Tuesday, March 22, 2011

in another time, he might have been a hippie - A Short History of Islam, Karen Armstrong

First, reading a brief run down of the culture that the Qur'an was revealed into, the dramatic shift of society - from a nomadic lifestyle which couldn't produce enough food to sustain the people to a commerical/trading culture which separated people very sharply into the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' and the fact that the rich people, the ones who were settled were forgetting and abandoning the old paths, the old ways of sharing that enabled people to survive - reminded me of the fact that people react differently to such upheavals. They either adapt and go with it, abandoning the old beliefs and forms and embracing entirely new ones, they cling ever more strongly to the old ways (becoming the *bad* kind of fundamentalists), or they take the old ways and adapt them, look at them in a different light. I'd say that that's what happened with the Qur'an and Islam. Nothing new, exactly. People already believed that their supreme god, al-Lah was the same God as the Jews and the Christians worshipped. Many of the rituals were already in use. Only the interpretation of *why* changed.

One of the things that gives me...pause? shall we say? about Mohammed is the fits that he had with every supposed revelation. It's not recorded in any of the prophets in the Bible that they suffered when they spoke with God or one of the angels. So why did Mohammed have these fits? All that pain?

And then this:

"Social justice was, therefore, the crucial virtue of Islam. Muslims were commanded as their first duty to build a community (ummah) characterized by practical compassion, in which there was a fair distribution of wealth. This was far more important than any doctrinal teaching about God. In fact the Qur'an has a negative view of theological speculation, which it calls zannah, self-indulgent whimsy about ineffable matters that nobody can ascertain one way or the other. It seemed pointless to argue about such abstruse dogmas; far more crucial was the effort (jihad) to live in the way God had intended for human beings. The political and social welfare of the ummah would have sacramental value for Muslims. If the ummah prospered, it was a sign that Muslims were living according to Gods will, and the experience of living in a truly islamic community, which made this existential surrender to the divine, would give Muslims intimations of sacred providence. Consequently, they would be affected as profoundly by any misfortune or humiliation suffered by the ummah as Christians by the spectacle of somebody blasphemously trampling on the Bible or ripping the Eucharistic host apart." - p. 6

Ah, so, basically, what I got from that was that the Muslim ummah is supposed to be the ultimate 'prosperity gospel' experiment. If you live right, God will make certain that everything in your life goes perfectly. If something goes wrong, it's your fault because you've stepped out of line.

Also, the egalitarian utopia that Mohammed had envisioned never came to pass. There's just as much inequality in the modern (and historical) ummah as there is in any other community. But that's hardly a specific failing of Islam. Just human nature, really.


  1. LOL @ the prosperity gospel bit. :)

    "If you live right, God will make certain that everything in your life goes perfectly. If something goes wrong, it's your fault because you've stepped out of line."

    I've read that Jews believed this way and is why Jesus' comment about it being very hard for a rich man to enter heaven was stunning to those who heard him. His followers were like "Who then can be saved?" Even when Job had all that trouble, his friends asked him "what sin have you done to cause this?" So I think that mentality has permeated society for a while. Honestly I can see this in the OT -- you live according to God's laws and you will be at peace with your enemies and blessed. But Jesus -- he kind of changed that around and gave it new meaning. Perhaps times had changed and since Israel was no longer a nation under God (so to speak) they had to learn to live amongst others and suffering would definitely come and they needed to know how to respond to enemies and their demands (such as their compelling us to go one mile.)

    I've also wondered about Muhammad's experiences with the angel..sounds more like a demon oppressing him.

    Enjoyed this post! Thanks for sharing!

  2. About the fits - One way to look at it might be that what is recorded is what will make the most impact on the culture where it's revealed/written. If what the people noticed and what convinced them with Muhammad was that he had those fits, as if he was not in control of himself but was being controlled by an outside force (God, an angel, I don't remember), then it could be trusted.

    Does Islam have the idea of demon possession, I wonder? I haven't seen anything like that. I know that in some Christian denominations, having fits is almost taken as a sign of salvation and would be received the same way. In others, it would be immediately related to demons, and in others it would be dismissed as faked or insanity. The culture really makes a difference, and I can see the writers and prophets of one culture downplaying this sort of occurrence because it didn't mean something good and convincing to them, while another culture saved it because it did. Assuming it is truly revelation and the same God is behind both, it may also be that the style of revelation itself actually does change. One group gets laws handed down on a couple stone tablets, another has God in human form, another has the recorded words of their ancestors, and maybe others get revelation through prophets in different ways. Revelation doesn't seem to be uniform in Abrahamic tradition, even if we narrow it down to just pre-Christian Judaism.

  3. Susanne,

    Oh, the 'prosperity gospel bit' has been around a long, long time. It's still ridiculous and annoying. And wrong. No matter what variation is being tried.

    I've also wondered about Muhammad's experiences with the angel..sounds more like a demon oppressing him.

    I hesitate to label it demonic, just because there have been saints who also suffered. Some of their suffering was from demons afflicting them, but other times it was just human frailty. The difference, as I can see, with Mohammed's visions is that he was terrified and remained so. People who have direct visions of angels start out afraid, but then the angel tells them not to be afraid, and they lose their fear because they are consumed by the ecstasy and awe. There's just something off about Mohammed's visions, to me. I'm certainly not suggesting Mohammed was a saint, just that I don't think we can write it off as 'demonic' as simple as that.

    Maybe he just had seizures? I know a couple people who do, and they can sometimes have 'visions' during them. And the violence sounds a lot like what I've seen. And the rest of it, the societal reforms, were just Mohammed, filtered through his own brain. He might not have even realized it.

  4. sanil,

    You could be right.

    But, the manner of revelation didn't really change, did it? The method of delivery from the prophet to the people may have varied, but that's where we enter into the realm of human changes. God spoke to each of the prophets, correct? Either personally, or through angels. (Speaking only of the Abrahamic faiths, here.)

    Do you recall any revelations in Judaism where the prophet was basically tortured? Or even a hint of that? I can't, but I don't have it all in my head, like some people I know. :)

  5. I guess it depends on what you mean by "manner of revelation." I think all the examples I gave are different manners of revelation. To restrict it to prophets...we have Moses first hearing a voice out of a burning bush, and then booming voice on the mountain initially for the Ten Commandments...so even that one prophet had different styles based on what was being accomplished and where he was spiritually, emotionally, etc. Then there's the still small voice for a later prophet (Elijah, I think?) and Saul had to go blind to pay attention!

    It's worth noting I think that in all of these examples these were Hebrews hearing from the Hebrew God. While the message may not have been only to Hebrews, it was in a culture where they had a strong presence of some kind, and the Hebrew people in the area probably would have accepted and backed up the message. I have to think that it's at least possible that for a group of people who did not have this precedent, being asked to completely change their culture and throw away their gods, there is reason for the message to be even more intense than with the most stubborn prophet. God had quite an impression to make.

  6. What I meant was that in each case, it's God speaking. Directly or otherwise, it's God speaking to the prophet.

    I see your point though, that the specifics of how and where changed with circumstances.

    Saul/Paul wasn't a prophet though.

    Oh, it's more than possible. And we really have no way of knowing one way or the other. And were the Arabs being asked to change their entire culture? They already had a precedent for monotheism, and he was calling for a more hard-core return to their basic cultural mores. He didn't even really introduce any new religious rituals. It's a shift, I'm not denying that, but a complete change? Not so much, maybe.

  7. Sanil asked, "Does Islam have the idea of demon possession, I wonder? I haven't seen anything like that." I don't know how it fits into orthodox Islam, but many Swahili Muslims believe in spirit possession and integrate into their practice of Islam.

  8. I missed that in my response!

    I don't know how widespread the belief is, but I do know that at least some Muslims believe that jinn can possess people, like Christians believe that demons can. I even have a book on it. Which I haven't read yet, of course.

    So many books, so little time.

  9. You know, I actually found it oddly comforting to think that Muhammad was frightened by his first experience with Gabriel. I mean, who the heck wouldn't be? It seems like a thoroughly human response. If an angel appeared to me while I was meditating and said "Read in the name of the Lord who has created", I would probably think I was crazy and go to the hospital or something... not an option in Muhammad's time, I bet.

    Also, (this may or may not be significant) the angel squeezed Muhammad when he protested the command to read, saying he could not. Maybe it was his own resistance that hurt, not the message itself.

  10. Sophia,

    Oh, the initial fear makes perfect sense. Every time someone encounters an angel, they're rightly afraid and then the angel tells them not to be. So it's not really so much his fear, because, hell. If I ran into an angel? My first reaction, before trying to get myself off to a shrink would be an abject 'oh shit'.

    I can see your point about the punishment perhaps being in relation to Mohammed being unwilling to fulfil his role, except that it is stated that he never has a revelation except that he has one of these fits. So did he not want to be a prophet his entire life? Did he keep fighting God?

  11. I have to say I disagree with you when you say no other prophets suffered when they spoke with God/angels. Jeremiah for example felt the word of God as a "fire in his bones", he talks of God misleading him even. (Jer 20:7,9)

    My impression when reading about the other Prophets in the Bible (such as Moses, Isaiah) is that they felt horribly inadequate, and that they felt this as a physical pain. And of course there's the case of the angel touching burning coal to the lips of Isaiah to purify them.

  12. Becky,

    *gasps in horror* You disagree with me? How can this be so?


    Mmm...I see your point about Jeremiah. I don't have my Bible with me, but I looked up the passage. Jeremiah only speaks of the word of God as a 'fire in his bones' when he determines not to fulfill his duties as a prophet and keep the prophecy to himself. I wonder, though, whether it was an actual pain or if he was using poetic license to describe his feelings when he decided to keep the truth to himself and was continually confronted with the corruption and evil around him. Jeremiah is a very poetic and symbolic book. And depressing as all get out, too.

    I see where Jeremiah accuses God of having deceived him, but I'm not familiar enough with the work to know why he says this. We know God doesn't lie, so clearly Jeremiah was not *actually* deceived by God. I'll have to look it up in my notes when I get home.

    I don't get the impression that the other prophets felt their inadequacies as physical pain. They were all humbled, yes, and felt deeply unworthy. But I've never gotten the idea that they all suffered physically every time they had a revelation from God.

    Isaiah never says that the burning coal hurts though, does he? He just says that a burning coal was placed against his lips. Yes, if it was a real life literal burning coal, it would hurt. Ignoring all those people who manage to touch hot things, walk on fire, hold coals in their mouths and not be burnt, which would be a possibility if we *were* talking about a literal coal. Isaiah could have been in a trance which allowed him to handle the burning coal without being burnt. But I digress! This was a vision, so normal rules do not necessarily apply for physical reactions.

  13. Yeah I understand what you're saying. The reason why I remembered about Jeremiah is because I read about it recently in A History of God by Karen Armstrong.

    Now, I'm altogether a bit 'iffy' about saying how Muhammed felt, because I don't think it's covered in the Qur'an, and I tend to disregard Hadiths. I don't think having felt pain necessarily means that God didn't speak to him though. Like Sanil said, I think a lot of what gets written down, depends on who the message was intended for (that also goes for the message itself).

    *gasp* hahaha very sorry to disgaree with you :P hahahaha

  14. Ah, and see, I just go with the sahih ahadith because they are, historically, a huge part of Islamic belief.

    I'd agree that having felt pain does not necessarily mean that God didn't speak through someone. Clearly, I don't believe that Mohammed was a prophet, but that's based on additional things, not just the pain that he (supposedly) experienced with every revelation.


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