The Sacred and The Profane
by Rebecca Bynum (March 2007)
Much of modern day biblical scholarship is concerned with separating out historical truth from the product of what may be charitably called “enthusiastic editing,” that is, the embellishments to Jewish history that often involve the miraculous intervention of God. For example, biblical scholars are concerned with how much of the Exodus story is actual history and how much might be fanciful. Is Moses a real historic figure or a creation of the human imagination, or partly real and partly that creation? Did the Jews flee
en masse as recited in Exodus? Are there any independent historical records that can verify the biblical account? Are there any archeological records that could provide some kind of independent verification? In other words, Western historians want to know whether the Exodus story is true in its entirety, or if some of it true (and if so, which parts?) or if none of it true. Egypt
To begin with, this presupposes that truth can actually be known, or at least increasingly approximated, and furthermore that the truth is important to know. In other words, there is a common thirst for truth that drives Western man toward the ever greater discovery of truth – truth in more detail, truth in more depth and breadth, truth as separate and distinct from error and falsehood. In the West, truth is revered because it is equated with reality and furthermore we allow there is only one reality to know. We may concede that all human truths are relative, but we share the common believe that the truth of any matter may be increasingly approximated by the use of unitary Reason. Something is either real or it isn’t and if we have before us two contradictory statements or accounts, then we know that at least one of them is false.
In Islamic thought a different standard applies, if anything contradicts Islamic doctrine it is considered to be false, as Bill Warner aptly points out, Islam is a duel system of thought which holds that two contradictory facts can both be true. There is no one truth or one reality to discover or to separate from unreality. The proposition that two contradictory facts can both be true destroys the value of truth and indeed the entire western concept of Truth. In Western philosophy there is only one Truth. In Islam, truth is duel and is neither sacred nor revered.
It is useful to remember at this point that there is difference between what has value and what is value – is something by which that value is measured. Truth is a value and we evaluate reality in accordance with how much truth is contained in our understanding of it. Asking if something is true is essentially the same as asking if it is real. We posit that reality can be known because the truth about reality can be ascertained (or approximated) and this relative truth may be discerned from falsehood using our rules of Reason. For the western world truth exists and it exists independently and transcendently as an absolute value. It is a yardstick by which reality is measured.
In Islam, the relation between truth and reality is severed. Truth is not extolled, but rather enslaved to expediency, specifically to the advance of Islam. Therefore, there has been no attempt by Muslims to independently verify any of the stories in the Koran and no attempt to separate the historical Muhammad from the “enthusiastic editing” by some handlers of the Qur’an, Haditha and Sira though this seems quite self-evident to the casual western reader. This train of thought is not even allowed to Muslims who, if they are pious, must simply believe unquestioningly in the divine and uncreated nature of the Qur’an and in the prophethood of Muhammad.
Muhammad claimed to be a prophet, specifically the last prophet, in the Hebrew line of prophets. This explains the attempt in the Qur’an to assert that his lineage traced back to Abraham, to Ismail and that Islam is another, indeed the one true, branch of Judaism.
The Qur’an purports to be “revealed” history with the effect that Muslims must believe in this history without any independent verification. For example, Muslims believe Abraham built the Kaaba and would never think to seek after secondary sources either archaeologically or from ancient records in the way biblical scholars naturally would. There are no historic records existing before the Qur’an that indicate Abraham made the long journey from
Hebron to . Mecca
Indeed, the Higher Criticism of the nineteenth century, that is the work of Biblical scholars that begins in the time of Julius Wellhausen and does not stop, today, with Jaroslav Pelikan but simply continues – to find out more about the “historical Jesus” or about the truth, or fiction, of what is contained in both the Old and the New Testaments, even going so far as to use carbon-dating techniques on tombs in the Holy Land – has no analogue when it comes to Islam. For Muslims, there can be no questioning of the existence of Muhammad and the details of his life, as they were fixed early on, and even the discussion of how in the first few centuries of Islam the “Islamic narrative” had not been completely fixed, or the fact that there is more than one “version” of the Qur’an in existence (they differ very slightly, but they do differ).
Raphael Patai describes the essential Islamic attitude as a “disregard for reality and inclination to adhere to ideal constructs,” which I think puts it very well. He goes on to say:
“It may be mentioned in passing that Arabic historical writing very frequently took the form of biographies of people of a particular type and that Arabic histories are often replete with anachronisms and confused in detail and chronology. This lack of concern with historical sequence and dates is apparent in the tarikh (History) of the famous traditionalist al-Bukari (810-870). This work contains biographies of the men whose names appear in isnads, or authorities for traditions going back to Muhammad: but, less than 7 per cent of the biographies are provided with dates of death, less than one-half of one percent of them give an indication of the date of birth, and only a little more than one-half of one per cent contain, in addition, some date which fixes the time of their subject.” – R Patai, The Arab Mind. (pg. 71)
For the Western mind, the importance of fixing dates in the isnad chain goes without saying. The absence of dates renders the chain worthless for westerners and yet for Muslims fixing the date of when something happened is almost completely disregarded. And like ancient Hebrew, the Arabic language has no clear past and future verb tenses, but while Modern Hebrew has evolved these tenses to be more in line with other modern languages, Arabic has not. Classical Arabic has been made sacred by Islam and so is considered perfect. Like Islam itself, it is not to be changed nor is it to be subject to implied criticism, through attention being paid to problems such as the absence of clear verb tenses.
The language problem may have been one reason why Jesus and Moses are mistakenly cast as contemporaries in the Qur’an. The past is just a story, reality is irrelevant. History, as we understand it in the West, is not contained in the Qur’an. The Qur’an is a replacement for history, outside of and superior to mundane historical facts. The Muslim attitude is that nothing that occurred before the coming of the Qur’an is of any consequence. History begins with Muhammad. All previous records are considered worthless (from the Time of Ignorance) and are replaced by the Qur’anic version. This has consequences: peoples who have been Islamized are discouraged from taking any interest in, or even preserving the artifacts of, their own pre-Islamic histories. The ruin visited upon the Bamiyan Buddhas was simply the latest example of the vast destruction that Muslims have inflicted on not only on the monuments and statuary important to faiths that preceded Islam, but also to all non-Islamic, and therefore essentially worthless, works.
The Old Testament, on the other hand, is a collection of the writing of various authors recording the history of the Hebrew people over the centuries. Everyone understands that some of the oldest writings were written from the perspective of a much more primitive conception of God and the Universe, but these are generally understood as examples of the thoughts and ideas of an ancient and more barbaric time. The Old Testament also contains some of the loftiest and noblest thoughts about God in all recorded history. And while some of the Bible is clearly inspired, some of it is definitely not inspired, and it is certainly the case most thinking people do not regard the bible as having been directly dictated by God in the same way the way the Qur’an is regarded. The Bible is not strictly history, nor is it myth and fable, but combines elements of both.
Islam has overthrown truth with its substitution of duality and so has no real grasp on reality. Islam encourages what Hugh Fitzgerald calls “the habit of mental submission” which stifles all curiosity. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is alien. Everything is evaluated on one criterion: does it advance Islam or not? Even time itself is not regarded as especially important or perhaps as not necessarily real, but rather as part of the fabric of predestination in which all things, (including the good men do as well as the evil they do) are the direct result of God’s will, not of their own. A man’s destiny and even his character are thought to be unchangeable. So even given the desire of Muslims to change something in their character or behavior, there is no use in them trying to change, or to attempt to grow in the spirit due to the fact that they regard their lives as predestined and unchangeable regardless. In Inshallah is the telling everyday phrase, but behind that phrase is an entire mental universe, in which a whimsical Allah decides everything and his decisions are not to be questioned or appealed: Allah ta’allah. Allah Knows Best. That is why one finds among Muslims little discernible moral striving, only the striving to follow the rules of Islam as closely and minutely as possible. Morality, as we understand it, is irrelevant.
Andre Servier notes:
“Islam is a doctrine of death, inasmuch as the spiritual not being separated from the temporal, and every manifestation of activity being subjected to dogmatic law, it formally forbids any change, any evolution, any progress. It condemns all believers to live, to think, and to act as lived, thought and acted the Musulmans of the second century of the Hegira [8th century A.D.], when the law of Islam and its interpretation were definitely fixed.”
“After a century of Arab domination, there is a complete annihilation of all intellectual culture.” --Andre Servier, Islam and the Psychology of the Musulman, Translated by A. S. Moss-Blundell, 1924
This is not hard to understand, for once Truth is abandoned, knowledge too becomes ultimately meaningless and the individual ability to distinguish truth from error, to participate in the progressive discovery of reality, is not allowed. Truth and morality are what Islam says they are, no more, no less. And so, having been denied independent judgment, the Muslim mind becomes fully enslaved to the mental complexities and physical intricacies of Islam. The result being that, under Islam, the life of the mind is deliberately stifled. It is only the “bad” Muslim, the Muslim who begins to question, even if he must publicly refrain from much questioning, who exhibits the kind of mental activity that we in the West, outside of such totalitarian interludes as the Nazis and the Communists, now take for granted and, indeed, wish to encourage.
To quote Gustave von Grunebaum,
“It is essential to realize that Muslim civilization is a cultural
entity that does not share our primary aspirations. It is not vitally interested in analytical self-understanding, and it is even less interested in the structural study of other cultures, either as an end in itself or as a means toward clearer understanding of its own character and history. If this observation were to be valid merely for contemporary Islam, one might be inclined to connect it with the profoundly disturbed state of Islam, which does not permit it to look beyond itself unless forced to do so. But as it is valid for the past as well, one may perhaps seek to connect it with the basic antihumanism of this civilization, that is, the determined refusal to accept man to any extent whatever as the arbiter or the measure of things, and the tendency to be satisfied with truth as description of mental structures, or in other words, with psychological truth.
The absolute is self-contained; absolute truth is self-sufficient; the study of error and imperfection for their own sake does not deserve a supreme collective effort. The non-Muslim world is interesting enough, but, in a sense, obsolete, its foundations outmoded ever since the final revelation manifested through the Prophet the changeless norms of individual behavior and social structure, and the grace of God allowed them to be implemented (within limits, it is true) in the Muslim community.
This attitude leads to an extreme concern with power and success in history, or, more precisely, with success in history as the validation of revelation - an outlook that represents the sharpest possible contrast with the outlook that governs Christianity’s encounter with history.” -- Gustave von Grunebaum, Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity, 1962, pp. 55-58
Islam’s sacralization of the profane and mundane, its failure to separate the material from the spiritual coupled with its failure to recognize progressive levels of morality and spiritual attainment, will forever condemn Muslims to lives of mental confusion and moral stagnation, while condemning their societies to barbarism.
The Western world is now rapidly acquainting itself with Islam, but it is highly unlikely that the Islamic world will reciprocate and acquaint itself with either Christian teaching or Jewish history. Islam is a closed system of self-imposed isolation. Short of the miraculous appearance of a new Muslim prophet, whose existence would be immediately extinguished by those ever faithful to the “Last Seal of the Prophets,” I see little hope for changing Islam, or the mental habits it inculcates.
And though we may pray for miracles, we should prepare the strategies of war so to protect our civilization from destruction, even knowing that it may not be possible. We must confirm truth exists by living lives loyal to the idea that there are truths, that the very idea of Truth is an important one, and though we may never arrive at it, it is the journey – the attainment of some asymptotic approximation of those truths or that Truth is what matters.
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