Last Theology Standing: The tale of Siddika Jessa

by Samuel Mellish

Now, I’m quite fond of theology. I know, major shock. I’ll give you a moment to take that in…

Despite my fondness for theology, the number of my contemporaries who aren’t so keen has surprised me (I like to keep a diverse friend circle). They point to the abhorrent actions of a few, who utilise particular theological tenants, and with them religions, to advance predominantly selfish, material, empirical desires. And as such, it becomes clear – very quickly – that their arguments are utter nonsense. Indeed, it is true that across all religions this occurs; we are witness to extremist groups operating in the UK, Israel and Syria, all attempting to justify their interpretation of a particular Abrahamic faith. It is further certain that these individuals are minorities, undermining the peaceful practice of millions of followers, seeking to understand and found relations with the divine.

owever, I was reminded of these arguments when I came across the story of Siddika Jessa, formerly the Secretary General of NASIMCO (the Organisation of North American Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities), and committed mother. Her son, Ali Reza, married his partner Paul, on a happy occasion with his mother in attendance. A seemingly innocent act, marking the beginning of new life and family unity. Yet, a petition gaining almost 1000 signatures, in response to Siddika’s action, forced her to resign from NASIMCO, blighting such a happy occasion. In her resignation letter (which I strongly recommend reading – click this link) she points to her love for her son, and most important, the fact she has done nothing wrong.

My own studies of religion have been blighted by both positivity and negativity. On the one hand I have been presented with exquisite beauty, hope, and a resilience to make the world simply better. Emotions and actions found wanting in many environments. In opposition to this, I have experienced fear, and saw persecution, discrimination, irritation, directed at not only the well established, but also the weak, vulnerable, and marginalised, who are without the tools to defend themselves.

The strength and courage of Siddika is most commendable and inspiring. And her opinion mirrors those of this writer. But this episode points to a much wider theological occurrence: theological conflict. Religious communities are witness to a theological hierarchy, in which theological sects compete for dominance, seeking to label the opposition as heretical, and they as divinely inspired. It is a zero-sum game, with a confusing lack of direction. So brutal is this conflict, it happily undertakes character assassination, undermining community cohesion, removing respect for those a community would usually endeavour to support.

So to my friends who point to abhorrent expressions of theology, I can only admit they exist, as part of a wider theological conflict, where it can only be hoped that light will triumph over dark.

Are we then only able to talk about theologies, rather than theology?