bin Thabit who would respond to him with discussion and debate.

A particularly well-known incident involved the leader of the Hypocrites (munafiqoun) in Medina, Abdullah bin Ubayy, calling for the expulsion of “the worst of the city” (meaning the Prophet). When his words were reported to the Prophet a number of the Companions wanted to punish him. The Prophet forbade it. Abdullah’s son even wanted to kill his father. The Prophet forbade it. And when Abdullah eventually died it was the Prophet who led his funeral prayer.

“Blasphemy” is simply a misuse of freedom of expression and speech. This is not a cognisable offence, and there is no legal punishment for it. Clearly, from the Quran and the example of the Prophet peace be upon him, which are normative for Muslims, the only permissible response is reasoning and rational argument. And, if that is getting nowhere, to leave.

© D Rosser-Owen 2011 All Rights Reserved

Written by David Rosser Owen

February 4, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Well-trodden Paths

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By David Rosser Owen

At the moment it is quite common, even fashionable, among many people to denigrate and anathematise the Shari’ah, used as a shorthand for Islamic Law or more accurately as one for the degenerate legal systems applied in certain Muslim countries – which is not at all the same thing.

There is also the understandable reaction to a more immediate problem of the ignorant demands from certain Muslims of Britain, and their umbrella organisations, for the application in the UK of some concept that they describe as “Shari’ah” or “Islamic Law”, but which is actually little better than an Islamic label stuck crudely over some imported cultural or customary code that in all too many dimensions touches Islam itself only notionally.

It is sadly true that there is some justification for these responses.

However reacting from ignorance is not helpful. Yet what else can people do when they are let down by those whose professional duty it used to be “to educate and inform” but who nowadays seem to take it as being to promote ignorance and dissention? Few people are orientalists, and the generations who were born, grew up and served in the Empire have largely passed out of public life.

The aim of his essay is an attempt to fill in the gap abandoned by journalism. It is largely adapted from my monograph on Tory Fundamentalism and Muslim Ideas of State.

About two years ago, there was published in one of the UK’s daily broadsheets the results of a survey among Muslims, largely in the Midlands and north-east of England, asking whether they wanted Shari’ah in the UK. Many answered ‘yes’, but the questions remain what did the respondents understand by the request, did they think that there was a realistic possibility of it actually happening, or were they reacting to some massive hypothetical “If”?

Much has been made of the apparent results of this poll. So, following from this, what does the word Shari’ah mean for the average UK Muslim – or the proverbial ‘Muslim on the Clapham omnibus’ – and the average UK non-Muslim? And what does this actually mean for them at the operative level of daily life?

There used not to be an educated person unfamiliar with that verse from Jeremiah (6:16), “interrogate de semitis antiquis quae sit via bona et ambulate in ea” (ask after the old paths where is the good way and walk in it). This “good way” (via bona) is the well-trodden path of the prophets and patriarchs, and is the Way of Truth that all these have called people to follow.

The Muslims do not see their Way as being different from this but as a continuation of this well-trodden path, though all communities at various places, times, and circumstances have needed specific guidance for their conditions. As stated in the Quran “for every one of you We have ordained a Code and a Good Way” (li kulli ja’alna minkum shir’atan wa minhaja)(5:48). This via bona is none other than the Shari’ah – a ‘well-trodden path to that watering hole’ (which is what the word actually means) of laws and conduct derived from what has been sent down from the Almighty from which the Mosaic Law of the Torah, much of the Canon Law of the Christians, and the corpus of Islamic Law drink deep. To Muslims, each of these Abrahamic Faiths (as the late Professor Isma’il al-Faruqi, al shahid, termed them) has its own Shari’ah: its own track (semita) on the Way (via) of Truth.

What is Shari’ah?

The former State Attorney General of Singapore, Professor Ahmad Muhammad Ibrahim, wrote in his work Islamic Law in Malaya (1965, reprinted 1975, one of the most readable disquisitions for the layman or woman on Islamic Law in English),

“Islam literally means submission to the will of God and the will of God is that we should pursue ḥusn, that is beauty of life and character and avoid qubḥ, that is ugliness of life and character. What is ḥusn or morally beautiful and what is qubḥ or morally ugly, can only be discovered from divine revelation. The value of each human action must be considered in the sight of God; its earthly consequences are incidental. What is morally beautiful must be done; what is morally ugly must not be done. That is the path to be pursued, the Sharī’ah.

The word Sharī’ah is the name given to the whole system of the law of Islām, the totality of God’s commandments. Each one of such commandments is called ḥukm (pl. aḥkām). The Sharī’ah is defined as “that which would not be known had there not been a divine revelation”. This definition is wide enough to include all the divine revelations, including those made by the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus, but the divine revelations through Muhammad are considered as confirming the earlier revelations, and therefore constitute the Sharī’ah in its purest and final form. Only what is expressly stated in the divine revelations or as may be inferred from them properly comes under the Sharī’ah. The Sharī’ah embraces all human actions; it is, therefore, strictly not law in the modern sense but might be regarded as a guide to ethics.

The Muslim term which corresponds more closely to law is fiqh. Fiqh is defined as “the deduction of the Sharī’ah values relating to conduct from their respective particular (tafṣīlī) evidences.””

Dr Tamara Sonn, Kenan Professor of Humanities at the College of William and Mary, Jamestown, Virginia, America’s oldest university of which HM Queen Elizabeth II is Patron, elucidated this when she was interviewed on 24 February 2005,

Fiqh is the effort of human beings to understand and implement divine will through legal codes – jurisprudence – not the divine will itself. Unlike shari’ah, which is eternal and changeless, legal codes can be adapted. Built into the roots that guide Islamic law is a method, called ijtihad, or intellectual ijtihad, to rethink and change these legal codes as circumstances demand.
The world is changing rapidly and legislation needs to keep up with it. The goal of legislation is to guide human life, so legislation has to keep up with human life.”

The purposes (maqasid) of Shariah, whether expressed simply and generally as Dr Ibrahim’s “guide to ethics” or as the more specific jurisprudential code of fiqh, are conventionally listed as five headings: safety of life (ḍamm), thought (‘aql), family (or ‘good name’ – ‘ird), religion (deen), and property or wealth (māl).

Professor Sonn stated this as,

“Islamic legal discourse divides into two types: those accorded to God, such as prayer, worshipping, fasting, pilgrimage, and the rights of human beings or individuals. The five necessities or essential rights for people described by Islamic Law are religion, life, family, mind or intellect, and property or wealth. Establishing and protecting these rights are considered among the primary purposes of Islamic law.”

The Cambridge University lecturer, Dr Timothy J. Winter, phrased it slightly differently,

“The fundamental objects, maqasid, of the Shari‘a are the right to life, mind, religion, lineage, and honour…”

However phrased, it is to be seen that property rights, freedom of thought and opinion and by inference the freedom to express them, personal dignity, and the right to life are to be guaranteed under the Shariah. That in many, if not most countries with majority Muslim populations, few of these apply demonstrates how far their polities and political cultures are from Islam – it doesn’t matter what labels and epithets they give themselves. As Dr Winter continued,

“…and these are respected in the legal codes of the contemporary West. We may even venture to note that they appear to be better maintained here than in the hamfisted attempts at creating Shari‘a states that we see in several corners of the Muslim world”.

But what about Positive Law?

Roger Scruton is quite a meticulous scholar, and not particularly unsympathetic to the Muslim World. His 2002 book The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, taken generally, provides an example of a problem. Dr Scruton’s mixed sources are not always academically objective, but there’s no particular reason why he should not have taken them on trust as modern orientalism is not his discipline. As a result some of the things he wrote are not completely correct. For example,

“Classical Islamic jurisprudence, like classical Islamic philosophy, assumes that law originates in divine command, as revealed through the Koran and the Sunna, and as deduced by analogy (qiyas) or consensus (ijma’). Apart from these four sources (usul) of law, no other source is recognized. Law, in other words, is the will of God, and sovereignty is legitimate only in so far as it upholds God’s will and is authorized through it” (p 88)

and further on, after praising “the fourteenth-century Tunisian polymath”, Ibn Khaldun, nevertheless concludes that,

“For all his subtlety, therefore, Ibn Khaldun ends by endorsing the traditional, static idea of government according to the shari’a. To put in a nutshell what is distinctive about this traditional idea of government: the Muslim conception of law as holy law, pointing the unique way to salvation, and applying to every area of human life, involves a confiscation of the political. Those matters which, in Western societies, are resolved by negotiation, compromise, and the laborious work of offices and committees are the object of immovable and eternal decrees, either laid down explicitly in the holy book, or discerned there by some religious figurehead – whose authority, however, can always be questioned by some rival imam, or jurist, since the shari’a recognizes no office or institution as endowed with any lawmaking power.” (p 91)

There is something that bedevils the works of political commentators and historians alike, and that is not rigorously disciplining oneself to ensure that ‘like’ is being compared with ‘like’. While acknowledging that Ibn Khaldun was a 14th Century scholar in the Islamic World, Dr Scruton appears to have jumped to the 21st Century Western World to make a comparison. Yet, what was happening in 14th Century Britain and Europe?

On the orders of Pope Clement V in a Bull four years earlier, the military order of the Poor Knights of the Temple was suppressed in 1312 and its Grand Master, Jacques de Molay burned at the stake in 1314, coincidentally the same year as the Battle of Bannockburn (Blàr Allt a’ Bhonnaich) was fought between the Scots under their king Robert I the Bruce and the English ruled by Edward II, the weakling son of Edward I Longshanks, malleus scottorum (the Hammer of the Scots). In 1320, the Scots sent a missive to the Pope, which was ignored, but this Declaration of Arbroath set down the Scottish view on sovereignty – the Community of the Realm, which took a long time to develop into anything resembling a modern system of government and it was far from being perfected by the time of the abolition of the Scottish Parliament in 1707. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France started in 1337 (and lasted to 1453, just two years before the beginning of the War of the Roses in 1455); the Black Death raged through 1348 to 1350, halving the population; in France a revolt of the peasantry, the Jacqueries, in 1358 was put down with condign savagery. In England, in the aftermath of the Black Death, came the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) in many ways a reaction to the Statute of Labourers 1351 (an attempt to restore the Feudal System) and was politically very far from a culture where matters were “resolved by negotiation, compromise, and the laborious work of offices and committees”. In fact, the system’s response to Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, John Ball and the Lollards in the Peasants’ Revolt was to put them down with the same viciousness as the French knights had used 23 years’ earlier with their own revolt.

The system that Dr Scruton criticises the Shari’ah for leading to is just that which held in the British Isles and British North America until well into the 18th Century, as a read of the contemporary scholars Richard Hooker, or Sir Edward Coke CJ, or Samuel Seabury, or Jonathan Boucher will amply demonstrate. Up to that point, the role of Parliament was to declare the Common Law, hence it was the High Court of Parliament, and the king commanded under this Common Law which was held as being of divine origin or, in other words, Natural Law. Though largely unthinkable in the British Isles of the 17th Century Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Cromwellian aftermath, the idea of parliament as a debating chamber and legislature enacting new statute law evolved progressively through the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. Possibly the first halting steps towards its being a truly representative democratic legislature occurred with the passage of the first Reform Act in 1832. In Britain, in the early years of the 21st Century, the process has been retrograded with the establishment of the unicameral Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly; and with the joining of the antidemocratic European Union with its institutional throwbacks to 17th Century French notions of divine right and vestigial feudalism. In the United States of America, the 18th Century Whig Constitutional Republic with its virtual elective Whig monarch has degenerated almost into a pre-revolutionary Bourbon kingdom. None of these is really in much of a position to hold up a Spencerian looking glass of Social Darwinism to the theoretical polities permissible under the Shari’ah.

It is a truism that in the different manners of arrival and popular endorsement of the first six successors after the Prophet Muhammad (Abu Bakr al Siddiq, Umar ibnu-l Khattab, Uthman ibn ‘Affan Dhi-n Nourayn, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, and Yazid ibn Muawiyah), Muslim political thinkers have been provided with six models of rulership, including an hereditary monarch. Yet each had in common the endorsement by representatives of the governed as a necessary legitimizing mechanism. And each had an advisory council (the majlisu-sh shoura), a curia regis in a manner of speaking, made up of representatives (the ahlu-l hal wa-l ‘aqd, or ‘the people of loosing and binding’ – in effect a nascent legislature).

From these 7th-8th Century beginnings, various polities were tried in the Islamic World, until the Ottoman Empire in its final ‘century’ from the last decade of the 18th Century to 1924, when under the influence of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order, the Sultan-Caliph raised a parallel army (the nizam-i jadid) and eventually used it to suppress the Janissaries in the early years of the 19th Century, and then instituted political reforms under what are called the Gülhane Rescript and the Tanzimat Movement, both driven by the Naqshbandis, and both constituting what in present-day terms would be called ‘representational democracy’. There is no reason to suppose that this process should not continue, borrowing and adapting where appropriate.

Perhaps it is worth noting that succession, even when rulership was an hereditary monarchy, was not a simple matter of the eldest son inheriting the throne. Normally the most suitable son took over, and even in the most degenerate times the formality – or legal fiction – of endorsement by representatives of the governed was always gone through. Thus two principles are established through long usage: suitability in the Head of State, and endorsement by the governed.

There is another matter of relevance to Positive Law within the Shari’ah.

If one believes in the divine origin of Natural Law, then ancient liberties and rights are God-given, not State-given in some Hegelian sense. Therefore the State cannot endow or enact rights and liberties because these belong to the person as of right as the Gift of God. This is the position of Islam, as it was the position of the Britons. Perhaps we should always ask why is a particular law being enacted, because laws restrict or limit action rather than permit it? The Shari’ah goes further. Unless something is expressly forbidden in the Quran, and the number of these things is very small (certainly fewer than a dozen), then it is permitted. It can be argued (such as was done by Dr Said Ramadan in his book Islamic Law) that so strongly is this matter of permissibility put in the Shari’ah, that all legal categories are to be viewed as degrees of it – even ḥarām. This would be seen under this methodology as ‘extreme negative permissibility’ rather than simply ‘forbidden’ or more properly ‘taboo’.

“Islamic Law”

The Moroccan political activist, and somewhat of a rationalist, ‘Allal al Fasi, stated in 1949,

“We know that Islamic Law had Divine inspiration as its primary source. But in details, it did not fail to make use of foreign legal rules, and even customs which were followed in the countries where Islam penetrated. It did that every time those rules or customs could be brought into agreement with the general principles of Islamic Law.”

Thus, the possibility of formulating Positive Law is established in Islamic jurisprudence, which Dr Scruton held not to be the case.

The actual mechanisms are formed by the categories of ijtihād (applied reasoning – both deductive and inductive), qiyāṣ (analogy – particularly with measures adopted by Christians in analogous circumstances), and al ‘adāt wa-l ‘urf (custom and usages – specifically where there is no conflict with Quran and Sunnah) known as ‘amal (works) in Morocco. Some authorities lump all under the heading of ijtihad as has Professor Sonn (above). But it was in the matter of not identifying this ijtihad that Dr Scruton’s authorities let him down. And, indeed, as a source of ruler’s judgments and legislation ijtihad has an ancient pedigree going back to the examination that the Prophet subjected Mu’adh ibn Jabal to when appointing him governor of Najran in the Yemen.

Typically jurisprudence, of whatever origin, is divided into the two broad categories of criminal and civil law. Under the Shari’ah, fiqh embraces both of these. But in the loose usage of the term, it also embraces the simple and basic daily and day-to-day religious requirements of the Muslim – how and when to perform the prayer, how and when to keep the fast, paying alms and the purifying-due, how to divide up one’s estate in a Will, marriage and divorce, the manner of commercial transactions and drawing up contracts, and so on.

It is as well to bear this in mind, as Professor Sonn stressed, because this is the level at which most people will encounter and engage with it. It is probably this picture that was in the minds of most of the respondents to the survey cited above. And it is probably this picture which, if asked about the Shari’ah, most Muslims will immediately think of and if asked whether they want to live under the Shari’ah will accede to.

However, quite a number of non-Muslims of political bent have a different conception in mind when citing the Shari’ah. They are referring to the criminal law of the fiqh, and in particular the ḥudoud punishments and the matter of apostasy from Islam, on the one hand and the state of the ahlu-dh dhimmah on the other. Were they to openly specify that this is what they mean, I think that many Muslims would draw their attention to the unlikelihood or impossibility of these happening in the UK or Europe. Not to be upfront and open about this from the very beginning to my mind amounts to deceit.

There is only one country that applies Islamic Law proper through a dedicated court system, Malaysia, and that is only the Civil Law as originally codified in British India as the Indian Civil Code and using case law from it. The parallel Indian Penal Code, with its body of case law, as it reflects the Shari’ah is not administered anywhere. Not even in Pakistan, which might have been expected to have inherited it after 1947. That Criminal Law of fiqh supposedly applied in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Pakistan falls so far short of Islamic norms of equity and evidence as not to qualify, whatever labels are pinned to it.

And the critics, or detractors, were they to be honest and truthful would point out the strict limitations imposed on the use of the ḥudoud punishments and the absolute requirement to impose ta’zeer punishments where at all possible and certainly if there is a scintilla of doubt in the mind of one of the judges. The ḥudoud (singular, ḥadd), or in full the ḥudoudu-Llāh or “limits of God”, refer to certain specified punishments for certain specified crimes, the special point about them being that if this punishment is applied to the transgressor in This Life then he or she arrives at the Day of Judgment with a clean slate with, as far as that item is concerned totally expiated. This could be a big matter to a believer if the commission is particularly egregious as the ḥudoud are.

However, there are strict constraints on their application. There must have been no ‘need’ that the committer had that it was the duty of the state to provide for – an example would be hunger, or the need to feed his family, caused by his inability to find work for example – so the act would have been entirely capricious. The committer must have been of sound mind when doing the deed, and must have intended to do the deed – in other words it can’t have been done accidentally or ‘when the balance of his mind was disturbed’. And so on. As for the Court, there must not be the shadow of a doubt in the mind of each of the judges as to the guilt of the accused under the terms of trying a ḥadd crime. If there is any doubt, then a concessionary (ta’zeer) punishment must be imposed – this can be as light as a fine.

The behaviour of the courts in Nigeria, Pakistan, and in particular Saudi Arabia, in capriciously administering mandatory punishments for ḥadd crimes when these rules have not been observed and applied is, interestingly and ironically, actionable in itself. These places do not apply Islamic Law.

There is no clear sanction for a death penalty for apostasy under the Shari’ah. It is viewed as something of a consequence of free choice and caused by ignorance or the bad behaviour of Muslims. Where death penalties have been imposed the matter has not been simply an act of conscience but has been followed as a consequence by some outrage of public order or an act of treason and it has been these that were punished in that manner. Civil matters of disinheritance or expulsion are quite separate.

The dhimmah refers to the status of Jews, Christians, and Magians (as they are listed in the Quran) as ‘protected persons’ under states ruled by the Muslims. According to the Hans Wehr-J. Milton Cowan dictionary of Arabic, ahlu-dh dhimmah means “the free non-Muslim subjects living in Muslim countries who, in return for paying the capital tax, enjoyed protection and safety”. Their priests, monks, nuns, religious teachers and students, places of worship, graveyards, rights to worship, and so on, are not to be interfered with in any way and their general rights are guaranteed. The classic statement of this was the Treaty of Umar upon the Muslims’ capture of Jerusalem. This was extended and developed under the Ottomans to categorising the peoples of the empire according to their religious groups and organizing them into autonomous, self-governing and self-taxing millets run domestically under their own religious codes. This was generally speaking, by and large, respected throughout Islamic history, with certain reprehensible incidents and occasions when it was not. However, these incidents were roundly condemned by Islamic authorities both at the time and continuously since, so that it is justifiable to state that the norm was the preservation of the protected status.

There are two issues of contention that are repeatedly brought up, and particularly in recent years – possibly fed by the rubbish authored by ‘Bat Yeor’: the taxation of the dhimmis, and their perceived second-class status. The two taxes that the dhimmis were subject to seem to rankle. These were a kharj or ‘land tax’, and the jizyah. It needs to be stressed at this point that the jizyah was a payment in lieu of military service: only the adult male Muslim subjects were liable to be drafted at any time; the dhimmis were exempt. It was only fair that there should be some contribution from them to the defence of the realm – hence the jizyah. If they don’t want to pay the tax, then let them serve in the forces. This was actually the response of one of the Ottoman sultans to the complaint from one of the millets.

All Muslims were required to pay an annual capitation due on their surpluses but not current revenue. This is the zakah, which non-Muslims are not liable for. The kharj is the non-Muslims’ contribution to the exchequer, again liable only on surplus. It also seems a bit churlish for these matters to be brought up by present-day detractors of Islam and the Muslims without their drawing attention to the percentages demanded in these taxes, both of Muslims and dhimmis alike, (typically less than five percent) especially when these detractors come from states and communities where the common levels of taxation of the citizens approaches 60 percent levied on surplus and daily income alike.

Clearly those people who are demanding the banning of Shari’ah, on the one hand, or demanding its instating on the other, are ignorant as to what it is and what is permissible.

To quote again Professor Sonn,

“Islamic legal discourse divides into two types: those accorded to God, such as prayer, worshipping, fasting, pilgrimage, and the rights of human beings or individuals. The five necessities or essential rights for people described by Islamic Law are religion, life, family, mind or intellect, and property or wealth. Establishing and protecting these rights are considered among the primary purposes of Islamic law.”

It is not permissible under the Shari’ah for Muslims living as a minority in somebody else’s country to make any demands for the implementation of the Shari’ah, as long as “the prayer is permitted and continues to be said” (this is Imam al Mawardi’s ruling on obedience to the government). And as realistically what most Muslims want from the Shari’ah while living in the non-Muslim World is not much more than Roman Catholics or Anglicans want from the catechism calls for its banning are unfair and probably reactions to demands from Islamic extremists. Over-reacting to these people simply demonises all Muslims.

The solution, if there is a genuine social problem rather than simply using the Muslims and Islam as a convenient demon to further some other nefarious political agenda, is to engage with the mainstream Muslims and help them to sort out these people themselves. Remember, with Jeremiah, to “ask after the old paths where is the good way and walk in it”.

© D Rosser-Owen 2010, 2011 All Rights Reserved

Written by David Rosser Owen

February 4, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Let America be America Again

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By Langston Hughes (1938)

Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed– Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek– And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean– Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home– For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay– Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again– The land that never has been yet– And yet must be–the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME– Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose– The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America!

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath– America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain– All, all the stretch of these great green states– And make America again!

© D Rosser-Owen 2011 All Rights Reserved

Written by David Rosser Owen

February 4, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized