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Islam and West

I’ve stated many times that I hold no set religious belief — I can’t fit myself into dogmas and theologies created by other humans trying to understand something that remains at least in part a mystery.  I am heartened by similarities across faiths, and a sense that there is a spiritual, even divine side of existence, even if God — or Allah or Brahman — remains incomprehensible to the human mind.  I believe in a unity of experience — or Tawhid or Nirvana or union with the Holy Spirit — that transcends our daily travail.  I’m convinced that this world is only a reflection of something spiritual and transcendent.

Yet we are in this world, at a given time and place in history, and we have to deal with the problems of our experience in the now in the world at hand.   I suspect that if we try to escape it through mystical retreat, drugs, fantasy or even suicide, we’ll just re-experience the same sorts of problems until we confront them.

After the 9-11 attacks  I decided to learn as much as I can about the Islamic faith.  I expected to find something extremely harsh and rigid.  Instead, the more I learned, the more I came to respect and admire Islam, its teachings and its history.   At its best, like Christianity, Islam is a beautiful and exquisite faith.   Islam unites a community in a sense of belonging and caring that is to be admired and respected.

Last summer this led me to start a blog series called “Islam and the West,” which had six posts between mid-May and July 17th, when part six appeared, Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  By July the excitement of the 2008 election and the subsequent economic crisis drew my attention away from that task, and I even took the “page” off my index (it’s back on there now).   As we grapple with economic woes and serious problems in the West, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the fact that our future success is predicated on our ability to forge a respectful partnership with the Muslim world.   So I am restarting that series, hopefully to regain the pace I had last year of about a post a week dedicated to the series (in general I aim for four to six posts a week).

Islam began as a movement to reform Arab customs and replace a harsh polytheistic cacophony with a clear monotheistic faith.  Muhammad’s work is impressive.  Either he was divinely guided as Muslims believe, or he was a genius who brought together aspects of Christian, Jewish and Zorastrian thought, but his teachings were clearly designed to produce a social revolution in Arabia, benefiting especially women and the poor.  Even the poorly understood and often misrepresented concept of jihad was meant primarily as a personal struggle against temptation, akin to St. Paul’s admonition that Christians “fight the good fight of faith.”

Yet as beautiful and profound as each faith may be, religion is something that can be manipulated by the fanatical or ambitious to get people to do their biding.   It might be the Christian televangelist who hauls in massive donations — and then is caught with prostitutes or engaged in corruption.  It could be the angry Arab Muslim who believes his land is being controlled by greedy westerners — and then supports violence and terrorism.    It might be the sociopathic US Congressman who advocates hitting Mecca with a nuclear bomb should al qaeda hit us with nuclear terror.  That was Tom Tancredo, who apparently feels just as comfortable in the soulless extremist role as does Bin Laden.

These people do not reflect the true wisdom and virtues of their respective faiths.  Throughout history people have used the beauty and intuitive pull of spiritual faith to propagandize and warp religious expression.  It could be the Christian Salem witch trials, the Arabs undercutting Muhammad’s reforms in their interpretation of the Haditha, Savanarola in Florence or Cromwell in Great Britain.  It could be Arab Kings who used Islam to justify expansion of their empires, or the Ottomans who embraced Islam to lend legitimacy for their military dictatorship.  As I noted in the a post last year “The Violent West,” no one in the West has any justification to feel our culture superior to that of the Muslim world.  No culture has a history of such violence and lack of concern for other cultures than the West.

That doesn’t mean the West is uniquely evil, as a Bin Laden would claim.   The West also brought about the enlightenment, individualism, and certain notions of universal human rights.   Scientific progress blossomed in Europe, and the West ultimately overcame slavery, the lack of rights for women, and an early capitalism that was originally oppressive and vile.

So I ask readers of all faiths — Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, whatever — to endeavor to put aside the cultural arrogance that so often leads people to think “we” are somehow better and closer to the truth, while “they” are strange and warped.   That kind of thinking creates biased interpretations of reality which foster miscommunication and misunderstanding.  Rather, let’s start from the assumption that while there are evil and ignorant people in all cultures and societies, most of us are good people, want to live in peace, believe that love is more important than theological differences, and hope for a world of cooperation.

If the good, peaceful people across the planet can reach out to each other and cooperate, then the evil, fearful, hateful folk don’t have a chance to succeed.  I’m under no illusions that my blog’s exploration of these issues makes a huge difference, my readership is small.  But we all know the butterfly effect — a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can ultimately ignite a series of changes that alter weather patterns.  If we all do our part, whether in blogs, donations, community events, efforts in mosques, churches or synagogues, teaching, and reaching out to others, then who knows how the world might change.


Jews, Christians and Muslims

This is part 6 in the series “Islam and the West.” Click the link under pages or at the top of the page to read what the purpose of this series is. Only about one blog entry a week is dedicated to this series. There are links to the first five parts of the series at the end of this post.

The children of Abraham are bickering. Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim their religious heritage dating back to Abraham (Ibrahim). All see Adam as the first man, though more secular folk usually look at that as a kind of symbolic story, accepting now the theory of evolution. Yet, despite this commonality, the differences now seem far more important than the similarities. Does that have to be?

From the Jewish perspective, God has made a covenant with the people of Israel. It is a kind of stormy love relationship, where the Israelis need their God, and their God loves his people. The stormy part is that the people often suffer, and stray from the law of their God. Yet God does not let go, and despite centuries of hardship, neither do the Jewish people. The book of Job is illustrative. It is a powerful story with rich, beautiful poetry. God is challenged by Satan (often called just ‘the accuser’) to prove that Job really is a good and devout man. After all, God has blessed Job. Surely, the accuser says, if God took away Job’s belongings, Job would curse him. God takes on this challenge and suddenly Job loses everything, and over time his suffering grows as the accuser convinces God to hit Job harder.

Job’s friends try to console him, and urge him to admit his sins, since God must be punishing him with just cause. Job is convinced his suffering is undeserved, and wishes to make his case to God. In a series of speeches Job debates his friends about God and his nature. Finally God intercedes and chastises Job’s friends for their arrogance, and Job for thinking God should have to answer to him. God is the King of the World, and owes no explanation for how he uses his sovereign power. Job is restored, his wealth doubled. Yet within Job’s character, his inability to just let go of God and curse him, one finds the kernel of that relationship between the people of Israel and their God. Despite suffering and hardship, they are in it together. They are not to question God’s motives or authority. This cements their commitment to tradition and community; their identity has been tested through the ages and yet has persisted. There is no similar case in human history of a traditional tribal God lasting into the modern era, except perhaps for some of the Hindu Gods. Throughout the ancient era empires like that of Babylonia, Alexander, and later Rome, destroyed the religions of tribes living alongside the Jews. The Axial age, as noted in ‘Faith, Philosophy and the Modern Age,” led to a birth of new religions. The Jews have a special history, and they know it.

These ‘people of Israel’, as noted above, trace their heritage back to Abraham. God promises Abraham that because of his worthiness, he will be the father of a great nation. Yet his wife Sarah is too old to have children, and Abraham therefore has a child with Hagar, his wife’s handmaiden, who is named Ishmael. God, however, can work miracles and Sarah later gives birth to Isaac. Afraid that Hagar’s son will lay claim to Abraham’s heritage, Sarah convinces Hagar to take Ishmael and leave. Both Jews and Muslims believe that Ishmael becomes the father of the Arab people, thus tracing the Arab heritage back to Abraham.

Isaac is seen by both Jews and Christians as the true founder of God’s people. In large part this is because Abraham was ordered to kill Isaac in sacrifice, and was prepared to do so, until the angel Gabriel interceded and told him to stop. Abraham had proven his faith, and thus worthy of a covenant with God to assure that a great nation. Also, God does promise that Sarah would be the mother of Abraham’s progeny, and that was fulfilled with Isaac. Yet Sarah’s harshness with Hagar and Ishmael also led God to promise a great progeny for Ishmael, thus meaning that two great peoples, the Jews and the Arabs, would come from Abraham’s seed.

For Muhammad, the era of darkness was one where the Arabs lost site of the fact they were part of God’s covenant with Abraham. That after awhile, the customs were forgotten and the Arabs lost their connection with God. The result was ritual and tradition, sometimes brutal, with a lack of a spiritual core. The Kaaba in Mecca were supposedly built by Abraham/Ibrahim and Ishmael, based on an original building by Adam. It would become, as noted in part four of this series, a polytheistic shrine servicing the commercial needs of the Quraysh in Mecca.

Muhammad hoped his message would unite the Arab people, give them a spiritual center, and lead to dramatic reform of backwards and inhumane customs. He thought the Jews and Christians would buy into this too — after all Jesus (Isu) is a great prophet for Islam, and in fact the one who will come at the end of times to convert the world to Islam. (One can imagine the scene if the Christian fundamentalist faithful come to great Jesus as he returns to earth, only to hear him say, “by the way, I’m a Muslim.”) Jesus/Isu was born to a virgin in the Islamic tradition as well. He simply wasn’t the ‘son of God’ because God cannot have human attributes, and certainly cannot procreate. That would lead to polytheism, and to Muslims the Christian trinity is a rationalized tri-theism.

Islam spread quickly through the Arab world. Early Islam spread in part because Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, would have to put down rival imitations of Muhammad across Arabia. Clearly Muhammad had tapped into a cultural and social need of the Arab people, so quickly did his ideas spread and become imitated. But the quick spread of Islam through force assured that it would be seen as an Arab faith, not one to be embraced by others. Even during Muhammad’s time he realized the Jews would not convert, and while he demanded toleration and good treatment of Christians and Jews (Muhammad counted many as his friends), he changed the direction Muslims should face at prayer time from Jerusalem to Mecca. He realized his teachings would not be embraced by the other ‘children of Abraham.’

It seems a shame that these three faiths, with so much in common, find themselves at odds. Judaism and Islam are praxis-oriented faiths, meaning community, ritual and tradition are important. Thus it’s important for Jews to have their homeland, a place where they can form a true community, something they lacked for almost two millenia. Muslims also find it hard to migrate to non-Muslim countries, as the communal and praxis oriented nature of the religion does not function well when Muslims are in isolation. Christians are a more faith-oriented people (remember the spiritualism of Augustine), meaning they can worship in small communities, and see it as important to win new converts. Such action is akin to an act of violence when used against praxis oriented religions like Judaism and Islam.

As the series continues, the impact of these differences will be explored, especially between Christianity and Islam, as Christianity came to define the cultural traditions of the West, even the secularized “new West” we now encounter. However, at base these religions share a lot, and that should at least give hope to the possibility that peace and even friendship is possible. After all, none of these faiths is going to disappear any time soon.

Other entries in this series:

Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)
Part Five: Muhammad and Jihad (June 30)


Muhammad and Jihad

This is part 5 in the series “Islam and the West.” Click the link under pages or at the top of the page to read what the purpose of this series is. Only about one blog entry a week is dedicated to this series. There are links to the first four parts of the series at the end of this post.

As noted last time, Muhammad’s teachings challenged the very nature of Quraysh rule in Mecca. It wasn’t because he was a monotheist – the Quraysh had tolerated many of those. Rather, he was challenging the distribution of wealth, the treatment of the poor, and doing it from inside the Banu Hasim, a powerful Quraysh clan. So powerful was the clan that until Muhammad’s uncle Abu Talib died, Muhammad was protected. After his death, and that of Muhammad’s wife Khadija, the Quraysh decided to simply eliminate the Prophet.

Muhammad was smart enough to realize that if he stayed in Mecca he’d die; if his followers left en masse they’d be noticed and likely slaughtered. So instead they slowly left town, Muhammad missing death by one day, heading for the city of Yathrib, where Muhammad was to act as an Hakim to settle a dispute. It’s unclear how Muhammad rose to prominance in Yathrib, a city known for producing dates, with a large number of Jewish clans. Islamic tradition makes it appear that upon his arrival Muhammad was greeted as leader; that seems unlikely. However, over time he and his community became dominant.

Rather than go through the details of the battles between the Quraysh and the Ummah, or community of believers, I want to focus on Muhammad’s notion of Jihad, developed during this time. In my opinion many non-Muslims and some Muslims have lost sight of Muhammad’s intent. First, he made a distinction between higher and lower jihad. The higher jihad is the most important; it is the ‘fight of faith’ to stay pure and moral in a world filled with temptation. It is ones’ personal battle against ones’ own desires. The lower jihad meant to defend Islam from those who would do it harm. It was based on the need to defend the early Ummah from the Quraysh.

Thus part of the Koran is concerned with those battles. In one infamous passage Muhammad says to his followers “kill the polytheists, kill them while they sleep…” This is in preparation for the battle against the powerful Meccans, but has been interpreted by many in the West and even some Muslims as a command to kill polytheists anywhere. Christians are polytheists from the Muslim perspective, since they believe the trinity represents three Gods. Of course, Muhammad did not mean that. There is no way one can have such an interpretation alongside the special privileges given to the ‘people of the book’ (Jews and Christians), the demand that there be no compulsion in religion, and more importantly, the Quran’s command that one not fight against a foe who does not want to fight.

In another famous incident, the Ummah butchered the Banu Qurayza, a Jews tribe living in Yathrib (later renamed Medina – the city of the Prophet), killing the men and sending women and children into slavery, as per Arab custom. This is often put forth as a sign of Muhammad’s brutality and anti-Jewish bigotry. However, such an interpretation is completely ignorant of the historical context. Muhammad had been betrayed by other local tribal leaders, who bet that the Quraysh would defeat the Ummah, and thus be in a position to grant them favors. Muhammad had defied Arab custom and the law of retribution by refusing to kill the men and enslave the women and children. Instead, he allowed them to leave in peace. He did this a couple times, causing many of Muhammad’s followers to believe that this emboldened groups like the Qurayza to decide they had little to lose if they betrayed Muhammad — and a lot to gain from the Quraysh. So when they betrayed the Muslims at a crucial point in the conflict Muhammad’s people were incensed — not just at the betrayal but at how Muhammad’s apparent softness had made it seem like the worst that could happen if you failed is that you’d be sent into exile (perhaps to return once Muhammad was defeated).

Muhammad thus acquiesced, though he himself could not order the destruction of the Banu Qurayza. Instead, he left it in the hands of an Hakim, who ruled that traditional Arab custom should be followed. Looking at the story as a whole, Muhammad was clearly not anti-Jewish (some of the tribes he let go earlier were Jewish), and in fact the religion of the tribe had nothing to do with what happened — it was the betrayal to the Quraysh. These kinds of misunderstandings pepper the western comprehension of “jihad,” and give ammunition to Islamophobic propagandists who apparently want a conflict with Islam, even though they can’t quite explain how one might win such a ‘clash of civilizations.’

All that said, there remains a fundamental difference between the pacifistic other-wordliness of Jesus and Augustine, and Muhammad’s fight against the Quraysh. Jesus preached an essentially spiritual view of religion, more oriented toward faith than practice. Muhammad was a social reformer, and the Ummah would develop rituals of practice to solidify community bonds. Like Judaism, Islam is a praxis-oriented religion rather than faith-oriented. While Jesus and Augustine focused on saving ones’ soul, Muhammad focused on fighting injustice and improving society. Early Christianity was in the world but not of the world. Islam was in the world with the goal of transforming the world. Moreover, Christianity became powerful as Europe declined into the dark ages; Islam was a force by which the Arab and Persian worlds would form great empires. In politics, the leaders of both the Christian and Muslim worlds would often veer far from the ideals of their founders.

In future entries into this series we’ll delve more into what these differences mean. However the “lower jihad,” like “just war” was meant to limit acceptable acts of war and civilize Arab customs. Both want the innocents to be protected, both want warfare to be defensive, and both condemn trying to use war to spread their religion. Because Muhammad’s reforms were in the practical world of politics, and Islam defended itself through war while the early Christians suffered from the political powers, Islam more quickly moved to turn the religion into a rationalization of violence, something it would take the Christians hundreds of years to accomplish. But at base, the two faiths have more in common than not, and both are justifiably labeled religions of peace, even if political leaders have often used religion as a rationale for war.

Previous entries in the series:

Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)

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The Violent West

As noted, this week is summer experience for first year students at UMF, so I’m commenting each day on one of the readings students are discussing. Today I’ll react to “Violence: the Double Standard” by Howard Zinn (1922 – ).

Howard Zinn notes the violent way in which our society developed; that goes along with the talk we had Tuesday by artist/peace activist Rob Shetterly on the struggle it took to move from a constitution that guaranteed rights only to part of society, leaving out women, blacks (who were slaves) and the poor. Indeed, looked at through Zinn’s analysis, the US has undergone a constant low level civil war, in which over time the privileged elite have been forced against their will to grant rights to those lacking privilege and wealth. And, given the extreme polarity in the current distribution of wealth, the elites are obviously still in control.

It occurs to me, though, that this criticism of how Americans view their own history can be extended to how we in the West view our culture and society. We see progress and enlightenment and ignore, excuse or dismiss the violence that defines it, even today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. If you read pundits on the right, for instance, you would think that Islam and the Islamic world is a uniquely violent culture. They point out, correctly, that Islam spread by force through northern Africa, into India, Asia, and parts of Europe. They note that non-Muslims, while tolerated, had to pay a special tax which denied them equal rights. They also point to texts from the Koran, taken out of context, which suggest that Muslims should fight the ‘polytheists and idolaters’ to the end – conveniently ignoring that these passages refer specifically to the Quarysh, who were in a bitter struggle against the Ummah, or community of believers, and not to all non-Muslims. They also ignore how the Koran admonishes Muslims not be aggressors, not to fight if the enemy does not wish to fight, and to protect the lives of innocents.

If you really want to see a culture that has a violent history, look in at the West. From the reformation to WWII, from development of modern weaponry to nuclear bombs, the West has been the most violent and destructive culture on the planet. The West has spawned ideologies like communism which has lead to genocides and severe repression. Colonialism from the West destroyed political cultures across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, leading to broken systems now torn apart by corruption and poverty. It was the Belgians who divided Tutsi and Hutu and gave the former special privileges, setting up the violent ethnic clashes that would lead to the Rwandan genocide. Spain was slaughtering native American tribes with a ‘convert or die’ message. It was Germany, the home of many great western ideas, which gave us the holocaust and Nazism. Even America, built on ideals of freedom and liberty, has engaged in imperialism, destroyed numerous indigenous peoples on the continent in what now would be labeled genocide, and now spends half the world’s military budget, using violence that kills more innocents than insurgents to try to shape the political systems of other parts of the globe.

Before you get defensive, I am not saying the West is evil, nor do I think we who inherit that tradition have to live in shame or try to undo all past wrongs. Rather, I’m pointing out that it is hypocritical to attack Islam for its past while turning a blind eye to the history of the West. This is precisely the kind of thing Zinn is talking about in his article, there is a real double standard at work here. We ignore how at the time of the crusades, for instance, the Christians demanded the Muslims ‘covert or die’ when Jerusalem was taken, while the Muslims refused to avenge those acts when they took Jerusalem back. It was the Muslims that showed far greater compassion and civilization at that time.

It is hypocritical to focus on the good the West has done while ignoring the good in Islam and the Koran. The fact of the matter is that Islam and the West both have violent pasts, and both have honorable ideals. And, while political correctness on the left is wrong to say we shouldn’t talk about the dark side of Islamic history, political correctness on the right is wrong to say we shouldn’t talk about the dark side of Western history. Let’s start from an admission that neither culture can really claim virtue in its history, no matter how honorable and beautiful many of the core ideals behind each are. Right now the violence from the West I list above is cited by Muslim extremist as proof that we are a violent, evil people. Our extremists cite Muslim history as proof that Islam is a violent, even evil faith. Both sides are taken a warped a biased view on history, and this works against efforts at real reconciliation and co-existence.

For example, our leaders say that some Muslim extremists want to spread Islam and thus represent a violent aggressive political ideal which must be stopped. Then in the next sentence they say we want to spread democracy and implement regime change for the good of the people in other states. The obvious hypocrisy in those two statements cannot be overlooked – they are evil to spread what they believe to be the best way of life, we are honorable if we do the same thing.

So perhaps by refusing to embrace a double standard, we can think about the principles Zinn has at the end of his article. Official violence should have no special privileges over private violence, violence done by others should be weighed equally with violence done by ourselves (we’ve killed more innocents in Afghanistan than were killed by terrorists on 9-11, for instance), we should assume that all victims are created equal, a dead Communist or Muslim has no less value than a dead American or even UMF student. Violence with property should not be equated with violence to people. We should be wary of symbolic efforts to justify violence (nationalism, abstractions) and look at the long term implications (what kind of society will Iraqi children raised in violence create?) Just thinking in these terms can help overcome the double standard, and perhaps put us on a path towards a more peaceful world.

That doesn’t mean we can handle the challenges of globalization easily, and clearly there are extremists on each side that want to see the other as an enemy because they can’t accept anything but their own dogma. The strong will use military force, the weak will use terror, and each will point to the damage done by the other to try to inspire militarism and radicalism in their ranks. Those of us who recognize the importance of our common humanity and take the time to learn about the reality human worth, rather than self-serving myths, know that we can find a way to live peacefully and respect each others’ ideas.


Muhammad and Arabia

This is part 4 in the series “Islam and the West.” Click the link under pages or at the top of the page to read what the purpose of this series is. Only about one blog entry a week is dedicated to this series. There are links to the first three parts of the series at the end of this post.

As Rome fell and Europe went into the dark ages, guided by a new, spiritual form of Christianity which eschewed progress in favor of stability and tradition, Arabia was a violent, volatile place. Politics involved clans and tribes vying for power, governed by one fundamental principle: the law of retribution. If you or your tribe were treated unfairly you would retaliate, violently. Custom dictated that when one tribe defeated another the men would be killed, and the women and children enslaved. Harsh stuff, but reasonably effective; if the price of trying to take advantage of another is large, people tend to play it safe.

Within this environment, Mecca emerged as a cosmopolitan city, focused on commerce and tolerance of a vast variety of religious beliefs. The tribe ruling Mecca, the Quraysh, had turned a rather out of the way city into a trading hub and a place for religious pilgrimage. They had essentially bought up many of the idols worshipped across Arabia and put them in the Kaaba, turning Mecca into not only a place to go worship ones’ particular deity (they collected about 350 of them) but also a place where trade and commerce could take place peacefully. In many ways the Quraysh were rather enlightened: trade replaced warfare, religious tolerance was absolutely necessary, and thus traders and travelers from all over converged on Mecca. This also included Christians, Jews (mostly Arab Jews), Zoroastrians, and Hanifs.

Yet the Quraysh were also guided by traditional Arab customs which, as noted, were often brutal. The customs had been developed when tribes were smaller; applied to a large prosperous city like Mecca they produced a striking maldistribution of wealth and privilege between the haves and have nots. Throughout Arabia this was causing dissent, the traditional set of customs governing Arab life were becoming obsolete; one reason Islam would spread so quickly is that Arabs were ready for a message of change.

There were some things you didn’t want to be in pre-Islamic Arabia. First, you didn’t want to be a woman. Women were considered no better than property, men could divorce at will, and women had no rights. Rare was the successful woman in the business world, sexism was endemic and severe. You also didn’t want to be an orphan. So much was based on family that orphans usually became slaves, unless some other family member of status took the orphan under his wing (emphasis on his).

So when a young boy named Muhammad (570-632) lost his parents at a very young age (his father died before his birth, his mother when he was six), the future looked bleak. Luckily for him his very influential uncle Abu Talib, head of the Banu Hashim clan, took responsibility for him. Muhammad was by all accounts an impressive individual, gaining the trust of family and associates. He also was very introspective, listening to the various religious teachings that came through Mecca, learning about Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, and the teachings of the Hanifs. He would often treat to the desert to meditate and think about these ideas, and the state of Arabian society.

Muhammad was clearly well aware that he was lucky not to have become a slave, and his later teachings will make clear that he was outraged by the differences between the wealthy few and the poor masses. No doubt as he meditated he thought about the various religious perspectives he had heard, and the material injustices all around him. His wife Khadija was a rarity in Arabia: a successful business woman. Her wealth brought her many suitors. Of course, if she had married she’d become property to the man who she chose, and he could essentially take her fortune. So at age 40 she was an unmarried woman, another rarity for that time.

The young Muhammad must have impressed her. By all accounts he had a reputation for honesty, and perhaps he was open about his disgust at the way the Quraysh ran Mecca, and Arab customs in general. Perhaps she was intrigued by this introspective, intelligent caravan leader. She hired him and then later married him. They would have a monogamous relationship until her death in 619, at the age of 64. Khadija also had a Christian cousin, and no doubt Muhammad learned a lot about Christianity from her. The orphan who escaped slavery thanks to his uncle was married to a woman who showed an independence and success that defied Arab custom.

For 14 years Muhammad continued being a business success, respected in Mecca, and gaining renown even outside Mecca as an impressive, honest, and thoughtful man. Although some traditions have him illiterate, that is unlikely given his position. One can only imagine his meditations as he reflected on all he was learning about different people and different religious traditions. He certainly had to view existing Arab customs as backwards and unjust; by all accounts he should be a slave and his wife someone’s property.

In 610 at age 40 Muhammad went to meditate at a mountain near Mecca, as he often did, sometimes for weeks at a time. Non-Muslims will speculate that he either hallucinated or made a conscious choice to try to construct a religion to radically reform Arabia, borrowing heavily from Christianity and Judaism. Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel appeared and commanded Muhammad to recite. Whatever the case, Muhammad came back and shared his story with Khadija, who became his first convert. Those first recitations marked the first passages of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and by all accounts some of the most beautiful poetry in the Arabic language. For Muslims the beauty of the prose is proof it came from God, for non-Muslims, it shows that among his other talents, Muhammad was a brilliant poet. In any event, as Muhammad came back to Mecca from his meditation, he was about to start a new civilization. It would not be easy. The Quraysh would be determine to eliminate Muhammad and his followers, and the Ummah — the community of believers, Muslims, would have to fight to prevent their faith from being eliminated before it could grow.

The first three parts of the Islam and the West series:
Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Five: Muhammad and Jihad (June 30)


Just and Unjust wars

Note: this is Part 3 of the Islam and the West series. Click “Islam and the West Series” under “Pages” for information about what this series is all about. At the end I’ll have links to parts 1 and 2. Only about one blog entry a week will be part of this series.

In part two I discussed how Augustine brought neo-Platonism into Christian theology, having a profound effect on early Christian thinking and western culture. This was a linking of Christianity to ancient Greek philosophy. Some Christians didn’t like it — an early Church leader Tertullion asked “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Yet it took, the Catholic Church would be heavily influenced by Augustine’s theology.

While Augustine was alive, the Roman empire was still standing. But by the early 5th century, it was already in collapse. In 410 there were six emperors in one year due to assassination, war and treachery. Roman civilization was slowly perishing, and many blamed Christianity for weakening it. Augustine dealt with that and many other questions in his famous book The City of God, which developed a theory for when it is just to wage war. Later in this series, we’ll compare it with the Muslim notion of jihad which represents the Islamic equivalent to just war theory.

Christianity was at base a pacifistic religion. The teachings of the new testament are clear: this world does not matter, your soul matters. Obey God’s commandments for eternal life, don’t let the temptations of the world cause you to sin. Yet one major commandment is Thou shalt not kill and in warfare you not only kill, but you kill people you don’t even know for some kind of worldly cause. How can a Christian have any part of that? That kind of view caused many Romans to charge Christianity with weakening the Empire, and failing to confront the danger facing a Rome beseiged from all sides. To show how bad it had become, the empire had split in 286 AD, making Constantinople (now Istanbul) the capital in the East (and at times the entire eastern and western empires), while in the West the capital moved first to Milano, then in 402 to Ravenna.

Augustine wrote his City of God between 413 and 426. In it he argued against the kind of complete other worldliness he seemed to embrace in the past, even while maintaining the core of that teaching. However, he noted that perfection was not part of our world, which he called the city of man. The city of man is separate from the city of God, and while the latter is peaceful and perfect, the former is riddled with warfare, violence and sin. For Augustine the trick was to stay true to moral principles while living in this wretched city of man. To do that you can’t pretend that this is already the city of God, or that any human is capable of perfection. In one part of the book, he dealt with the question of war, and whether Christians should simply stand by while the pagan barbarians destroyed the now Christian Roman Empire.

Augustine argued that a just war essentially met three conditions (though there would be additions by later theologians over time): 1) it had to counter aggression — just war was never to increase power to bring gain to the ruler, but to counter injustice and aggression from another; 2) it had to be ordered by legal authority; and 3) Christian love had to be the ultimate motive for the war. Augustine also made it clear that truly virtuous people prefer no war to even a just war, but seemed to understand that in the city of man, that might be too much to demand from everyone.

Augustine’s impact would be profound, and probably not what he intended. First, note that these conditions would prevent most, if not all wars. No one would launch a war of aggression (and defense was not supposed to turn into aggression — meaning even WWII’s occupations of Japan and Germany defy just war theory in its pure form), the legal authority granting the right to wage war would presumably be guided by Christian ideals, and thus if love were to be the ultimate motive, violence would be limited and forgiveness embraced. Thus just war could be seen as setting an ideal that could not be achieved.

And as Rome fell and the dark ages encroached just war slowly morphed into the idea of holy war. Christian love would be the motive for brutal crusades and witchhunts — even later during the Salem witch hunts the perpetrators claimed they were burning the witches out of Christian love, to cleanse the souls of the women involved so they would escape damnation.

Here we see something we’ll notice in both Christianity and Islam: the ability of what appear on their surface to be clear teachings to be turned into whatever later political leaders want it to mean. Aggression could later mean anything threatening Christian holy sites (like Muslim control over Jerusalem) and Christian love could rationalize aggression.

Still, Augustine’s other-worldliness and general pacifistic tendencies were powerful forces that would keep Europe focused on tradition and continuity rather than progress and materialism, and while Augustine opens the door to move from the more pacifistic teachings of Jesus to one that accepts warfare, there nonetheless remains at the core of Christianity a profound sense of mystical pacifism that, as we’ll see, differs from the radical reformism of Islam. However, those Christian tendencies also have real contradictions with modern western ideologies, many of which embrace violence far more easily.

After the collapse of Rome Europe, following a mystical form of Christianity, and unable to politically re-organize the empire, drifted into the dark ages, while down in Arabia a charismatic reformer named Muhammad would start a process that would unify Arabia and create another major civilization. That will be the subject of part four of this series.

Other parts of the series:
Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)


Plotinus and Augustine

This is a break in the usual blog entries to bring part two of the Islam and the West series, still focusing first on the development of ‘the West.’ For part one, go to Paul and Rome, and for more info click the “Islam and the West Series” link under “Pages.”

The Roman Empire was perhaps the most vibrant and successful multicultural cosmopolitan society in history. For centuries it managed to foster peaceful trade and relations between many peoples within the Empire, tolerating diversity. In the third century Plotinus (204-270), one of the most important philosophers for the Western tradition, lived and wrote, though many have never heard of him.

In the post Faith, Philosophy and the Modern Age I noted that current religious traditions emerged from what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, when human thought took a great leap forward in contemplating the meaning of the individual in the world. Plotinus lived just after that epoch ended, in Rome, the one place where one could learn and read of Plato, early Christian thought, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and other philosophical traditions. In some ways he transcends what we now see as the boundaries of Eastern and Western philosophy, unifying these ‘axial age’ traditions into a brand of philosophy called neo-Platonism.

Since getting deep into his philosophy would take pages of work, and I’m not a philosopher or an expert, I’ll summarize. Plotinus believed that the transcendent essence of the universe is “the One,” from which our world emanates. The One is not a creator, and in some sense is all that is, since for Plotinus the material world is an illusion, a lower order reflection of the One. The One has no real attributes; even attributing ‘existence’ to it lessens it. It does not think, is beyond our comprehension, and represents truth, the Platonic ideal. Our goal in life is spiritual connection to The One, achieving that by recognizing that as part of the World Soul, we need to connect to the true essence of reality through virtue. The material world is illusionary and a trap – we get ensnared in it and lose ourselves, unable to find happiness because we are distancing ourselves from our true connection to the One.

The pure spiritualism of this philosophy appealed to a playboy turned Christian, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430). Augustine’s neo-Platonist Christianity creates the basis for what the Church would become, and therefore western culture in general. Augustine’s most powerful book Confessions is, in essence, a love story. He tells of how he was lost in what Plotinus would call the world of material illusions, seeking meaning and release in alcohol, sex, power and violence, until he fell in love. His lover was none other than Jesus Christ and the Christian God. Suddenly his old life was meaningless, he saw it had been empty and futile, dooming him to despair because any pleasure and gain derived from the material world was fleeting and transient. Only the love of God could provide eternal happiness and real satisfaction. For example, Augustine would tell of how in his days of wealth and power he’d look down on the hapless drunk, feeling superior. But, he noted, the drunk was better off than he was. The drunk would wake up the next day and know alcohol had not made him happy, Augustine would keep on believing that power and wealth was the key to success in life.

The power of Augustine’s writings set up the basis for Christian theology, as his neo-Platonism would overtake the numerous other competing theological views of the early Christian world. The notion of the Trinty, for instance, is a Platonic tripartite division of reality. The One from Plotinus was replaced by “God,” and instead of us being natural emanations from The One, we are creations of God. Instead of a kind of unity with the One as our ultimate essence and that to which we aspire in experience, we are separate from God, and aspire to a true love relationship with God. Augustine maintains the other worldly idealism of Plotinus, evident in his rejection of worldly goods and honors as a means towards happiness. Only a deep and abiding love relationship with God – Augustine defines it as ‘falling in love,’ – can bring happiness, everything else fades away and offers only a short term illusion of satisfaction.

This Platonic view of Christianity created for the early Christian church the capacity to survive the fall of the Roman Empire. Followers of Augustine would leave the vulgar world of every day life for well protected monasteries high in the hills, preserving knowledge, books, and information from destruction, keeping alive in their faith and practice the essence of Roman civilization. If not for Augustine and the early Christian church the West might have been lost forever as Rome collapsed. Even though Rome fell, Christianity would survive, and the barbarian hordes who destroyed Rome would take it as their faith, allowing the early Church to define European customs and traditions.

Following Augustine, these customs and traditions were built on an other-worldly view on the meaning of life. Thus the desire for progress was put aside in favor of stability and tradition. To us in the modern world this represents the dark ages, a time where for centuries Europe was backwards and stagnant. Yet given the violence and breakdown of civilization at the time, it probably was the one way that western civilization could be saved.

One issue for the next blog in this series (probably in a week or so — most blog entries aren’t part of this series) is the question of war. Christians before Augustine were generally pacifists, and Augustine’s other worldliness suggests pacifism – if this world is truly meaningless, then killing to preserve life is irrational, life in this world isn’t worth breaking God’s commandment not to kill. Augustine himself would be the one to tackle that issue.

Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)


Paul and Rome

PART 1 in the series: Islam and the West

This series will be done bit by bit, maybe one out of every five or ten posts. For more info about the purpose of the series see “Islam and the West’ under “pages.”

We are in a period of global crisis and transition, one which challenges the West in ways previously unimagined. Whether the challenge comes from Islamic extremism, the dynamics of globalization, climate change or economic dangers, it’s unlikely we’ll emerge from this without having undergone a real cultural transformation. It is impossible to understand and comprehend what that means if one does not have a clear sense of what is meant by The West or Western Civilization.

The term “the West” is bandied around a lot, often in criticisms of the West as a source of militarism, greed, and materialism. Indeed, in academia the West is often distrusted as a hegemonic cultural force, silencing voices and ideas from other cultures and societies. This has led to less emphasis on people learning the history of western culture, and therefore not really understanding who they are, why they think as they do, and why the world around them functions the way it does. Therefore, such people can’t really comprehend the transitions taking place and understanding the threats and potentials. Moreover, this actually works against understanding and dealing with other cultures because by not seeing the West as a culture built over time, people assume our way is the ‘natural way’ and other cultures are strange, primitive, or irrational. I think that kind of error in thinking is one reason so many supported the war in Iraq, believing Iraqis would welcome us and ‘naturally’ adopt western institutions and attitudes.

To begin, my own bias: despite justifiable criticism of actions undertaken by Europeans and Americans, and despite the consumerism and materialism of the modern West, I am a product of that culture, and I believe in basic western values. I disagree with those who want to ignore or discredit the West. There is much to be proud of. Yet it is a culture, with no more claim to being “right” or the “best” culture than any other culture. We need to ditch the notion that somehow the West is superior or represents an inevitable line of progress. Thus I’m not a proponent of uncritical celebration of the West as it is – one of the attributes of this culture is the ability to use critiques to force improvements and solve problems. A line from the song Cut to the Chase by the band “Rush” captures the essence:

“It’s the motor of the western world
Spinning off to every extreme
Pure as a lovers’ desire
Evil as a murderer’s dream”

The first question is When did the West begin? That could be the focus of numerous historical debates, but here’s my succinct answer: the West began with the Roman Republic, and took its basic form when the Roman Empire united Greek philosophical thought and Hebrew religious traditions in its embrace of Christianity. Law and governmental structure in the Roman Empire had distinct western attributes, such as separation of power and checks and balances (Montesquieu, credited with suggesting checks and balances, had been looking back at the Roman Republic). As the Republic expanded in power and militarism, these political institutions failed, creating corruption and ultimately a collapse of the Republic in favor of Empire (is there a lesson for us there?).

At this time a pivotal figure in the development of western culture came on the scene: A Roman citizen and a Jew named Paul. Palestine had been conquered by the Romans, and the Jews were in religious crisis. Conquest by the Babylonians earlier had eradicated the many different religions of the region, where each tribe or people had their own God. The Hebrews had originally been polytheists (the God of Israel was but one of many Gods), but over time it developed into monotheism. By the time of the first century there were competing voices trying to define what it meant to worship the Hebrew God. One of these voices was a pacifist spiritual teacher named Jesus, who apparently went village to village exchanging what we might call ‘faith healing’ for food, and teaching a doctrine of humility and submission. He emerged as a threat to the Jewish authorities who convinced the Romans to crucify him. They expected the story to end there – and it might have, if not for Paul.

Early Christian sects had diverse views on a wide range of subjects, many of which would shock modern Christians. But one debate was especially intense. Should converts to Christianity first become Jewish? After all, God made a covenant with Israel, and if Jesus was the messiah for the God of Israel, wouldn’t gentile converts need to first convert to Judaism in order to lay claim to that covenant? This would mean, of course, following Jewish customs, dietary laws, and more painfully, circumcision for males. Paul, considered a leader in the early Christian church, was asked to decide this issue. If he had said they had to become Jews first, the Christian sect may have died out. Instead, he decided that people were ‘justified through faith’ (looking back to the story of Abraham) and the old Jewish laws, holidays and traditions need not apply. This had two consequences. First, Jews were less drawn to the Christian faith, as it now seemed to be abandoning basic Jewish traditions. Soon it was a sect of primarily gentiles. Second, Christianity was to become a hot religion in the Roman Empire. Women especially converted as it gave them a higher status than traditional Roman life. And though there were persecutions, for the most part Christians were tolerated. Finally, as the Roman Empire started to collapse, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion, and it later became the primary religion of the Roman Empire.

As the Roman Empire collapsed, Christians found themselves divided. They had been pacifists, and one of the reasons they were finally embraced by the Empire was that the Empire wanted Christians to fight to defend Rome from the barbarians. But their faith was other worldly – they should be in this world, not of it. Turn the other cheek. Stay pure and holy in this world, suffering what may come, knowing that this is a test to see if you have faith to enter paradise. Should they abandon that and take up arms? But if they don’t, and the Empire perishes, won’t Christianity be wiped out by barbarians with no such teachings or faith?

The answer would come from Augustine, which I’ll discuss in a later blog entry, but note that the dilemma facing early Christians is not dissimilar to that we’re facing in the secular West today. On the one hand you have moral values which argue for treating others ethically, on the other you have fear of the consequences of acting morally in the real, material world.

Paul’s decision has had far reaching implications. Even today our secular culture is a kind of secularized Christianity, as western values – even secular and atheist values – have been strongly influenced by the impact of Christianity on our culture. Second, though Rome would be destroyed, the West would not. The Christian church would retain enough power to keep Roman ideas and traditions alive, even through the so-called dark ages. Thus one can’t understand the West without understanding the teachings and history of the Christian church.

Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)