Friday, 22 January 2016

On Thomas McElwain

Dr. Thomas McElwain rarely contributes to religious debate these days, since he feels – with much justification – that we live in contentious times and public engagement merely invites rancor and hatred. It is a great pity, though, because he offers a unique voice and a fresh, unusual perspective. The present writer is drawn to Dr. McElwain’s work on several counts, but largely because he is a living embodiment of the overlap between certain strains of Protestant Christianity and the Mahometan faith. In previous posts (see here) this author has outlined his conviction that the Protestant Reformation was a type of Christian response, or realignment, to the pressing fact of Islam, most specifically – in historic terms – to the pressure of Turkish Islam upon central Europe in the 1500s. But the links between Protestantism and Mahometanism go deeper than historic mechanisms. They extend into early Christianity and, in principle, to the roots of the entire Abrahamic religious complex. This is the view, and even more the experience, of Dr. McElwain, who has devoted most of his adult life to the exploration and explication of exactly such roots.

On the surface he is an odd mix. He was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist in the southern states of the USA, with strong, unavoidable exposure to the Baptist tradition. Through both his grandparents, maternal and paternal, however, he was familiar with a stream of Unitarian Quakerism which, remarkably, was linked to the Alevi Soofi tradition of Asia Minor. His grandfathers wore turbans and revered the Twelve Imams of the Shia. Add to this a deep backwoods acquaintance with certain tribes of American Indians, their languages and their traditions, and the fact that he has lived for years in a remote snow-bound cottage in Finland converting Biblical and Koranic texts into rhymed verse and we can surely, in all fairness, state that Dr. Elwain has trod an unconventional road. He describes himself thus: “I’m sort of a Quaker hard-shell Baptist Sufi who has practiced Islam.” By his own account he is a follower of a certain Mr. Edward Elwall, who he counts as his intellectual mentor, a turban-clad English Unitarian Quaker who lived in the early 1700s and who belonged to a Turkish order of dervishes. Dr. McElwain is, in short, a southern American scholar in far north Scandanavia, a Biblical Christian with Shia Islamic Turko-Soofi affiliations.

This all makes him a fascinating character. Many would say eccentric – but that designation would allow his work and viewpoint to be too easily dismissed since it implies outlandish. In fact, Dr. McElwain is a thorough and very learned scholar whose teachings are founded in a deep study of languages, and at their centre is a simple but profound notion. He regards the Decalogue – the Mosaic Ten Commandments – to be the core of the Abrahamic tradition, and he reads all three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, through that singular lens. Not, however, by the usual legalistic and moral reading, but rather by an esoteric reading that emphasizes the fact that the Decalogue is the single-most direct revelation given by the Almighty in any of the vast literature of these three great traditions. Direct, that is, meaning unmediated by angels or other representatives. The Koran, for instance, is mediated by the Angel Jibreel. The Gospels come to us through the authority of the Apostles. But the Decalogue, the revelation of Sinai, is a direct and forthright encounter with the Divine where God speaks and reveals His law without mediation (except the Burning Bush.)

This scriptural fact, Dr. Elwain has argued throughout his career, has been lost in the messy overgrowth of religious tradition. He has devoted his studies to reasserting the centrality of the Decalogue both within the Abrahamic traditions and, importantly, between them. The Mahometan tradition, for instance, has, he argues, lost sight of the fact that it is Moses – the Prophet Moosa – who is the central character in the Koran, and that at every turn the Koran reiterates the Decalogue as the essence of Allah’s will. The present author – let it be admitted – has had the experience, years ago now, of scoffing at this assertion, only to be shaken out of his complacency when he checked and rechecked Koranic texts according to the McElwain reading and discovering that the good Doctor is absolutely correct. Thomas McElwain is a very astute and careful reader of both Bible and Koran – and pseudepigrapha as well – and his reading and cross-reading of those texts is always perspicacious and penetrating.

For reasons best known to himself, he has chosen to present much of his work in the form of rhyming verse; it is an idiosyncrasy, certainly, and yet, perhaps, it preserves his thought from the straight-jacket of academic stultifications. This can only be applauded.

Unfortunately, he occupies that terrible no-man’s-land between the warring ideologies of the Christians and the Saracens. As he himself relates, his work on the Koran alienates his Christian friends and his work on the Bible alienates his Muslim friends. We live, as he says, in an age of renewed polarization. Indeed, this new atmosphere of mutual conflict has, over just the last few years, infected the once ‘moderate’ and Europe-looking world of Turkish Islam and the plight of the Alevi Mahometans in Turkish society has worsened considerably in recent times as Shia/Sooni sectarianism once again rips open the Muslim Ummah. Dr. McElwain’s work of eucemenical cross-fertilization, that is, – always in the left-field - is even less welcome in the public sphere than in the past.

Readers will find his name prominent in a vicious on-line attack upon the Dawoodiyya Soofi Order, – that Order being a beautiful inspiration, structured around the McElwain vision, celebrating the Psalms of David in the (Turkish) Soofi mode. Certain figures have seen fit to throw as much mud at the Doctor as they can. It is not surprising that he has withdrawn from this environment of hostility. There is only a certain amount of misunderstanding, abuse and derision a soft-spoken, sincere and warm-hearted scholar can take.

Another point in favor of Dr. McElwain, from this present author’s point of view, is his insistence that the medieval Gospel of Barnabas – one of the strangest works of Christian apochrypha – is, when removed from the context of Christian/Mahometan polemic, a work of spiritual power. This author has been a student of the said ‘Muslim Gospel’ for several decades. Much of his academic work has concerned a careful investigation into its origins and provenance, as well as inter-textual studies of its relation to New Testament and other gospels. Beyond that, however, it is – though it is rarely acknowledged as such – a work of great spiritual merit. Its merit lies in its extraordinary synthesis of all three Abrahamic perspectives. In practice, it manages to offend Jews, Christians and Mahometans, but there is a higher viewpoint that goes beyond such narrow confessional particularisms and in which this fact becomes a shining virtue.

In contemporary academic circles, it seems only Dr McElwain (along with the present author) recognize this. Regardless of how the Gospel of Barnabas came into being – and the present author is firmly of the view that its roots and some sections of the extant text are of considerable antiquity – it offers a Judeo-Christian-Islamo synthesis that is both unique and profound. Whoever composed the Gospel of Barnabas, they transcended the limitations of age-old religious divisions and attained a higher synthetic viewpoint. Dr. McElwain has devoted his career to doing much the same. The author counts him, for this reason and others, as something of a kindred spirit.

Dr. McElwain's rhymed verse renderings and commentary on Biblical and Koranic texts can be found under the title 'Beloved and I'. His most academic work can be found in the volume entitled 'Islam in the Bible'.

The present author’s work on the Gospel of Barnabas can be found here.


Harper McAlpine Black

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