Subscribe in a reader

Thursday, April 21, 2005


I recently made the following statement in a post on this blog:

“I find it interesting that people will, with some regularity, kill in honor of their religion, but never, to my knowledge, has a group of people decided to kill in honor of their favorite artist or movement.”

It has occurred to me that, given the current fog of war and the most recent version of “Code Phrases for Bigots: A Compendium,” this statement could be misconstrued as some sort of slander against Islam in particular and all people of a religious bent in general. That was not my intent.

First, let us consider Islam. I make no claims to expertise when it comes to Islam. Ignorance of Islam is more my claim to fame, and it is an ignorance I hope to one day remedy. However, that day will come when I have a proper amount of time on my hands to delve into it. I’ve read some about the various (or should I say “numerous”) interpretations of the text in the Quran concerning the number of virgins that a martyr is supposed to come into possession of in Paradise, most of which dispense with the entire notion of virgins, and have come to realize that this is not a pursuit to be undertaken lightly.

Of course, that could apply to any sacred text. None are what they seem. I’m sorry, my fundamentalist friends, but I think it is a mistake to read any sacred text in the same way that one would read a profane one, such as Time Magazine or a newspaper. Since they are intended to get at ideas that are beyond ordinary comprehension, they must be written in a way that is poetic. And it is my belief that if God can make the heavens and the earth, then he can also make a metaphor. Or five.

Second, the correlation between religious belief and violence is an ancient one and is hardly limited to any particular sect or group. I keep thinking of a line from “The Simpsons” in which Roger Meyers, Jr., the producer of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons defends cartoon violence. He says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ve been doing some research and it turns out that there’s always been violence. Take the Crusades, for example. Darn thing went on for 20 years. Extremely violent. Many people dead.” I think that one man’s jihad is another man’s crusade, just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. What doesn’t change is the killing.

Of course, the jihadists and the crusaders are always members of a fringe and should not be taken as representatives of the main body of believers. And yet, we do, attaching labels and stereotypes to Christians, Muslims, Jews, and anybody else we can in an attempt to make this ever more complicated world somehow understandable.

As for me, I was raised Catholic but ascribe to no particular religion. I tried the Catholic thing again a few years ago and had to spend a great deal of time deconstructing the teachings and reinterpreting every utterance in the light of mythology. It was a great deal of work to go through in order to be surrounded mostly by hypocrites and sleepwalkers. And so I have come back toward my father’s main religious tenet, which went thusly: “If God is everywhere, then he’s on this couch.”

Whatever anybody else wants to do, however, is their business, and I wish them well.


Robert G. Margolis said...


The comment of yours which you quote was made during an exchange between you and I. So, just for any record that's being kept--starting with this Blog, please be assured that I did not respond with either the particular or the general construance you mention. I understood your comment to mean as you meant it, with the intention you intended, in the context of our exchange.

It's funny you mention the 'virgins for martyrs' "text" of the Qur'an: these "interpretations" to which you refer are predicated on the conclusion there is such a "text", when, in fact, there is none. The Qur'an's (Arabic) language, it's choice of words and how it uses them, about the nature and kind of felicities that are expressed in al-Jannah ("the Garden") or al-Jannatayn ("the two Gardens") is very allusive and mysterious. The exact contrary, even in so-called 'literal' meaning and intent, to what you'd conclude from certain "interpretations". "Virgins"? "Martyrs"? These are English words with a range and history of meanings and resonances of meaning. Do their equivalents or approximates appear in the Qur'an? If not, then what is misunderstood or distorted in translating the Qur'an's Arabic words, transposed into contexts that are not there or intended to be infered? In fact, most, if not all, of what the Qur'an offers to human understanding about this. As I said, it's language about the felicities of what is, usually called, "Paradise," is very allusive, mysterious. But this is already to presume to do what we can't do here; namely engage in responsible study together.

"...if God can make the heavens and the earth, then he can also make a metaphor. Or five." I'm delighted to read this statement of insight and good sense. Even more so, because it is a precise paraphrase of a very beautiful, often referred to ayat ('verse') of the Qur'an.

What I would appreciate learning from you--at your convenience and if you are so inclined, is some of the questions you would ask of yourself and pursue if and when you were to have the time "remedy", as you say, your "ignorance of Islam". How we conceive of our own "ignorance", the approaches we in response to our perceived "ignorance", what questions we ask, all interest me very much. All construances welcome, of course.

Len said...

I know that the article that I read about this alleged verse from The Qur'an indicated that the most sober scholars of it were leaning toward translating a particular word as "grapes" and not "virgins." In fact, they found the choice of the word "virgins" quite puzzling.

And this goes to the heart of my questions. Once I get past "There is one God and Mohammed is his prophet," I'm walking in a sea of rumor, mis- and disinformation.

"Women don't have souls." I might have gotten that out of a Harold Robbins novel I was skimming for naughty bits when I was about 19. I don't know exactly what Islam's approach to women is, although I suspect that it's not quite as monolithic as we're led to believe.

I really need to start with a primer. I know little of its history--Mohammed in a cave--comes out with sacred text--Islam expands rapidly in both political and religious terms--Muslim invents the zero--enlightened Islamic scholars preserve and pass on ancient Greek texts.

These days, as we sit on the cusp of a new holy war between fundamentalist camps, Muslims are routinely presented to us in hordes under the total dominance of a few Imams. What I get from the standard sources (TV news and newspapers) is a stereotypical joke.

Before September 11, 2001, my ignorance was of the blissful sort. I was happy reading my Tao Teh Ching and my Chuang Tse and happy to let the rest of the world go its own spiritual way. I was ignorant of Islam because I hadn't really thought about it.

Since then, there has been a tendancy to present Muslims as either zombies or zealots, and my instincts tell me that can't be true. The great variety of humanity must be as present in Bagdhad as it is in Atlanta, and the religion in question, Islam, must be understood in as many varieties and subtleties as Christianity is here. Didn't Aristotle say that where there's two people, there's politics? Shouldn't that be as true in the Islamic world as it most certainly is in the Christian?

Anonymous said...

Damn...all my anticipated virgins are metaphors!

Hardy Lee Any

Len said...

Or grapes!

Crushed in Vinland

Anonymous said...

In addendum, also, your pop's couch quote tickled my ribs.

Boney Marooney

Robert G. Margolis said...

And think just how perplexed all those poets and writers will be when they find out all their metaphors are virgins! And wine drinkers, when they find out wine is not made from what they thought it's made from! But I digress.


There is Islam and there are Muslims, just as there is Judaism and Jewish people, Christianity and Christians, the Buddha, the Buddhadharma, and Buddhists; and so on with other religions and ways of faith.

This first, obvious, but so necessary distinction itself requires some study and appreciation. 'Islam says such and such' or 'teaches such and such', it's often said (and likewise with other religions), as if Islam, or any other religion is a person and can be spoken about as a person. On the basis of this distinction, we can formulate effective, accurate questions that are in accord with the kind of knowledge and understanding we seek. A question as seeminly simple as "What is Islam?" (a question, not incidentally, which throughout Qur'an is essentially, in many ways, asked of human beings and and which it offers its own answers or guidance for discovering), a question as simple as "What is Islam?" is a quintessential, ever-renewed question to be asked, as the Qur'an indicates, by anyone professing to be a Muslim, and to be asked continually. Where and how is this "Islam" to be found? How is it embodied and lived? Is there an exemplar or are there exemplars who, in person, in word, in action, in contemplative and inner life, show us the totality of this "Islam", its complete realization? How and why does one differentiate between this "Islam" and the various cultures and societies in which it is, to varying degrees, lived and practiced? These are but a very few of the questions that derive from a first, simple question. And each question is circular, circumabulating around a truth or an answer it is trying to attain. (This somewhat recalls the image, you may have seen pictures, of pilgrims to the Ka'aba, in Mecca, circumabulating the Ka'aba.)

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." Ignorance is always an "expert", and experience with my own never-ending ignorance is that it's very expert in what it claims to "know". Your distinctions as to what is useless and misleading to your current interest/future inquiry are sound, and they express "beginner's mind".

Essentially, or so is my experience, to study a religion, whether one's own or another, is to study one's self. In this sense, at least: that what is essential, universal in any religion belongs to our common, universal human heritage; and it should be respected and approached as such, meaning as not separate from 'ourselves'. Each religion, as I see it, offers a Way (with innumerable ways and means according to disposition, vocation, etc.) for becoming fully human or for realizing one's humanity and human purpose. So, in this regard, Islam, for example, can be viewed as a way in which a human being strives to become that which s/he is meant humanly to be.

From your reading of Chuang Tzu and friends, you'll have a clear appreciation of the difference between the Way, in any its nameless names and formless forms, and those who profess it and claim to practice and adhere to it. Each human being who professes or claims to practice a religion is, precisely, a human being, and therefore capable, if only potentially, of the entire spectrum of human possibilities from the most sinister to the most sanctified. And, of course, in the observable, knowable history of the human beings who have adhered to a specific religion, whether Islam or other, we find many if not all these possibilities manifest. And, too, as you'll know from Chuang Tzu and your own observations, sometimes the worst of self-deceptions and illusions is clothed and formulated through the very 'religious' forms and teachings whose realities are the exact negation of those illusions and deceptions.

Hence, as I started to say, the importance of accurate questions, of their reason and purpose for being asked, to whom they are asked, and what is done with whatever answer is received. In studying a religion, I believe, the education is as much in the questions asked as it is in what answers they receive.

Len said...

All right. Moving today. No time. Will respond over weekend. In the meantime, just sign me--

The Cool Move

Len said...

I guess that blaming Mohammed for all the things that are done in the name of the book he brought back with him from the cave would be just another case of blaming the Messenger. It's strange how people can come to think of the Creator of the universe as an object that they can possess and control, but people do that all the time.

The folks who cause most of the problems are the ones who look for passages in their favorite holy book (oftentimes no more than an unrestricted clause or a parenthetical phrase) that justify some action or hatred. To take disjointed phrases from a sacred text and to use those as evidence of "God's will" is like trying to describe someone using only a few random cells. What does it say in the Tao Te Ching? Something about "to cut up is to break"?

And, for the record, I understand the irony of using a quoted passage to discredit using quoted passages. But son't blame me, I'm only the messenger.