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Reading your response to my previous inquiry about your philosophical connections to Oswald Spengler and Decline of the West, I’m left to conclude that you’re no more a Spenglerian than Groucho was a Marxist.
I would never join a philosophical movement that would have me as a member.
In response to my April 14 essay, Why Islam baffles America, in which I drew a bright line between the Islamic and Judeo-Christian notion of prayer, numerous Atol readers objected that some Islamic writers sound like Christian or Jewish mystics, while some rabbis sound like mullahs. Two letters excerpted below are representative:
I am writing in reference to [“Why Islam baffles America”] written by Spengler on April 16. He makes the statement, “By no means am I biased against Islam; I go directly to the most reputable Islamic sources,” yet his methodology is clearly flawed. He is comparing Jewish and Christian theologians’ writings on the spirituality of prayer with a technical explanation of a prerequisite for prayer by a Muslim theologian, [Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani. Spengler has totally ignored the whole experience and influence of Sufism in Islam. If he had anything more than a cursory knowledge of Islam he would have found all the spirituality and love in prayer that he finds in Christianity and Judaism. Obviously he needs to work on his sources.
There seems always to be an effort of understanding Islam in your writings. Sometimes I also think that you only try to do as much damage to the image of Islam as you can do. This paradoxical perception is the main reason why I read you.
You say, “Reading through Muslim sources, I am at loss to find anything remotely resembling [Josef Cardinal] Ratzinger’s quite typical discourse on prayer.” I think that you’re not reading the right sources. You’re reading al-Sistani, who’s a marjaa [ayatollah], someone of whom people ask basic questions that he has to answer. I think you would be better to read someone like Jalal al-Din Rumi [Persian mystic, 1207-1273] or [Mansur] al-Hallaj [Persian mystic, 857-922]. These people only talk about prayer and what it makes them feel, and for this they usually use poetry.
Judaism and Christianity are not occidental religions. They were born in the same land. What al-Sistani does, is what any rabbi does, interpreting and reinterpreting ad nauseam. It’s his job, his duty and his obsession. The Catholics preach the same thing.
Concerning the experience of the prayer, you should have a look at St. John of the Cross as well as St. Teresa of Avila. These two wrote a lot about experience of prayer and God’s love. Then you could make a lot of parallels with Ibn al-Arabi’s [Sufi mystic, 1165-1240] writing about the intimate experience of God’s love and the meaning of prayer.
Dear Shahab, Jean, et al,
A vast literature compares medieval Islamic (mainly Persian and mainly Sufi) mystics to Christian visionaries and Jewish cabbalists. Karen Armstrong, an ex-Catholic convert to Sufism, extends this to a global group hug among the “Abrahamic” religions. Stephen Schwartz, a Jewish convert to Sufism, opposes “spiritual” Sufi Islam to Saudi Wahhabism.
All this has little to do with modern Islam as the vast majority of Muslims practice it. Sufism is a soup that has been cooking for a thousand years, whose original ingredients no longer are recognizable. Those who eat it do not stir it too much. Precisely what the 11th- and 12th-century writers had in mind is a matter of debate, but their influence among today’s practicing Muslims is secondary at best. As imagined by Western Islamophiles, Sufism is a Romantic construct that bears no more resemblance to reality than the utopian image of Russia promoted by Western communists during the 1930s. Occidental interest in Sufism falls into a long line of vapid infatuations with Eastern mysticism, eg, Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Zen, and Madonna’s favorite, cabbala. I do not mean to disparage any of these traditions, but rather to question the judgment of the spiritually challenged Westerners who dabble in them.
Mainstream Sunni as well as Shi’ite Islamic authorities look askance upon Sufism, whose mystical side draws upon pre-Islamic elements (as its defenders also state). All the mainstream Islamic websites publish warnings that some forms of Sufism are not Islamic at all. By “mainstream” I refer to the religious authorities of the dominant Muslim countries. Sufi orders still flourish in the Islamic world, but they describe themselves as an “elect” rather than a popular phenomenon. Western Sufi-tasters would find their practices bizarre. For an amusing report, see Christian Caryl’s Sept 11, 2003 account in Newsweek.
In parts of the Jewish Talmud from the early Middle Ages, one can find rabbinical pronouncements quite as pungent as the cited passages from the writings of Ayatollah al-Sistani, some readers observe. That is no surprise; Talmud preceded Shariah, which drew upon the older Jewish law. But these are medieval, while al-Sistani is contemporary. One still can find Jewish rabbis today who sound like mullahs, particularly emigres from Arab countries, but their role in Judaism is if anything less significant than that of today’s Sufis in Islam.
Prayer is not a “pillar” of Judaism or Christianity; it is the defining religious act. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, Jewish leaders instituted prayer as a substitute for the animal sacrifice that no longer could be performed. Observant Jews display a unique passion for prayer, which occupies almost the whole Sabbath from Friday to Saturday sunset, including three ritual meals, as well as a four-hour Hebrew language morning service. Jewish practice does not lend itself to the sort of spiritual tourism that makes Sufism attractive to spiritually challenged Westerners, Madonna’s enthusiasm for cabbala notwithstanding.
It is pointless to cherry-pick out of religious traditions what one finds appealing. Disaffected Westerners wander through the world’s religious traditions as if they were a spiritual theme park. For the Islamic world, religion is not a consumer good, but a matter of survival. Muslims who wish to represent Sufism as “true Islam” against Saudi Wahhabism, Iranian Shia orthodoxy, and so forth should address themselves to their co-religionists first. Non-Muslims must deal with the Islamic mainstream, such as it is.
One learns little from apologetics, but much from the daily experience of believers. Again, I refer to Franz Rosenzweig’s “sociological” approach to religion.
Granted, a catalogue of religious crimes accomplishes little since all religions have engaged in them. However as you yourself have written, Christianity does have one thing that other religions don’t have and that is “the City on the Hill”, the “New Jerusalem.” Since I have no knowledge of the theology of Islam whatsoever it would be pointless to try and address such concerns. However I don’t believe that motivation is as difficult to understand as you imply. Obviously a one-word answer is an extreme over-simplification but I offer one anyway. The motivation for Islam is jealously which leads to hate. The world, not just Islam, is envious of both America and Israel because of what Judeo-Christian ideals have specifically accomplished.
And what of a cure, you ask? Is it democracy, you ask? In an indirect manner it is. I believe democracy that works and lasts is a Judeo-Christian ideal. You yourself answered this question in one of you earlier articles. “An intriguing thought is that the same people who brought about the Christian Reformation, not to mention the founding of the US, might do the same for Islam. I refer to the radical wing of evangelical Protestantism, whom the intellectual caste of the West dismiss as stupid yokels.” The real question should be, how is the Islamic Reformation going to take place? Democracy just might allow this to happen.
In response to your statement about being enlightened over efforts to answer the difficult questions, my advice is, don’t hold your breath. No one is going to admit that the answers and solutions may rest with stupid yokels.
Dear W K,
As Mephistopheles said to Faust, “Du bist noch nicht der Mann, den Teufel festzuhalten!” (“You are not yet man enough to catch hold of the Devil!”) America remains, despite its faults, the only nation on earth capable of true generosity, and its spirit is Protestant. Yet American evangelicals are far from ready to take up the mission that history has put before them, and I fear that Friedrich Schiller’s judgment upon the generation of the French Revolution (“History brought forth a portentous moment, but sadly the moment encountered a mediocre people”) may come down upon them one day. George Bush speaks their language, to the profound annoyance of secular Europe. Reader Ben Silverman (Letters, April 16) complains, “American policymakers in the Bush administration are deeply religious. They truly believe that they are in a holy war and that God is on their side.” That is misleading; Bush evidently believes that Islam is a religion of love and peace, not profoundly different from his brand of Methodism. Unless he dissembles not only to the public, but also to those close to him, he believes every word of his televised statement last week to the effect that human beings have an innate affinity for freedom. As you know, I see matters differently; the majority of all cultures that ever existed show an affinity for willful self-destruction.
Broadly speaking, I agree with you that jealousy is the root of all evil, but that Biblical concept does not by itself give us much information. Jealousy well may motivate Muslims to hate the West, but of what are Muslims jealous? Surely it is not a semi-attached house and video on demand. The tragic aspect of America’s encounter with Islam, as I argued in “Why Islam baffles America”, is that America’s existence as such threatens Islam as it is practiced in most parts of the world. One’s impulse should not be to simplify, but to investigate.
Many evangelical leaders (prominently the Rev Franklin Graham) dislike Islam, although they have trouble explaining why. The trouble is that they have difficulty explaining who they are, and why they are there to begin with. Lack of intellectual clarity is mirrored in the proliferation of Protestant sects. To think of American Protestantism as an entity, one almost has to postulate the existence of a mystic “Church Invisible” which has not yet manifested itself in fully organized form.
That is why America’s victory over radical Islam by no means is assured. The answer well may lie with a bunch of yokels, but they will have to become cleverer yokels than they presently appear to be.
Modern art is self destructive. It takes the vessel of consciousness – the human form – and mutilates it. Gunther von Hagens’ World of Bodies exhibitions exemplify this trend. In 1998, at the Mannheim Museum of Technology and Work, nearly 800,000 people hurried to ponder the meaning of 200 corpses that were mummified, sculpted, and plastinated in a variety of manners. Numerous exhibitions have followed. (Click here for a comprehensive list.)
Despite government warnings and much religious rebuke, von Hagens’ “art” seems poised to continue to attract millions of curious beholders. Spengler, should we be surprised? Should the treatment of the lifeless corpse be any different from the living body?
Each day genetic engineers get one step closer to cracking the human genetic code. They dream of farming organs, cloning muscle cells, and creating limbs from scratch … Where is this all going? How can we respect life if we can’t respect the vessel which harbors it?
Awaiting your reply,
Martin Leon King
I share your concern, and suggest by way of remedy that we raise funds to commission a self-portrait from Gunter Von Hagens.
Those of us who cling to the antiquated standards of Western high culture have “fought the long defeat”, like Tolkien’s Elves. Western music (The Ring and the remnants of the West, Jan 11, 2003) is a journey with a goal, in which even the most peculiar effects are subordinate to the overall goal. Western visual art subordinates the objects of the visual world to composition in perspective. The ideal form of this journey, I believe, was the Christian soul’s journey toward salvation. Western art therefore is Christian art. Art could not do without Christianity, whence it drew its mission of creating the illusion of a goal, any more than Christianity could do without art. Whereas Judaism began with a people and became a congregation, Christianity began with a congregation and continuously attempts to become a people. The actual “people of Christ”, the “Church Visible”, never embodies this ideal; one must imagine (as the Catholic Church always did) the existence of a “Church Invisible”, composed of the true saints.
Unlike the Jews, whose sense of immortality is rooted in their physical continuity, Christians must imagine a future whose existence is a matter of faith, on a perpetual journey whose goal is forever hidden in the mists. The task of Christian art – the goal-oriented tonal motion of Western music, the composition of painting in perspective, the vaults of the cathedral rising toward heaven according to the divine proportion – is to provide the believer with a mirage of that goal. That is another idea I have poached from Rosenzweig. European art, I surmise, died along with European Christianity. Classical music is removed enough from its original motivation to find a home in exile, for example in Asia. For Western visual art, I no longer have any hope.
I assume you’re based out of Asia, or at least are well aware of it, and you probably know that Hinduism also has many rituals to do with pollution and daily ablutions. In many ways, these rituals are what ordinary Hindus associate with Hinduism, rather than any esoteric philosophical aspects. But this has not stopped Hindus from maintaining a rational sphere: democracy, a secular system of law, and free enterprise more recently, etc. It’s hard to see why Islamic countries are having so much trouble agreeing on a minimal common set of social expectations.
It is hard to characterize Hinduism as a single religion. In contrast to the colorful polytheism of its popular expressions, its elite always has displayed great depth and sophistication, not to mention adaptability, as demonstrated by the great success of Hindus in all the quantitative disciplines, and more recently in English literature. The great concerns of Hindu thinkers, that is, are quite different from those of Ayatollah al-Sistani, as you may verify by visiting his excellent website. It also is true that uneducated Hindus are capable of appalling behavior. More important than the superficial resemblance among purification rituals is each religion’s concept of imitation of God. Sanskrit scripture conveys a radically different view of how one should walk in the footsteps of the divine than does Islam – and that is a long tale for another occasion.