The first time I was introduced to the Koran was before my teenage years. While my father was still on the more separatist angle of his cultural nationalism, he thought it might be a good idea for me to learn Arabic and study with the Nation of Islam. It lasted one day.
I hated the class and through the fog of memory I recall the impression of men who were absolutely convinced of their righteousness. They had, I suppose, the kind of humility that can only come from the hubris of recognizing and the experience of destroying the arrogance of others. It was one of the first times I remember being treated like an idiot by grownups, by the most humble men on the planet.
I have been assigned by a new friend to answer the question ‘Who is Muhammad?’ It’s rather like being asked to explain ‘Why Uranium 238?’ The answer requires complexity and there are several layers of depth, like the YouTube videos that explain something simple to six different people at increasing levels of sophistication. Surely there is a retarded answer that gets a sneer or a laugh having something to do with bombs. I have the advantage of knowing the right person to lead me towards a coherent answer that I might humbly answer with the right amount and kind of humility. That person is Karen Keishin Armstrong and I am one third through her 2007 book.
It has been quite some time since I wrote my poem on approaching Islam as a consumer of much hand-waving around the Iraq War. Looking back at it, I give it two stars for wisdom and three for effort. I’m glad I have been challenged to do better and I have no ideological reasons to make a point. Indeed I slept too soon…
Of Hezbollah and Ikwan
Of Yemenis and Taliban
Zawahiri, Zarkawi, Ahmadinejad
Haditha, Mosul, Fallujah, Samarra & Baghdad
Sunni, Shi'ite, Alawite, Fatah & Hamas
Madhi Army, Baathists & Egyptian Madrassas
Tora Bora, Peshawar, Al Jazeera, Al Anbar
Dhimmitude & Burkas and I've gone only half as far
And half as deep as I must go before I sleep...
There was another moment of ecumenical challenge I faced in consideration of my own Christian ethics. And I do specifically call them ethics because I don’t believe I possess the desire or affect that could credibly pass for religious devotion. I don’t do worship. I don’t think I ever have been so afraid of anything as to prostrate myself before any man’s interpretation of the Awesome. Contemplation of the Universe does not bring me to my knees, nor does the position of my body change my mind. I recognize the power of praxis, of meditation, of that thing which is greater than physical training and mindfulness, but there is no end in that. Perhaps this new journey will help me see it another way. Nevertheless, in my penultimate epiphany I recognized the words of Richard Neuhaus speaking of Pope Benedict:
So he is asking a question whether there is a difference and is it an insurmountable difference...between the Christian understanding, that as the first verse of the prologue to the Gospel of John says: en arche en logos in the Greek. In the beginning was the logos, in the beginning was the word, and logos means also reason, and therefore there could be no place in religion, in authentic religion, Christian, Islamic or other for the use of violence.
That was the question he was posing. And of course unfortunately, the response, the reaction of much of the Islamic world simply confirmed the worst of the possible answers to that question. Namely, you say we're violent and we'll kill you for saying we're violent. This I think means that this statement in Regensberg, will in retrospect be looked back upon as a benchmark in which certainly in the most important statement by a world figure since 9/11 with regard to what may be the biggest single question facing Western civilization in the next century. And it turns out finally to be a theological and philosophical question about the nature of God.
My revelation was that Christianity considered itself reconciled to reason and subjects itself to rational criticism. Everything people mock about Christianity’s appropriation of pagan rituals is evidence of that to me. The lynchpins of these rational reconciliations are evidenced in the works of Aquinas, and Christianity’s many schisms. We can go there if you like, but first read this.
In being a ‘person of the book’ and dedicated to the Logos, I have discovered an immediate affinity with Muhammad as he discovers his prophesy matures over time. I don’t know if this ends in a distillation or a transformation of its implications but the very contingent and emergent quality of its telling is something I understand and respect. It puts a different spin on the matter of ‘revealed truth’. As I come to understand that the Koran (I will retain the Anglicized spelling until I develop a credible basic fluency with Arabic terms) itself poses a series of questions and moral observations and can be read in any order, I am in agreement with Armstrong. She characterizes it as modern.
The difference and the distance between Muhammad and Islam is vague to me at this moment, but I do appreciate what seems to be the interpretation of the antipathy towards anthropomorphic depiction of Allah. I have said so here in my depiction of God as the Universe and/or the laws of the universe. Pi is such an infinite aspect. I’ve even come to wonder who might make the Koran read poetically in English.
At this point in my life I do feel an obligation to approach wisdom and to be good. I mean that my intent is to be a wise old man. Since it is true that every time I leave the US, ordinary people point at me and whisper ‘Morgan Freeman’, it’s the least I can do with this not so old grey head. So that obligation entails an ever-increasing appreciation for the way people think, and Islam has certainly got to be as rich as any set of metaphors. So yeah, I’m on that journey. I guess that makes me hanif. I am as monotheistic as a deist and I am respectful of the slow evolution of human nature and the cyclical status of revealed wisdom in all of human culture. If Armstrong is correct and Islam is modern, then I feel as welcome as anyone, as welcome the idiot child I once actually was.
It is fair to say that I am comfortable putting myself in a wide but narrowing set of Arab shoes from the times of Muhammad. I am something far less arrogant than Abu Jahl. Yet I accept that I live within my own relative ignorance.
Since I was an idiot child, I always loved Batman and astronauts. As an adult I have recognized the difference between the American concept of space and the Russian vision of the cosmos. I have enjoyed hearing creation stories of different religions, but I haven’t actually been so hyped on cosmologies. I distrust the motives of people who strive to understand a Theory of Everything to the extent that it is anything other than the greatest chess puzzle of all time. I share disdain with Eric Weinstein for the legions of physicists who strive to understand the meaning of dark matter that contributes nothing to the illumination of darkness visible in the affairs of man.
Jahiliyyah is interpreted as an age of ignorance. If I hadn’t believed that we were on the precipice of dark times, I would have never bothered to go Stoic. I did spend some time tending my own epicurean gardens and keeping my distance from the world and I didn’t like the taste it left in my mouth. Remind me to be a boring uncle and tell you my BMW stories for the fifth time.
So I am intrigued at the intersections of Islam and the Sunnah, and as I have often striven to be Christlike in my ethics I can certainly identify with the great fear Muhammad must have felt in his recognition at the jeopardy he faced by the telling of his emergent vision.
As a final note, I am reminded of the one CIA agent I know. When he wrote his first book he tells the story of a wealthy man with whom America had some interest. This man had many children and purposefully had them educated in different religious traditions. He did so in order to insure his further business connections around the world. Brilliant, but cynical too? I am hoping my friend reads this and sees how seriously I am taking the stick he has gently poked me with. It is a larger assignment than I think he has guessed. That’s because I’m liking it.