What's Wrong With Islam

What’s wrong with Islám? Is it the ease with which the doctrines of jihad and martyrdom can turn bloody? Is it discrimination against women and homosexuals? Is it the theocratic legacy? These are all serious issues, but I see them as symptoms of a disease called idolatry. The symptoms are not unique to Islám, nor is the disease, but let’s discuss Islám.

Here are the physiological components of the disease, as it has adapted itself to Islám:

  1. Arrogance. Islam’s fundamental assertion is that a Muslim is one who has identified the Lord of Creation. It just doesn’t get any more arrogant than that.
  2. Idolatry. Islam is primarily based upon a book, regarded to be infallible and wholly divine—even uncreated—that declares specific delineations between truth and untruth, and associates virtue with specific practices.
  3. Cult of personality.
    1. Muslims generally regard their prophet as perfect, and even those who claim to think he was a mere man seem to think that he could do no wrong. Hence Muslims have created a form of scripture from a vast collection of biographical accounts of their “perfect man.”
    2. Most Muslims regard the first four successors of Muhammad to be “rightly guided.” Shi’a Muslims idolize 14 early Muslims in all as infallible beings. All of these infallible and rightly guided founders of Islam provide a vast body of biographical material by which pious Muslims guide their lives.

But there is hope.

  1. If Muslims resist the urge to exalt their God-image over those of others, and abstain from any assertion or implication that they know God best, then they are true monotheists. It seems to me that if any religion can transcend its own idols, Islám ought to be the first. Isn’t Islám all about abandoning idols? Doesn’t this make Islám intrinsically pluralist?
  2. The history of Islám attests to the fact that the Qur’án—as it exists today—is not immaculate. The Qur’án was collected and canonized during the third Caliphate. Some manuscripts were favored, and the rest were destroyed. This only regards the consonants. The vowel markings were not added till even later.
  3. The Qur’án itself asserts that only God can fully understand the Qur’án, and also asserts that the face of God can be seen in every direction. Why then be so self-assured about the will and identity of God?
  4. The Qur’án itself attests to the fallibility of the prophet Muhammad. His every act need not be an example for Muslims. The same goes for his rightly-guided and infallible successors.

Our Daily Bread: Quid Pro Quo

Hey, a little quid pro quo never hurt nobody. You scratch my back—I’ll scratch yours!

One of the most reliable ways for a Bahá’í to “grow spiritually” is by proselytizing. Bahá’ís call it “teaching.” I remember wondering as a child: what will Bahá’ís do when everyone is a Bahá’í, and there’s nobody left to teach?

O SON OF MAN! Magnify My cause that I may reveal unto thee the mysteries of My greatness and shine upon thee with the light of eternity.

—Bahá’u’lláh, The Arabic Hidden Words

O SON OF BEING! Make mention of Me on My earth, that in My heaven I may remember thee, thus shall Mine eyes and thine be solaced.

—Bahá’u’lláh, The Arabic Hidden Words

Our Daily Bread: Blind thine eyes

Today’s sweet slice of salvation directs us to block all sensory input, wash our brains, empty our wallets, and close our minds so that we may fully and properly adore Bahá’u’lláh, the Promised Idol of All Ages:

Blind thine eyes, that thou mayest behold My beauty; stop thine ears, that thou mayest hearken unto the sweet melody of My voice; empty thyself of all learning, that thou mayest partake of My knowledge; and sanctify thyself from riches, that thou mayest obtain a lasting share from the ocean of My eternal wealth. Blind thine eyes, that is, to all save My beauty; stop thine ears to all save My word; empty thyself of all learning save the knowledge of Me; that with a clear vision, a pure heart and an attentive ear thou mayest enter the court of My holiness.

—Bahá’u’lláh, The Persian Hidden Words

Our Daily Bread: Ultimate Idols

Today’s slice of divine guidance begins with the obvious: we humans can never have universal, divine knowledge. This is not a problem for those of us who have come to terms with the fact that we cannot know everything.

O Salmán! The door of the knowledge of the Ancient Being hath ever been, and will continue for ever to be, closed in the face of men. No man’s understanding shall ever gain access unto His holy court. …

There are those among us, however, who continue to harbor ambitions for the unattainable. For them, we have religion:

As a token of His mercy, however, and as a proof of His loving-kindness, He hath manifested unto men the Day Stars of His divine guidance, the Symbols of His divine unity, and hath ordained the knowledge of these sanctified Beings to be identical with the knowledge of His own Self. …

There you have it: the solution. God can be known by knowing these special messengers the Baha’i Faith calls “Manifestations of God.” These Manifestations are specially created by God to be the perfect images of God, tuned with precision to the capacities of our minds at any given time. For instance: Jesus was perfect for the Roman era, and Muhammad was perfect for the MIddle Ages. These images of God are so perfect that as humans, the only appropriate response is for us to regard them as God himself:

Whoso recognizeth them hath recognized God. Whoso hearkeneth to their call, hath hearkened to the Voice of God, and whoso testifieth to the truth of their Revelation, hath testified to the truth of God Himself. Whoso turneth away from them, hath turned away from God, and whoso disbelieveth in them, hath disbelieved in God.

—Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh

That’s the ultimate in idolatry, right there. Feast your eyes.

Our Daily Bread: No more questions, thank you!

Happy New Year, everyone!

Today’s slice of sustenance is a reminder of the mind-numbing principle under which I was raised. I remember learning just how much of a problem this would become for me around New Year’s Day, 1988, when my parents stunned me by reacting quite desperately and angrily to my doubts as a young Bahá’í.

Bahá’ís talk a lot about their principle of “independent investigation of truth,” but this only applies to those who haven’t yet found the truth—the Bahá’í Faith. Since I was born a Bahá’í, there was nothing for me to investigate:

what would it profit any man to strive after learning when he hath already found and recognized Him Who is the Object of all knowledge?

—Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh

But that’s not all. It’s not enough to cease looking for truth; it’s equally important to abstain entirely from questioning Bahá’u’lláh:

Blessed is the man that hath acknowledged his belief in God and in His signs, and recognized that “He shall not be asked of His doings”. Such a recognition hath been made by God the ornament of every belief and its very foundation. Upon it must depend the acceptance of every goodly deed. Fasten your eyes upon it, that haply the whisperings of the rebellious may not cause you to slip.

—Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas

The question and answer period has ended.

This insight—this epiphany—gave special meaning to “New Year” for me at the outset of 1988. Within six months, pending long days and nights of reconsideration and reflection, I would completely detach myself from any belief in my religion of birth.

Our Daily Bread: The Twin Duties

Any given religion can mean a variety of things to its adherents. The religion I was raised in, the Bahá’í Faith, is no exception to that rule of thumb, though that changed substantially with the long-overdue publication of Bahá’u’lláh’s “Most Holy Book” in 1993, five years after I had left the Bahá’í Faith. The book provides a definitive, unambiguous “mission statement” for the Bahá’í religion that runs counter to the pluralistic vision that some Bahá’ís had embraced previously.

The statement begins by declaring that the author is the sole representative of God in the universe and that men are duty-bound to recognize him as such:

The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation.

Bahá’u’lláh then goes on to state that those who recognize his exclusive divine authority are the good guys, and everyone else, however virtuous, is lost. Authority trumps morality.

Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed.

However, he adds this critical afterthought: believers, though they have “attained unto all good,” must also be absolutely obedient.

It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other.

Note that there are no concessions made to virtue per se. The only virtues recognized by Bahá’u’lláh are recognition of him and obedience to him.

Killing your Buddhas

Continuing our discussion of the correspondences between Heraclitus and the Zarathustras, we have the directive that each one find truth for oneself; that one must never follow. As the old Buddhist epigram goes, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, Kill him.” Heraclitus, likewise, bids his readers not to listen to him, but rather to the Logos. Heraclitus also says “eyes are better witnesses than ears.”

Peters Denial of Jesus

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, likewise, is intent upon shaking off his disciples, for their own good:

Verily, I counsel you: go away from me and guard yourselves against Zarathustra! And better still: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he has deceived you. … One repays a teacher poorly if one always remains only a student.

— Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.22.3: On Bestowing Virtue

Zarathustra continues, cautioning his disciples against idolizing him:

You revere me; but what if your reverence should someday collapse? Be careful lest a statue fall and kill you!

— Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.22.3: On Bestowing Virtue

As Heraclitus says, “I went in search of myself”, so Zarathustra instructs his disciples to do the same:

Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.

— Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.22.3: On Bestowing Virtue

This sounds curiously similar to the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus:

Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake. Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.

— John 13:37–38

In a sense, I can personally claim to have been similarly instructed by the Idol of my youth, Bahá’u’lláh, who chased me off with his manifold contradictions while he subtly—perhaps unintentionally—instructed me in the ways of divine Godlessness.

Unfortunately, I know of no doctrine of virtuous denial in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings.

The Perfect Sin

Here’s my latest PowerPoint presentation, saved as a movie, then merged with an audio file with QuickTime and exported. The subject is idolatry (don’t act so surprised!) and Islam. The soundtrack is Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” sung by Maria Zadori, one of my all-time favorites.

I considered “James Dean” by the Eagles for an ironic twist, but solemnity won out over humor in the end, and besides, there’s ample irony in using a idolatrous prayer as the soundtrack for this sequence.

The lyrics:

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
laudate eum, omnes populi
Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus,
et veritas Domini manet in aeternum.

Gloria Patri, et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
Secut erat in principio, et nunc, et simper,
et in saecula saeculorum. Amen

And in English:

O praise the Lord, all ye nations;
Praise him, all ye peoples
For his loving kindness has been bestowed upon us,
and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.

I haven’t, as of yet, been able to upload the movie at full quality to YouTube. Perhaps YouTube has trouble processing the fade transition between slides, as removing those transitions appears to enable YouTube to process the file. So here it is, posted on the blog. This required that I do some customization of my blog header file, which was a bit of a hassle.

Our Daily Bread: Idols ‘r’ Us

Abbas Abbas Everywhere

Abbas Abbas Everywhere!

Today’s slice of enlightenment is our first contribution from the pen of `Abdu’l-Bahá’, the son of the second, greater Bahá’í Manifestation:

If you seek immunity from the sway of the forces of the contingent world, hang the ‘Most Great Name’ in your dwelling, wear the ring of the ‘Most Great Name’ on your finger, place the picture of `Abdu’l-Bahá in your home and always recite the prayers that I have written. Then you will behold the marvelous effect they produce. Those so-called forces will prove but illusions and will be wiped out and exterminated.

—Lights of Guidance, page 520*

This explains a lot. It helps us to better understand why Bahá’ís are so fond of talismans, rote recitation, and graven images of their most charismatic and photogenic leader.

* Word has it that this passage is from a letter addressed to Ms. Emma Ort, cited in a UHJ letter and in the original Persian in Safínih-i ‘Irfán volume 7, page 22.

Our Daily Bread: Partners of God

Anyone who claims to be on God’s side is a polytheist. To be a true monotheist, one must be either a strict determinist or an agnostic (with regard to the will of God).

I’ve been known to throw around the terms “idol” and “partner of God” ad nauseam among friends. It’s a chip that seems to have appeared on my shoulder during my employment at the Bahá’í World Centre, where a particularly high saint-per-capita ratio gave me some food for thought. Since that time, I’ve slowly come to regard the believers of the Judaic tradition (including most Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahá’ís, etc.) as worshipers in various polytheistic partnerships and rivalries.

I get the term “partnership” from Islám. The Qur’án makes it clear that God has no partners, and needs no help from anybody.

الْحَمْدُ لِلّهِ الَّذِي لَمْ يَتَّخِذْ وَلَدًا وَلَم يَكُن لَّهُ شَرِيكٌ فِي الْمُلْكِ وَلَمْ يَكُن لَّهُ

All praise is due to God, who begets no offspring, and has no partner in His dominion, and has no weakness, and therefore no need of any aid. (17.111)

The most literal meaning of the term “shirk” (شرك‎) is a lesser god who might help or otherwise harm God or his cause. Thus, anyone who would diminish his belief in God’s omnipotence by ascribing any power whatsoever to any being other than God would be guilty of this offense. The classic example of this offense is the Christian worship of Christ, as the alleged son and accomplice of God, but the problem of partnership goes much deeper.

Any free agent (individual) with any influence whatsoever must be seen as a partner or rival of God. Some might assert that this is not applicable to the Islamic notion of partnership, because people don’t worship people, but don’t they? Isn’t the attribution of any power whatsoever to any free entity the deification of that entity?

How many self-professed Muslims, I wonder, truly internalize the mantra “all praise be to God (الْحَمْدُ لِلّهِ)”?

This is not a problem for the traditional, deterministic Sunni, the Calvinist Christian, or for Zoroastrians who believe in freewill but not in an omnipotent God (partnership is virtuous in Zoroastrianism); but it is a serious indictment of any observant Muslim who claims to be a free monotheist, with one possible exception.

Many people consider themselves believers in an all-powerful God and at the same time consider the destinies of individuals and society to be up to others than God, but that is not really monotheism; rather, it is a form of polytheism, where the pantheon consists of billions of lesser gods that we casually call immortal souls. The Big God—call him Zeus—may have the power to frustrate the wills of any of these minor Gods, or even punish them for all eternity, but notice: He has never claimed to be able to annihilate a soul; not, at least, for a very long time.

But that Zeus is not the God of the inshá’alláh (إن شاء الله) Muslim. That Muslim’s God, so dominant in the Qur’án, is a God who meddles with the intentions of men; who “seals the hearts of men” as he deems appropriate. He is truly omnipotent, and the only will that men possess is a gift (or a curse) from Him. In other words, all individual will is an expression of divine will.

Blessed is He Who doeth as He willeth by a word of His command. He, verily, is the True One, the Knower of things unseen. Blessed is He Who inspireth whomsoever He willeth with whatsoever He desireth, through His irresistible and inscrutable command. Blessed is He Who aideth whomsoever He desireth with the hosts of the unseen. His might is, in truth, equal to His purpose, and He, verily, is the All-Glorious, the Self-Subsisting. Blessed is He Who exalteth whomsoever He willeth by the power of His sovereign might, and confirmeth whomsoever He chooseth in accordance with His good pleasure; well is it with them that understand! —Súriy-i-Haykal

There is, I suppose, one loophole out of all this for the non-deterministic monotheist: if one were not to claim to be on God’s side, perhaps—say, because one considers the will of God to be utterly inscrutable, one need not be tried as a polytheist in the court of strict monotheism. It is, after all, hard to partner up with God if one doesn’t know what God wants.

This would, of course, require a degree of modesty rarely exhibited among believers, and any mention of divine covenants or pacts would immediately disqualify the believer from this exemption.