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Heather Gout [userpic]

SNR Episode 18 - Medina and the Mayflower

January 31st, 2010 (03:54 pm)

Amazon.com links to the books mentioned in this podcast:

"Islam" by Karen Armstrong

"No God but God" by Reza Aslan

"The Qur'an" an English translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem

Podcasts mentioned:

"Common Sense" - Dan Carlin's non-partisan podcast about the United States' political and social issues

Hello, and welcome to episode eighteen of The Naked Soul. I'm Heather Gout. Well, what did I say when I closed the last show? That I had no idea what I would talk about next, that I would have to wait for inspiration. And now I wonder whether 'inspiration', is a muse with a good, dry wit. Because the subject of this podcast is going to be prophets - not the financial kind, but the inspired kind, the loudspeaker of new ideas kind, the rare humans who crop up in history and somehow redirect the currents in it.

And this is because one prophet in particular is on my mind right now - Mohammed ibn Abdallah, the man who was given the revelations that became the Qur'an and formed the basis for Islam. Now I've been trying to fill a gap in my ignorance about Islam. I wouldn't say it's got anywhere near a level of expertise; so far I've read two histories, one by Karen Armstrong and another by Reza Azlan, and I'm still making my way through an English translation of the Qur'an. I'll put details of all these books on the website at snrpodcast.livejournal.com, so you can look those up if you're interested. I think Karen Armstrong's book is particularly good if your knowledge of Islam is poor or non-existent and you need a basic introduction. An argument could be made that she tends to be a bit too sympathetic toward her subject, but if I was going to go into that I'd need another episode. I don't think it's a sympathy that compromises accuracy. I recommend it because it's concise. You wouldn't feel intimidated by too much reading, and it has a lot of helpful additions like a glossary of Arabic terms and personalities, and a timeline plus suggestions for further reading.

But if you're thinking, "Wait a minute - I'm not into religion. And this podcast is supposed to be for people who don't want to get involved with religion, that's why I listen to it. So why would I want to read a history of Islam? Good question. I started reading out of sheer curiosity, but what I discovered was that using the word 'religion' to describe Islam isn't sufficient, I don't think, to get a sense of the movement that started with the small group of people based in Medina in present day Saudi Arabia, who first believed the messages given to the prophet Mohammed. Before the world split into 'religious' and 'non-religious' people, after all, there were just people -- people trying to figure out how life works and how to make it work better. And that's what fascinates me with regard to Islam. I think there was something groundbreaking that began with the visions of the prophet Mohammed in the early seventh century AD. I think he set an historic precedent, doing something that wouldn't happen in the rest of the world until several centuries later.

And when I say precedent, of course, I'm not referring to the way the prophet urged the Arabian people to worship one god instead of many. There were already populations of Christians and Jews in the Arabic penninsula, and certain written accounts suggest that before the prophet came of age there were already men in Mecca advocating the worship of Allah as the only god. And I'm not referring to the strong social justice element in the prophet's messages, the constant reminders to believers to examine how they treated the poor and disadvantaged. What Mohammed ibn Abdallah was inspired to do, which as far as I know had never been done before, was to create a political entity, the fledgling equivalent of a nation, if you like, that was not based on the ethnicity of its people or the result of military conquest, but on belief in the possibility of creating a better society.

In fact, the only historic event I can think of that compares would be the coming together of the thirteen colonies of the United States. Now that might sound like a bizarre comparison, but if it does just consider these few similarities:

1. The first Islamic community began in a region of Arabia called Yathrib, later called Medina, to which a number of believers in the message from Mohammed migrated. They came there specifically because the move offered them escape from the persecution they were experiencing in Mecca, and to give themselves the freedom to practice their faith. You could compare this to a number of early American colonists who came to the New World seeking the same kind of refuge, the best known being the Pilgrims who settled in what became the state of Massachusetts.

2. The American Declaration of Independence identified 'certain unalienable rights' which had not previously been recognised by any other nation, a form of government where power was less likely to concentrate, as well as an ideal of egalitarianism. Similarly, early Islam sought to create laws which treated different members of the community with greater equality, to ensure better distribution of wealth and the appointment of rulers chosen by members of the community.

3. In both the early Islamic society and the United States, unity of the people was considered crucial to success. The American Pledge of Allegiance describes 'one nation under God', and that parallels with the Muslim concept of the 'ummah' or people perfectly submitted to Allah.

4. The Qur'an, and to varying degrees other Islamic writings, are ideological documents, against which Muslims measure the performance and health of their personal lives and their social institutions. And I don't think it's unfair to say that Americans judge the state of their union by comparing its practices against the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

5. Very early in its existence, the little community of Muslims at Medina had to engage in military conflict with armies from the place they fled, Mecca, in order to defend their new independent entity, just as the fledgling American colonies fought the British. In the case of America, the colonists won their independence. In the case of the Muslims, they got that and converted the people of Mecca.

6. Also in the early decades of their existence, both Islam and the United States experienced a major political split. For Muslims this was the disagreement over who should rightly succeed the prophet as leader of the people, and created the Islamic denominations, if you will, called Sunni and Shia. For Americans the issue was the future of slavery. The effect of the split, on both people, has been damaging and persists to the present day.

7. And this is perhaps the most important point...within two centuries after the start of Islam in 630 AD and by the time the United States reached its 200th birthday in 1976, both entities had gone from being politically insignificant to being superpowers, having influence over a large portion of the civilised world.

So, given all those commonalities, it is interesting how much hostility is expressed by some sections of America against some sections of Islam and visa versa. And this is what I mean when I say that to label Islam a 'religion' isn't fully describing the phenomenon. What I think we have in the history of Islam is eleven centuries of trying to build on a political ideal, and that ideal is very similar to the one that motivated the founding fathers of America.

Now, given the big gap in history between 630 AD, the founding of the Medina community and 1776, the founding of the United States, you have to make allowances. Some might argue that Islamic societies have nothing in common with America because they've never had democratic governments. I think Karen Armstrong's book makes a valid point here, by saying that pre-industrial economies, and most of Islam's history has been pre-industrial, really could never support democratic political structures. Without industrial development, the wealth of a country consists of its agricultural overproduction, which is unpredictable and finite. Such wealth has to be managed with strict and consistent control, because change and flexibility can cost too much.

But, if you look at the United States, and speculate about what kind of country it might have been if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, you might argue that American industrial development would not have been as dynamic, and that American ideals of freedom and equality have improved incrementally alongside industrial growth. As to whether Islamic countries should look to the United States as an example of how to create the just and fair society, well...I'm in no position to discuss the state of American democracy in detail. If you want a podcast that will do that, I'd recommend Dan Carlin's “Common Sense”, which you can get through iTunes or from Podcast Alley or from the show's website, details of which I have put on my website at snrpodcast.livejournal.com. At any rate, America is so much younger than Islam that it's probably too early to make comparisons.

So while Mohammed and the early Islamic community may have hoped for a better society, the governments that emerged as Islam spread across the Middle East and North Africa didn't really have any option, if they were to survive at all, but to be authoritarian. Nevertheless, during their time of greatest wealth and power, those same governments – the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, the Fatimid caliphate in Cairo as well as the later Safavid and Ottoman empires, encouraged philosophical and scientific exploration and literary creativity. Western Europe, as we know, had to borrow heavily from the Islamic world's knowledge to bring themselves out of the Dark Ages, so we owe our modernity in part to the revolution that happened in Medina. But we don't realise it because, by the time the American thirteen colonies had formed themselves into a nation, all that remained of Islamic power was the Ottoman Empire, past its prime, which disappeared altogether after the First World War.

So its weird how history can swap things round, so that you could say it's now the turn of the Islamic world to borrow knowledge from the West, maybe. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was an appetite for this; there were numerous Islamic intellectuals and politicians admiring Western culture and wanting to find ways to introduce changes to their own countries. What made things different from the sharing of knowledge in the Middle Ages was the speed of change. The West was able to take its time becoming modern, centuries in fact, centuries to make its population wealthier, healthier, more literate and educated and capable of participating in government and industry. Islamic countries who wanted change, like Egypt and Turkey, took elements of modern secularism and used them more like blunt instruments, dictating what culture would be instead of letting education create skilled, literate people with the ideas that would lead to gradual change.

Karen Armstrong would also say that the colonial aspirations of Europe and the United States have led to injustices, and resentment of those injustices has often translated into an Islamic rejection of anything 'Western'. I agree the injustices have happened and are happening, definitely. But I don't know how much difference this will make to the exchange of ideas because regardless of circumstances you need time for that exchange to have an effect, lots and lots of time, during which the power structures around you might change anyway.

It makes me wish I were a prophet, if only to be granted the ability to see the future. It occurred to me only a few days ago that you could call Mohammed the earliest modern thinker, according the philosophical definition of modernism, that idea that history is a great, progressive narrative destined to have a utopian ending. Karen Armstrong goes as far as to say that one of the chief characteristics of Islam has been the sacralization of history. Umm, I don't know...I think every modern person has been guilty of that, trying to make their own place in time significant. Even me, or else why would I podcast?

But what has struck me, as I read the Qur'an, is how unnarrative it is. Whereas the Jewish and Christian scriptures love to tell stories (you could say they are trying to make a single story out of the collection of stories) the Qur'an might recall a story but only because it happens to illustrate whatever point is being made by the particular portion of text you might be reading. It doesn't contain the story of Mohammed's life or the lives of the early followers of Islam. It's the record of thought, of inspired reaction to the events of the time while making only vague reference to those events. It reminds me of blogging. And I wonder if that might make the Qur'an more useful in a postmodern spirituality. My impression, as I read history, was that Islam has a rich tradition carrying on the spirit of the Qur'an by creating jurisprudence that responds to the need of the time. I believe the Arabic term is 'ijtihad', which I've seen translated as 'independent reasoning'. It could be the model for a type of spirituality where one make decisions about the present moment, and then makes a decision about the next moment as it becomes the present. And while one would avail themselves of past experience to inform the present, the aim would not be to construct some inflexible rule to apply across all time and eliminate the need for further thinking.

I'm not suggesting such a movement would necessarily evolve from Islam because the implication of my idea is that every individual be the equivalent of a prophet. For all three monotheisms, the age of prophets is finished. I think this is unfortunate, because I see prophet-like behaviour happening all over the place but not being recognised. What was the definition I gave at the start of this show? “A loudspeaker of new ideas, the humans who crop up in history and somehow redirect the currents in it.” If that's the case then prophets are everywhere; we can hardly move for them. And if we regarded them all as prophets, instead of putting them in their job compartments – this one is a politician, this one is a professor, this one is a fashion designer, this one is a rap artist, would it maybe lead us to compare things that we wouldn't otherwise consider comparable? Medina and the Mayflower – who'd have thought they were such similar pilgrimages?

I end this episode the same way I ended the last one, all emptied out of inspiration and wondering how I'll fill the 15 minute space that is The Naked Soul four weeks from now. I have some sketchy notes on my iPod but no idea what they might become. But if you can stand the suspense, then I can, so I hope you'll join me again next time.