Posts in: RE140
As my Islam class enters into fourth week, a lot of us are looking back trying to wrestle with all the information that we gained in this class. I would say this is true for a lot of students at the end of the block, but for us, it seems to be more so. I was told by some of my friends in the class with me that they had some of the most enjoyable, provoking, and arcane discussions during Islam. To complicate things, Islam is not the most irrelevant topic in today’s current events and politics. To know what Islam is seems to be vitally important to any person, and now this class must be summarized into the short answer that we give people, as well as the long answer for our final assignment. We are to write a 5-7 page paper telling a narrative that gives the history of Islam. This prompt is strange to be sure, and quite possibly impossible. In fact, when a student stated that this paper was impossible, Peter teasingly replied, “I know… and that’s why I assigned it.” How does one coalesce a religion into five pages? This I shall spend countless hours on, but I look forward to it. (I’m a religion major, and this is exactly the torture and punishment I look forward to taking on and conquering, so to speak.) So, as I go into this final week of the block, I’ll be seeking some fatwa (or rather advice, rulings on a matter) from the authors I have read these past three and a half weeks. May they decree a wonderful narrative for me to record.
An important concept that has come up every single day of class is that of the Locative vs. Utopian worldviews. The locative worldview is something like, “I am in the place in society that I need to be and that is the way it needs to be. I can’t change it.” The utopian worldview, on the other hand, simply says, “There is a better way.” In discussion we were mainly talking about political systems (the utopian worldview in opposition to empire) but also religious systems (the unity of Islam in opposition to the polytheism that previously created separation in the Arabian tribes). This was often characterized by looking at class structures and societal shapes. The shape of an unjust empire that Islam was standing against was drawn on the board every single day of class (see below). The last time it was drawn, Friday, the class legitimately cheered because it had become such a big part of what Peter was trying to teach. There is the large, subjected working class. There is the clerical middle class, which during the times of the Abrahamic religious traditions, was made up of mostly priests and religious leaders. Then there was the single ruling class, which, during the Abrahamic era, was a single King. The theta above the “Peter Triangle” is the divine, or in this case the use of the divine to validate the nature of society.
So, what does this have to do with Islam? Islam is part of the “prophetic tradition” that Norman O. Brown (one of the author’s of third week) extrapolates. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, and Muhammad himself were protesters, movement organizers, and fought against the evils and injustices that they saw in a world that was supposed to be God’s kingdom; or so the story goes. Essentially, these are people who have a utopian worldview and want to see the triangle below turned upside down or at least rearranged. That’s the tradition that we studied during third week, with the help of Crossan’s God and Empire, Norman O. Brown’s The Problem of Islam: The Prophetic Tradition, Shedinger’s Was Jesus a Muslim?.
One of the questions that I find myself asking most in class is “Is this the secular or the sacred history?” This question is really, “Did this actually happen or is this what the members of the faith tradition believe?” However, this has become a very important topic as Islam has progressed through week two and into week three. I wanted to illustrate this with both the stories of Muhammad as well as Jesus, two really important prophets in Islam. Muhammad’s sacred history seems to be the one that everyone knows and, oddly enough, is the history that Karen Armstrong tells in her book The History of God. In this sacred history we find that Muhammad was able to recite the Qur’an, a wonderfully poetic text, over a period of 23 years, and yet he was a potentially illiterate Arab with little experience of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Due to the poetic nature of the text and all of the references and allusions to the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New testament, Muhammad was far from ignorant of these traditions, and with language. Academic speculation rises as to who Muhammad actually was, and there are stories of an Arab Jewish Rabbi who started a new movement, and one of the texts from this last week points to a Gnostic Jewish-Christian, who gathered followers. Soon enough though, terms become convoluted, and the real Muhammad becomes unimportant in the comparison to Islam’s volumes of stories about the prophet and how he lived.
Jesus on the other hand. His sacred history differs between Christianity and Islam, but the secular history is fascinating. I’ll tell it in more of a story format mostly based on John Dominic Crossan’s book God and Empire. A boy is born around the same year that a legion of Roman soldiers swept through his town, destroying houses, killing, and raping. The Romans were on a campaign to stop Judeans from rising up against the empire. He grows up hearing the stories about the day that the Romans came threw. He becomes a disciple of a prophetic figure who lives out in the wilderness and talks about the coming end time, when God will defeat the Roman Empire. Jesus experiences John the Baptist assassinated, and starts his own movement. Jesus’ movement is not about an upcoming war so much as it is about living against the Romans in a way that is non-violent, just, and loving. When he goes to Jerusalem, he is arrested away from the crowds of supporters. Then he is crucified for the movement he started. Of course that is just a single interpretation of who the historical Jesus was, but I find it fascinating. It’s a character with a lot of history with the Romans, and its quite poetic, I must admit. Maybe the reason I find it compelling is what Albert Schweitzer said; that in the quest for the historical Jesus [or Muhammad] the only thing you find is yourself.
There you have it, an introduction to the dichotomy of sacred and secular history that we play with in the study of religion.
So, one of the main texts that we started with in the first week of the block was A History of God written by Karen Armstrong, one of the most prolific authors of Biblical studies. This particular book was a best seller, and clearly from its title it is an ambitious project. This text does feature Islam prominently as one of the three Abrahamic faiths, but why read the entire text? Armstrong’s book offers a background and a matrix for the study of Islam. Something that is far often looked over when thinking about the Islamic faith is that the first Muslims were Jews and Christians participating in Muhammad’s movement. As Peter says often, “these people didn’t land here from planet Islam.”
Armstrong’s book took a very interesting look at how the idea of God changed as the Abrahamic traditions moved forward and apart. She also spends some ample words on what I think is the most interesting thing to happen to the Abrahamic traditions: the marriage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each with the philosophical traditions of Plato and Aristotle. This presented for many in all of these religious and philosophical traditions with the dichotomy of faith and reason. I loved reading about the Muslim “Faylasuf” (philosopher) who studied and then eventually gave up and became a mystic (Sufis). This particular Faylasuf, Al-Ghazali, actually anticipated Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” by five centuries. I can only attribute this to the open-minded feel that Islam seems to have regarding their theology and beliefs, especially in the years closest to the Prophet Muhammad. While there was a renaissance of ideas about God because of the marriage of the Greeks and the Abrahamic traditions, I think it has given us more trouble than less. In my personal opinion I only see this as the commandeering of these traditions. I digress, and want to leave you by saying that this is really a fantastic book loaded with information. It is simply brimming with enough research that I’ll need to read it a few more times to fully understand where Armstrong, Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad are all coming from. I really enjoyed it, and I would say it is the best introduction that I’ve seen into both the Abrahamic traditions and the study of religion in general. To finish things off, here is a quote from the book on the topic of faith and reason (of course supporting my previous argument).
“Ibn Sina held that a prophet like Muhammad was superior to any philosopher because he was not dependent upon human reason but enjoyed a direct and intuitive knowledge of God.” Armstrong, pg. 181
In every introductory class that I have ever taken, we have discussed the basics of studying and framing religion in an academic way. For this class however, it was framed slightly differently, but effectively. Peter started with the idea that “religion is spilled poetry.” A poetic line, to be sure, but what does it mean? It has a lot to do with the origins of religion. What scholars know is that humanity started to be religious at the same time that they started to be artistic. When humanity couldn’t use the world in front of itself to express certain types of ideas, they went to symbols, stories, and metaphors to communicate the greatest mysteries they faced.
Peter took this a little further and said that while there is an artistic imagination, there is also a religious imagination that is very similar. Imagination is a word that Peter loves to use, and he also really likes myth and metaphor. However, we as a class needed to spend a little time talking about what connotation these words carry. Myth and imagination make one think of fiction and falsehood, but myths may be based on facts and may carry truths within them like fables. In the study of religion though, it’s not our job to decide that.
This language continues to be interesting to me and troubling to me, simply because I am a religious person, and I wonder if the Exodus carries the same meaning if I find out that it didn’t happen exactly the way it says so in the “Good Book”. The question comes down to, how do we study the history of a religion and separate what actually happened from what the faith would say happened. This is the separation of the secular history from the sacred history and it’s also important to study both. And we’ll see how that dichotomy plays out. Hopefully it will be a nice mix of the sacred and the secular much like the character of Father Brown that G. K. Chesterton created (one of Father Brown’s stories “The Miracle at Moon Crescent” was part of our first night’s reading).
I’ll leave you with a quote that Peter also started us with,
“Once we accept an imaginative literalism, everything else falls into place … [the myths of Scripture] become, as purely literary myths cannot, myths to live by; its metaphors become, as purely literary metaphors cannot, metaphors to live in.”
Northrop Frye, The Double Vision
RE 140: Islam taught by Professor Peter Wright began the way most 100 level religion courses do, full. The 100 level courses in the department are mostly introductory courses in the major traditions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Indigenous Religious Traditions, and Islam. They seem to be increasingly popular these days as all of them that I have experienced this year fill up and create a hefty wait list as well. So, while students filled the room, sat at the tables, stood in the corners and eventually left, Peter, the professor got back in the groove of teaching again. Peter spent the past semester or more on sabbatical, which he later told us should be spoken of as the “Blessed Sabbatical” and only in whispers.
As a religion major and more so as a person who loves religion and its power for an individual, I’ve been looking forward to studying Islam, and so far this class hasn’t disappointed. After a week with Professor Peter Wright I am reminded why I love characters like Peter and like so many of the other professors at Colorado College. Below, my display name says “Ibn Yahya” which is the transliteration of the Arabic name that Peter bestowed upon me a few years ago. A translation of it would be “Son of John,” a pun on my last name. I received this name from Peter while I was taking his block of the Life After Death course. I would like to say that in mid-lecture Peter stopped, and pointed at me and said “Ibn Yahya… yes, you are Ibn Yahya,” and then proceeded to work that small tangent back into his lecture. It may not have happened that way, but I would like to say that it did because that type of event seems to happen a lot in his classes. Islam, so far has been a nice mix of good discussions, tough ideas, and some of these quirks. After a week, Peter helped the rather large class gather the tools and build a foundation so that we may start studying Islam.
Some of the major issues that we have run into this week: faith versus reason, orthopraxy versus orthodoxy, and, of course, how distorted our culture’s view of Islam is. Faith and reason seem to be very widely discussed throughout the history of Islam, and I am looking forward to seeing where our class conversations continue with that subject. As for orthopraxy and orthodoxy, or “right practice” and “right belief”, the distinction is important and yet new to me. The idea being that it is far more important how we live, than what we believe. An interesting distinction to be sure. And finally, I’m not sure if Peter can get away from all of misconceptions about Islam that are prevalent in our culture. Slowly but surely Peter is fighting these fires, and does so in every one of his classes.
So Islam so far has been a week of getting back to the grindstone; reading every night and discussing every day, and coalescing all of the information that has been thrown at us this week and seeing how much of it sticks to a blue book during the end of the week quiz. This may be what I think about the class so far, but as a Muslim would say, “but Allah knows best.”