Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Muhammad (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)

The reign of Constantine (ca 227 - 337 AD) was certainly a great leap forward for revolutionary monotheism. But the spread of Christianity was still limited to those areas already ruled by Rome or already within Rome's sphere of influence. Constantinian Christianity represented the wedding of monotheism with an already established empire - basically a successful implementation of Akhenaten's dream but on a significantly larger scale.

Muhammad (ca 570 - 632 AD) and his followers, however, more closely resembled Moses and the children of Israel, than Constantine and his Bishops. The Arab Muslims roared out of the desert to build a theocratic Empire from scratch. Of course these days we're all supposed to pretend that Muhammad organized his followers into door-to-door canvassing teams to spread Islam by engaging in peaceful interfaith dialogues grounded in mutual respect and sensitivity to cultural differences, or some such shyte. Obviously no one, with the possible exception of Karen Armstrong, actually believes that. Certainly no Muslims believe it, no matter how much they might want others to believe it!

But as impressive as the more muscular and aggressive Islamic upstart might appear alongside the more established and complacent Christianity, it is nevertheless the case that much of Islam's initial growth amounted to poaching on the southern extremes of the Asian and African portions of the Roman Empire.

At first the core of the Eastern Roman Empire (aka, the Byzantine Empire) was able to hold the Islamic expansion at bay, but the Ottomans eventually engulfed not only Byzantium, but all of southeastern Europe as well. The city of Budapest, for example, came under Ottoman rule for 140 years. But it wasn't until it extended to the east, and especially into India and Southeast Asia that Islam was really conquering significant new ground for revolutionary monotheism, (and, very importantly, ground that it would be able to hold onto, unlike Spain and southeastern Europe).

India's first major contact with Islam came during the 17 year long campaign of predatory raids under the direction of the Sultan Mahmud of Gazhni, starting in 997. The relationship between India and Islam is long and complex, but what began with Mahmud's raids eventually led to the Muslim conquest of most of the Indian subcontinent under the Mughal Empire. India also served as a way station for the expansion of Islam into Southeast Asia. Today, South, Central and Southeast Asia account for half of the Muslim population of the world, and are home to the top four countries in terms of total Muslim population (Indonesia 207M, Pakistan 167M, India 156M, Bangladesh 140M).

"The Mohammedan Conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history." So begins chapter 6 of volume I (there are eleven volumes!) of Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization, titled simply The Moslem Conquest of India. The Durants were not Neoconservative Republican boosters for the War On Terror, seeking to whip up xenophobic anti-Muslim hysteria. In fact, Will and Ariel were nice young left-leaning intellectuals when they met and fell in love at the neo-anarchistic Ferrer Modern School in New York City in 1912. They soon moved away from more radical leftist politics, by the standards of the time, but nevertheless stayed true to what Ariel Durant called a "sentimental, idealizing blend of love, philosophy, Christianity, and socialism". They were also the authors of the "Declaration of Interdependence" in 1945, which reads in part:
That differences of race, color, and creed are natural, and that diverse groups, institutions, and ideas are stimulating factors in the development of man;

That to promote harmony in diversity is a responsible task of religion and statesmanship;


That since no individual can express the whole truth, it is essential to treat with understanding and good will those whose views differ from our own;


That by the testimony of history intolerance is the door to Violence, brutality and dictatorship; and


That the realization of human interdependence and solidarity is the best guard of civilization.
21st century progressives and leftists are so brain-addled by their addiction to identity politics that they would never dare cast aspersions on Muslims for their history of using violence to spread their religion. Why, all right-thinking modern day progressives and leftists see the entire history of human civilization as nothing but one imperialist horror story after another, so it would be downright unfair to single out the poor Muslims! Those who adopt this view don't seem to realize that, unlike the Durants and other more sensible lefties of a bygone era before "political correctness" ran amok, they are just mindlessly repeating the Christians' own favorite defense for their historically well documented penchant for using violence to impose their religion on others: "everyone else does it!"

Not only is this excuse transparently infantile it also has the further disadvantage of being completely untrue. One of the most important aspects of Jan Assmann's theory of "revolutionary monotheism" is that it helps us see that religious conflict is not so deeply rooted in human society as it might now appear to be (after 1700 years of revolutionary monotheism in power). In particular, religious conflict played little of no part in human history when polytheism held sway (that is, for the first several thousand years of human civilization). This obviously does not mean that there was an absence of all conflicts (or that those conflicts were somehow any less bloody or brutal), but it is not insignificant that religious diversity and toleration were ubiquitous features of human civilization until 1700 years ago.

What is perhaps most mind boggling of all (that is, to those who have become convinced that theocracy and intolerance are the general rule) is that the polytheistic religions of different cultures in the ancient (pre-Christian) world shared a common "cosmotheism" (as Jan Assman has called it) that actually encouraged a cosmopolitan world-view, a point of view that transcends narrow ethnocentrism by promoting the concept of a single human family in which we are all the "children of the Gods".

The cosmotheistic world view continues to be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and the other non-monotheistic religious traditions that are still followed by 1/3 of humanity (thank the Gods). This simple truth has been greatly (and to a large extent intentionally) obscured, especially in the post-9/11 world, in which we are expected to choose between the equally unedifying views of Sam Harris and Karen Armstong:

According to Sam Harris all religions are fundamentally evil. Fundamentalism and terrorism are not aberrations, but rather the predictable results from adherence to the violent, delusional ravings that comprise all religious teachings.

According to Karen Armstrong all religions are fundamentally good. Fundamentalism and terrorism are tragic aberrations resulting from religious people straying far from the core of reason and compassion at the heart of all religious teachings.

Both of these views are profoundly ahistorical. But they are extremely attractive for many people for a variety or reasons, not the least of which is their hypersimplicity. But clearly all religions are not the same when it comes to violence and intolerance. In particular we can (and we must) differentiate between two kinds of religions: (1) religions that have a consistent track record of intolerance and have relied heavily on forced conversions for their spread, and (2) religions in which intolerance and forced conversions truly are aberrations, if they are found at all. Here is how Jan Assmann explained it in his Moses the Egyptian:
Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as "paganism"? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in reality amount to nothing other than the distinction between "us" and "them"? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce "pagans" in the same way that every civilization produces "barbarians"?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation. We have to distinguish here between the "real other," who is always there beyond the individual and independent of the individual's constructions of selfhood and otherhood, and the "construction of other," who is the shadow of the individual's identity. Moreover, we have to realize that in most cases we are dealing not with the "real other," but with our constructions and projections of the other. "Paganism" and "idolatry" belong to such constructions of the other. It is this inevitable construction of cultural otherness that is to a certain degree compensated by techniques of translation. Translation in this sense is not to be confused with the colonializing appropriation of the "real" other. It is simply an attempt to make more transparent the borders that were erected by cultural distinctions.

Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translations. They belong within the emergence of the "Ancient World" as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations. The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function.
No matter how Karen Armstrong and Al-Jazeera try to spin things, everyone knows that Muslim nations today still crudely reflect their theocratic origins in a far more obvious (and honest) way than modern Christian nations do (all European nation-states were originally Christian theocracies, and most still have vestiges, or more, of that heritage). On that much even I can agree with Sam Harris.

First and foremost, Islamic countries have little or no religious freedom -- as a general rule they have even less religious freedom than the People's Republic of China! Take Egypt for example, a nation "friendly" with the West and with a large Christian minority. Here is a recent quote from an Egyptian cleric (Sheikh Gad al-Ibrahim) concerning Mohammed Hegazy, a convert from Islam to Christianity: "The Egyptian government should find Mohammed Hegazy and apply shari'a, giving him three days to reconvert and then killing him if he refuses".

Here is a quote from Mohammed Hegazy's father: "I am going to try to talk to my son and convince him to return to Islam. If he refuses, I am going to kill him with my own hands."

Here is a quote from an Egyptian judge Muhammad Husseini, in February, 2008, concerning Hegazy's case: "He can believe whatever he wants in his heart, but on paper he can’t convert.

Hegazy's case is unusual only because most Egyptians, or citizens of any other Muslim nation, would never even challenge the system as Hegazy has.

I'll end with some illustrative translations from the Sahih Bukhari, concerning capital punishment for the crime of apostasy. The Sahih Bukhari is one of the most important collections of "tradition" (hadith) texts for Sunni Muslims.

Volume 4, Book 52, Number 260:
Narrated Ikrima:
Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn 'Abbas, who said, "Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, 'Don't punish (anybody) with Allah's Punishment.' No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, 'If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.' "
Volume 9, Book 83, Number 17:
Narrated 'Abdullah:
Allah's Apostle said, "The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims."
Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57:
Narrated 'Ikrima:
Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to 'Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn 'Abbas who said, "If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah's Apostle forbade it, saying, 'Do not punish anybody with Allah's punishment (fire).' I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah's Apostle, 'Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'"
Volume 9, Book 84, Number 58:
Narrated Abu Burda:
Abu Musa said, "I came to the Prophet along with two men (from the tribe) of Ash'ariyin, one on my right and the other on my left, while Allah's Apostle was brushing his teeth (with a Siwak), and both men asked him for some employment. The Prophet said, 'O Abu Musa (O 'Abdullah bin Qais!).' I said, 'By Him Who sent you with the Truth, these two men did not tell me what was in their hearts and I did not feel (realize) that they were seeking employment.' As if I were looking now at his Siwak being drawn to a corner under his lips, and he said, 'We never (or, we do not) appoint for our affairs anyone who seeks to be employed. But O Abu Musa! (or 'Abdullah bin Qais!) Go to Yemen.'" The Prophet then sent Mu'adh bin Jabal after him and when Mu'adh reached him, he spread out a cushion for him and requested him to get down (and sit on the cushion). Behold: There was a fettered man beside Abu Muisa. Mu'adh asked, "Who is this (man)?" Abu Muisa said, "He was a Jew and became a Muslim and then reverted back to Judaism." Then Abu Muisa requested Mu'adh to sit down but Mu'adh said, "I will not sit down till he has been killed. This is the judgment of Allah and His Apostle (for such cases)" and repeated it thrice. Then Abu Musa ordered that the man be killed, and he was killed. Abu Musa added, "Then we discussed the night prayers and one of us said, 'I pray and sleep, and I hope that Allah will reward me for my sleep as well as for my prayers.'"
Volume 9, Book 89, Number 271:
Narrated Abu Musa:
A man embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism. Mu'adh bin Jabal came and saw the man with Abu Musa. Mu'adh asked, "What is wrong with this (man)?" Abu Musa replied, "He embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism." Mu'adh said, "I will not sit down unless you kill him (as it is) the verdict of Allah and His Apostle ."


[Here are three books by Sita Ram Goel for further reading on the subject of Islam in Indian history -- they are all available complete (and for free) online at the Voice of Dharma website:
Defense of Hindu Society
Heroic Hindu Resistance to Muslim Invaders (636 to 1206 AD)
Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them?]

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Roman Catholicism (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Seven)
Charlemagne, Part Deux (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Six)
Charlemagne (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)

Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones

4 comments:

Haukur said...

Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them?

Islam happened to them, that's what. It would be interesting to see a similar book on the history of European temples.

annyikha said...

Thank you for providing those links to the Hindu writings. They were very illuminating. I especially like the following statement one of them made:

"We must properly study Revelatory religions, their Gods and their prophets, their theories of special covenants and favoured ummahs, their doctrine of one God and two humanities, their categories of believers and infidels or pagans, their theory of Prophetism, their divinely ordained mission to convert and crusade.

"It is a task which needs the creative labour of all seekers and articulators of truth. Closed creeds are a threat both to deeper spirituality and to deeper humanity, and they badly need some sort of glasnost, openness and freedom. A wider discussion will help them to open up."

Apuleius Platonicus said...

I agree Annyikha that that particular point is especially important. It's not enough to just make sweeping, emotional declarations about Islam, or Christianity. Even worse, in my opinion, is to make meaningless generalizations about "all religions" the way that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris do. It is necessary to study all religions as broadly and as deeply as possible. If we want to understand the "closed creeds" properly, we need to study them closely -- and we also need to study other religions that are not "closed", and we have to be able to articulate what the difference is.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

"It would be interesting to see a similar book on the history of European temples."

That really would make an interesting book! Eberhard Sauer has written something along those lines: a book titled "The Archaeology of Religious Hatred". It focuses on archaeological evidence of Christian violence against Pagan sacred spaces.