The religious scholar, whose new book is ''Sacred Nature,'' once quit a book club over an Iris Murdoch novel : '' There was an.upsetting aura of righteousness in the room ....... I have never returned.

.- What books are on your night stand?

''The Cloud of Unknowing,'' a 14th century mystical text by an English monk who reminds us that we have no idea what God is, and the ''Analects'' of Confucius, pithy aphorisms on which I ponder if I cannot sleep.

.- You were a nun for a time before leaving organized religion and becoming a scholar. Who writes especially well about faith or the cloistered life?

I think this must be Rummer Godden. She is rightly embarrassed about the film adaptation of her early novel '' Black Narcissus '' but she later spent a long time talking to the enclosed Benedictine nuns of Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire, England and thus learned a great deal about the monastic life, which she describes with sympathy and respect in ''In This House Of Brede.''

.-  What book people might be surprised to find on your shelf?

This reminds me of an incident at Oxford University, when I was a student nun studying 18-the century literature under the eminent don Hugo Dyson.

When I arrived in his study for my first tutorial, clad in my voluminous religious habit, and told him that I had chosen to write about Laurence Sterne's blatantly erotic novel, ''Tristram Shandy,'' Dyson looked not only surprised that I had this book on my shelf - but horrified :

Would he have to enlighten this ridiculous girl on the facts of life? I had, of course, noticed the book's eroticism, but I argued that to me the incessant digression for which the novel is famous were a perpetual flight from death, as - day by day, hour by hour - we neurotically try to evade the specter of our mortality. 

Dyson gave me an A.

.- Are there religious historians or scholars you especially admire?

My understanding of religion was transformed nearly 30 years ago by the great Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn-al-Arabi [1165-1240]. Sadly, he is little known in the West.

A truly religious person, he insisted in ''Fusus al-Hikam,'' was equally at home in a synagogue, temple, church or mosque, since no faith has the monopoly of truth :

''Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says ,' Wherever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.' [ Quran 2:115].

Everybody praises what he believes; his god is his own creature and is praising it he praises himself. Consequently, he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.''

I immediately copied his extract and pinned it onto the bulletin board beside my desk. It has remained absolutely essential to my work. When I am lecturing in Pakistan, for example, my host always tells me to finish by quoting these words and you can almost feel the relief in the room.

.- Has a book ever brought you closer to another person or come between you?

Years ago, I belonged to a reading group, and on one occasion, at my suggestion, we discussed '' A Fairly Honourable Defeat,'' by Iris Murdoch, whose work I always enjoy.

But the response was explosive. Even close friends were vitriolic in their disapproval, dismissed it as ''evil,'' and there was an upsetting aura of righteousness in the room. 

The book may not be a masterpiece, but it did not deserve this response. I have never returned to the book club.

.- How do you organize your books?

I have a large library on the third and fourth floor of my London house. [Novels are in my bedroom on the second floor].

One whole wall, two stories high at the back of the house, is filled with shelves that tower over the staircase. At the top are my own books in foreign translation. [I like to see them, even if I cannot reach or read them].

On the lower, accessible shelves are books on ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, mythology, psychology and mysticism. On the top landing are books on philosophy, neurology and general history. 

And finally, in my study, one wall is filled with books on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, reference books and dictionaries, and on either side of my desk are books on India and China.

The World Students Society thanks The New York Times.


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!