Monthly Archives: March 2011

Religious Consolation

by John Updike

One size fits all. The shape or coloration
of the god or high heaven matters less
than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing
the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite
the widow brings to the temple. A child
alone with horrid verities cries out
for there to be a limit, a warm wall
whose stones give back an answer, however faint.

Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs
those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints
whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,
those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books
Moroni etched in tedious detail?
We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.

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Fitrah: Are We Born Believers?

There is a concept in Islam called the fitrah which refers to the primordial state of belief in Allah. Muslims believe all people are born Muslims, at least in the sense that the human is born with an innate knowledge of the oneness of Allah; We are simply taught something different, Christianity or Hinduism, for example, by our parents or society. Fitrah is often translated as “nature”, as in it is our nature to believe in the one God Allah.

I don’t believe we are all born Muslims. Children are not born into any religion. I view this idea as a simple attempt by organized religion to monopolize the religious tendencies of all humankind, right up to and even before birth. Perhaps the parallel would be Christianity’s claim that we are all born into sin and therefore must have an avenue for redemption. This line of reasoning cements the idea, at least in the mind of the believer, that their particular religion is the correct one; that even all of nature and the very essence of humankind somehow bows to the tenets of religion. This idea is very strong in Islam and numerous verses can be found in the Quran and hadith conforming to this concept.

As I said, I disagree with the idea that we are all born Muslims, but are we born believing in God?  Rather, let’s frame the question in a more universal way. Since true monotheism is a rather new idea on the historical timeline of human religion, it doesn’t make sense to purport that we are essentially monotheistic. Yet, religion does seem to be culturally universal. Is there something in our nature, or even in our very DNA which gives us the propensity to believe? Some researchers think there is. Some articles here and here demonstrate that the human mind has a propensity to believe  in God, or at least to engage in the religious experience. There are even best-selling books written about this concept such as The God Gene. Neuroscientists and psychologists like Andrew Newberg , Michael Parsinger and many others  have empirically studied what happens to the human brain (namely the thalmus, parietal and temporal lobes) when engaged in some type of religious rite such as meditation  or intense prayer along with changes that take place during an ecstatic  religious experience.

As science is showing us, the brain does appear to be structured in a way to allow for religious experience: There seems  to be a correlation between neurological changes and religious experience.  In other words, our brains have evolved with an innate ability to experience religious states. And as evolutionary biologists and anthropologists have pointed out, religion does serve an adaptive purpose.  In fact, research also shows that believers are better equipped to handle adverse life situations and tend to be more happy overall than their atheist counterparts.

But while all of this certainly gives us insight into truths about the human experience, the conclusions one draws from it rely heavily one’s own worldview and beliefs. The non-believer might take a very materialistic, naturalistic position and say that this evidence is further evidence that God can be explained by simple brain chemistry. That God is simply a construct of evolutionary adaptation. Conversely, the believer would interpret the evidence as proof that God exists; That God has built us with the ability to believe in him and belief is natural and intrinsically human.

Thoughts?

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God and Natural Disasters

Unless you’ve crawled up under a rock, in which case you won’t be reading this blog, you’ve probably heard about the catstrophe in Japan.  First a devastating earthquake, a tsunami, the imment threat of nuclear meltdown and now a volcanic eruption.

I have frankly been a bit annoyed by all of the facebook messages extolling people to pray for Japan and the asking of Allah to be with them. Where was Allah when a tsunami washed away their lives?  We could all pray simultaneously for God to never allow a natural disaster again, to put an end to all the suffering, children starving, mankind killing each other etc.

 It’s not going to happen.

 If God is the grand orchestrator of all existence, he could have just as easily NOT allowed the earthquake in Japan, or the tsunami of “04 that killed the human equivalent to the city that I live in. He could have chosen to end the genocides in Darfur or Rwanda.

And yet he didn’t.

Or perhaps, he really doesn’t play any role in our lives at all. I realize it’s a subject that has been discussed before, but if there is a god who is actively involved in our lives, a compassionate, loving God, then why does he allow so much unspeakable suffering in the world?

I suppose if people feel better at the end of the day praying for an end to the woes of mankind, then more power to ’em. In the meantime, please remember to put your money where your mouth is and donate, donate, donate.

P.S. Before a commenter (probably one near hysteria, brimming with religious righteousness) brings it up, I’m not an atheist. However, I do find myself rejecting theism, specifically the presence of a personal god,  more and more.

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The Afterlife

Death is the mother of beauty–from the poem Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens

I recently had a conversation with a friend, regarding the role that the afterlife plays in people’s perception and adherence to religion. For me, it wasn’t fear of death that motivated me to convert to Islam. My attraction to Islam was based on its purely monotheistic stance. It was more of an answer to the confusing idea of the trinity found within Christianity. For a time it was enough to think that I had found the true and primordial monotheistic  faith. However, years later as I began an honest and sincere critique of the Quran, armed with a new-found sense of courage, rife with doubts and questions, my faith wavered and I realized that Islam too, has inherent flaws. But I digress.

Despite my own reasons for converting to and staying within the confines of religion for so long, it is true, I suspect, that a fear of death does lead people down a similar path. The concept of justice also plays a role–the idea that those who were wronged on earth will be set right and those who were the wrongdoers will be punished. So it goes to reason, one must look at what constitutes a wrong and what will put a person into an afterlife which is a punishment, or in the Islamic, Judeo-Christian tradition: Hell.  Likewise, Islam promises a reward for those who are faithful and conform to Quranic edicts. Furthermore, unlike the Catholic view of the afterlife in which there is such a place as purgatory, or the Jewish idea of sheol,  in Islam there is a dichotomy of two extremes. There is the unfathomable pain and suffering one will experience in hell and the pleasure and wealth one will experience in heaven. I once read that the Quran speaks of hell in over 500 verses. Nowhere is this dichotomy more clearly spelled out than surah Waqiah (The Inevitable).

From the onset, the surah presents the opposite nature of the two realms of the afterlife and the inhabitants within. On God’s right hand, sits those who will be companions in Paradise. We’re told Paradise consists of people reclining on thrones made of jewels with young boys serving wine from a flowing stream.  These inhabitants will eat amongst beautiful and pure companions while eating abundantly from fruits and meats. 

One the opposite hand sit the inhabitants of hell. Hellfire is described in gruesome detail. I have to say, throughout the Quran,  the imagery depicting hell is quite powerful, terrifying and repulsive.

41. The Companions of the Left Hand,- what will be the Companions of the Left Hand?

 (They will be) in the midst of a Fierce Blast of Fire and in Boiling Water,

 And in the shades of Black Smoke:

 Nothing (will there be) to refresh, nor to please:

And later in verse 51

51. “Then will ye truly, O ye that go wrong, and treat (Truth) as Falsehood!- “Ye will surely taste of the Tree of Zaqqum.

 “Then will ye fill your insides therewith,

 “And drink Boiling Water on top of it:

 “Indeed ye shall drink like diseased camels raging with thirst!”

 Such will be their entertainment on the Day of Requital!

 It is We Who have created you: why will ye not witness the Truth?

Coincidentally (or not), the concept of jahannam, or the Arabic word for hell as described in the Quran, originated from the Jewish traditions. Long after the writing of the Talmud, in which sheol is described, Jewish rabbis, as a reaction to the destruction of the second temple and continued Roman oppression, began to devise an idea of paradise for the believers who have suffered here on earth. Likewise, the oppressors and sinners would find themselves in a place the writers called Gehinnom (note the linguistic similarity). Gehinnom is believed to be a valley near the city of Jerusalem. Some Rabbinical commentators postulate that the Hinnom valley was a place where perpetual fires were kept burning to consume garbage and cadavers. It makes sense, given this description, that the writers would see such a horrid place as being the ultimate eternal punishment for a sinful soul.

Belief in or fear of the after life is a great and powerful tool used by religion to gain and maintain its adherents. Death is perhaps, the biggest mystery of all, and  also the most terrifying. Indeed, not only do we fear death on a psychological level, it seems as if we also fear it on a biological level. All animals avoid death instinctively and complex physiological mechanisms are triggered by impending threats which serve to protect the organism–also known as the fight or flight response. It makes sense, that a  fear of hell and promises of ecstasy  play a convincing role  in persuading the believer to maintain and conform to religious doctrine. It’s comforting, if not naive to think that our good actions will be rewarded and those who are evil, the agents of injustice and suffering, will be punished. We often see injustice abound in this life so it’s nice to think it will all be set right in the next.

I’m as of now undecided on an afterlife. Of course, the kicker is, none of us can truly know until we’re dead. In the meantime, I’ve put aside a God who tells his creation,

 “Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise.” 

 I certainly don’t believe in heaven or hell at least not in the traditional religious sense.

I’m at peace knowing that my life exists now, and therefore will always exist in space and time. While life is still mine, I’d like to make the most of it and surround myself with meaning and beauty. If I act morally I’d like to think it was for morality’s own sake, and for the sake of a better and functional society. If I treat others with kindness, I’ll do it for the simple pleasure and sincere respect for my fellow human beings. I’ll never tell another person “I love you for the sake of Allah’. Rather, I love you because you’re worthy of love.

I hope to  love well and love much along the way.

*Edit: Just minutes after publishing this post, I happened upon a poem by John Keats, written to his lover, Fanny Brawne. It seems appropriate so I will post it here.

 

“I have been astonished that men could die martyrs
for their religion–
I have shuddered at it,
I shudder no more.
I could be martyred for my religion.
Love is my religion
And I could die for that.
I could die for you. 
My creed is love and
You are its only tenet.”

–John Keats

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The Joy and Pain of Music

pure unadulterated Beauty

One of the deal breakers for me and Orthodox Islam was it’s prohibition against music. While it is a  bit of a contentious issue, the fact is, the overwhelming majority of scholars of past and present have declared it haram. I could never wrap my mind around this idea as I’m a music lover and believe music is one of the greatest gifts we have and one of the most extraordinary inventions we can attribute to our species.

As I said, I never really bought into the idea that music is  forbidden, so I never fully gave it up. However, many Muslims continue to “struggle” with music. I continue to read blogs even today by young muslimahs who are buying into the Salafi mindsets and have been told and believe music is haram. They’ve either shunned it altogether or write about the guilt they feel that they’ve not been able to “give it up”.

 The idea that music is somehow evil and a sin  brought about much anger and it became difficult for me to even listen to something as innocuous as Bach, or any other type of music, even if it was void of sexuality or any subject that is looked down upon by the conservative crowd.  Even music consisting of  sexual overtones or fraught with rebellion or perhaps feminist ideas are a legitimate part of the human experience.  So, I began to see the opinion against music as simply an assault on human thought and emotion, or at least that which doesn’t involve love for Islam, either directly or indirectly.  In this way, as in many others, orthodox Islam seeks to monopolize the human experience by harnessing the emotions of the believer and claiming the only legitimate love and admiration one can have is for Allah, his messenger, his book and the sunnah. Everything else is sin and fuel for the fire.

Indeed, one of the primary reasons given as to why music is haram is because it evokes such strong  human emotion and runs the risk of weakening one’s feelings and love they feel when listening to the Quran. And perhaps that idea is right. Because when I listen to the Barber piece above, I’m sure that the composer who brought forth such a profound piece of beauty was surely very insightful, and my own knowledge of the human condition and existence is fortified more than it ever was by Islam or the Quran.

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Who is a Muslim?

The last post redirected into an entirely different discussion as the comments section often does. However, I feel that this topic deserves a post of its own. In many ways, it echoes this post I wrote when I was in my final days of Islam. I eventually, after several torturous weeks, decided to throw in the towel altogether. I gave up any belief in the Quran and the prophethood and along with the label of “Muslim”.

In the last post Sig left the following comment:

It is interesting to think about what labels we apply to us, and what meanings they hold and what a community or society at large says we are or aren’t, and what meaning that holds. There are people who call themselves “Muslim” who would not be considered thus by the mainstream sunni or shia or even some progressives. Are they still Muslims? Is a Muslim one who says he or she is? And my question always has been, if one rejects some of the core tenets of the faith, then why bother with the label unless it is for nostalgia or heritage? I think a lot of us – not all of us – go through a “still Muslim, but not like that…” phase. And then we get past it.

In response Zahura said this:

If someone says she’s a Muslim, let’s take her at her word. We can ask her why she chooses that label, what being a Muslim means to her, etc. To question all but conservative Muslims’ right to call themselves “Muslims” is what the conservatives do to everyone else. Why play into that?

Even though they seem to be on opposite ends of an argument I have to say I agree with both.

As we know labels are fluid and change and an individual rarely fits into any one box. If a person want to call themselves Muslim, no matter what they declare their beliefs to be, it’s not within my role, nor is it my responsibility to contend otherwise. However, labels are there to differentiate an individual from another; in other words, it is a name given based on certain descriptive characteristics. When one adopts a label, there must be a set of characteristics, beliefs, philosophy, etc, ascribed to the label, otherwise the label is meaningless.  So when conservatives rail against progressives, and declare they are not Muslims, it’s because progressives seek to change the face of Islam. The underlying characteristics, the label, is threatened.  When a progressive seeks to throw out 1500 years of scholarship, as well as the entire body of hadith (as some do), and seek out new and modern interpretations of the meaning of the Quran, it’s understandable that conservatives would think this philosophy falls outside of Islam, or in the very least see it as an imminent threat.

Because, to change something means you lose its original form. There has always been differing interpretation, rival schools of thought,  and much variation in the fabric of Muslim societies. However,  to my knowledge, the current “progressive” Islamic movement is the first organized group to ever seek to dispose of the hadith as a legitimate body of knowledge in Islamic jurisprudence. Nor, has any group collectively found such inventive reinterpretations of certain problematic verses such as the “wife beating verse” or the verse on homosexuality. These reinterpretations fit quite nicely into our modern values, but the question is, in my mind, is that truly how they were intended? Generally, when I read that dharaba means to separate and not to beat, or that the verse about Lut is speaking to rape and not sodomy, or that the verse about houris refers to golden raisins and not fair virgins with wide eyes,  my gut feeling is that this is all wishful thinking; that’s not how they were intended, especially given the context  and audience for which they were written. While I would like to see a more progressive, a “kinder and gentler” Islam gain ground, I don’t know that it is truly compatible with the verses contained in the Quran, and it certainly is not, in my opinion, compatible with the hadith. This is the source of my rejection with the “progressive” Islamic crowd, which left me no choice but to leave the faith entirely.

Which brings me to the nature of the Quran. The entire Islamic faith hinges on the assumption that the Quran is the direct and undisputed word of God. It is a revelation given directly to Muhammad from God through the angel Gabriel. This has to be true, otherwise Muhammad was not a prophet but a man with a propensity for verse among many in a society of poets. If one believes this to be the case, then it is an absolute duty to follow every letter of it. To believe it all to be true. This includes many concepts which might be hard for some to swallow such as the existence of jinn and black magic or even belief in a God who would constantly berate his creation with the threat of hellfire.  While some verses may lend themselves to metaphor, others just do not, especially those addressing societal dealings such as inheritance laws, the necessity for two female witnesses in a financial contract,  participation in riba, and certain dietary restrictions.

I think everyone can agree that the belief in one God, a profession of strict monotheism is a necessity in being Muslim. After that, the belief in the prophethood of Muhammad which implies belief in his divine revelation. I rejected the latter, and that was the catalyst for my apostacy. However, do you believe that is what is necessary to be a Muslim? If not, what else and why?

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