02 December 2013

Imagine: Religion as Social Reform - Reza Aslan, Iran, and Religious Faith

Reza Aslan

La Paloma, Uruguay
So, the holiday season is upon us. It always sneaks up on me, here in the Southern Hemisphere, where springtime is awakening into summertime. It doesn’t help that I live in a summer resort town, where the bigger issue is the launch of the holiday season that will rain a deluge of beachgoers onto the usually solitary sands of the lovely, if rather windy, shores of La Paloma. Plus, the Catholicism that infuses Latin American culture is not nearly as ubiquitous in Uruguay, and this country’s clearly defined separation of church and state also tempers the Christmas holiday atmosphere. Besides, not since childhood has Christmas been a holiday that I can get into, anyway, given my distain for the crass commercialization and hyper-consumerism that surrounds it in the States. Well, that, plus I am an atheist who feels a bit hypocritical celebrating something I don’t believe in, although I can dig the idea of celebrating family togetherness and the joy that so many other people get out of the whole thing for their own sakes. Oh, but there’s so much more emotional baggage involved in my attitude toward Christmastime, including memories of that one really difficult Christmas that preceded my mother’s death from breast cancer by about a month, all those years ago...

The good news is that I find myself in a delightful, almost blissful spirit this year. I am not a person who can ignore what goes on in the world around me, in the belief that it is ignorance will deliver bliss, or something like that, and I care deeply about the fate of people near and far. I am a hopeful person, who believes in the mission of the United Nations to bring countries together to work out their differences in peaceful ways rather than through violence, and that, if the people of the world really want it and our minds are really set to it, the system can be tweaked and improved to function better than it does right now. I look back through history at all of the wars and conflicts and am uplifted by what has happened afterwards, when societies come back together, rebuild trust, forge new relationships, and move forward with the human project of civilization. So at this moment in time, my heart is overflowing with joy that relations between the United States and Iran have opened back up, after so much bad history. This is an immensely huge deal, such a positive change in the geopolitical landscape... and then there is the pope – WAP! (What A Pope!)

What’s more, I have had something of an epiphany recently, an amazing, important realization about the nature of religion and its role in culture, politics, and conflict – and it’s all Reza Aslan’s fault.

The fantabulous Reza Aslan

When he made the rounds to publicize his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Fox “News” provided the author with far more exposure than his publicist could have ever organized when the video of the show’s host spending the whole “interview” absurdly lambasting him – a religious scholar – for being unqualified to write a book about Jesus because he is a Muslim went viral (Mother Jones’ coverage of Aslan’s Fox “News” “interview"  provides some good context.)

It turns out that, if you give the guy a chance to get a word in, he has some very interesting things to say. It was his debate with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation (the debate is available from the Mother Jones article) that really piqued my interest. Aslan’s weaving of the threads of history, religion, culture, and identity into a vision of a multifaceted social fabric that is worthy of the complex and confounding world that we live in today was so elegant and sophisticated that Harris may as well have been a Fox “News” personality, as he was arguing on a level that doesn’t even come close to where Aslan’s head is at. God knows I love atheists like George Carlin, Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens, but it always bothers me when they belittle all theists as being insanely delusional or plumb stupid for their belief in a deity because I think there is much more to religious faith than reason, alone, can get at – not that I get it. But Reza Aslan has a perfectly reasonable explanation for why religious belief is valid, without having any need for concern about veracity. What he is saying – that religions are inseparable from their social contexts, and that conflicts that may seem to be about religion because they are talked about in religious language, the language that holds the most currency, are actually about economic, political, cultural, national, historical, and/or religious issues that are all wrapped up in the concept of identity – really appeals to my fascination with the vast complexity of the human experience.

So I devoured Aslan’s intriguing book about how the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth was transformed into the religious figure of Jesus Christ. Then I consumed his book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. And now I feel like I understand a whole hell-of-a-lot better not only what Christianity and Islam are all about, but also the bigger historical picture underlying the major events occurring from North Africa to Southeast Asia that are reshaping the world today.

I haven’t been this enthused about any religion since I was mesmerized by Zoroastrianism that one summer when the concepts that I wrote about in my own book No Stranger To Strange Lands: A Journey Through Strange Coincidences, Connective Thoughts, And Far Flung Places were beginning to crystallize within my being. But how did I become fascinated with Zoroastrianism, you ask? It was because I was obsessed with the possibility that Dick Cheney and his cohorts, abusing their power like that very same crowd of war hawks did during the Reagan administration, were seriously considering an attack on Iran, and I wanted learn about this country beyond the single-dimensional narrative of radicalism and hatred that was engraved upon the psyche of our nation by nightly images of angry, dark-eyed men holding blindfolded hostages and burning US flags during the 1980s.

A very abbreviated history of Iran

With a history stretching back to about 2800 BC, when the Elamite kingdom began forming on the Iranian Plateau east of the Mesopotamia, there is, indeed, much to learn about the home of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. Ancient Iran produced not only the proto-monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism, but also the heroic Cyrus the Great, who, in 538 BC, freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity – and they weren't the only ones delivered from bondage, as the King of Kings, revered for establishing the foundations of good governance, freed all slaves, repatriated all displaced peoples, and allowed the restoration of destroyed temples and sanctuaries, codifying racial and religious freedom in the Cyrus Cylinder, one of the world’s oldest charters of human rights.

Before the 7th-century Muslim conquest, there had been a series of Iranian empires – the unifying Median, Cyrus the Great’s Achaemenid, the Hellenistic Seleucid, the Parthian feudal monarchy, and the powerful Persian Sasanian – whose legacy as technologically advanced, culturally vibrant, socially diverse, politically sophisticated models of administration and rulership hugely impacted Central Asia and strongly influenced the development of human civilization from Europe to China.

After the Muslim conquest, under the elite Arab rulership of the Rashidun and Ummayad caliphates, Iran was gradually Islamized, but a renaissance of Persian culture and influence under the Abbasids seeded the Medieval “Islamic Golden Age” of art, science, and philosophy, and after two centuries of Arab rule, the Persians eventually regained self-rule.

In 1219, Genghis Khan’s army invaded, but the Mongol rulers ended up adapting Persian culture several generations down the line. Iran became a monarchical theocracy in 1501, when Ismail I established the Safavid Dynasty and instigated forced conversion to the new state religion of Shi‘ah Islam.

After the rise and fall of the Safavid Dynasty, the 18th and 19th centuries were marked by regional and civil war. The modern period then found Iran in the crosshairs of British and Russian colonization, followed by Cold War manipulation by the United States. Today’s Islamic Republic of Iran is a product of the 1978 coup d’état that overthrew the US-installed and supported anticommunist, secular, autocratic monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, with the radically theocratic Ayatollah Khomeini being swept into power and setting himself up as the Supreme Leader.

Religion as social reform

Iran’s intriguing Zoroastrianism was founded upon the writings and teachings of Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, who lived sometime during the first half of the second millennium, BC. Zarathustra was, fundamentally, a social reformer. Seeing the Bronze Age polytheist religion he was immersed in as over-ritualized and supporting an oppressive class structure, war, and strife, Zarathustra sought to place spirituality into the hands of individuals. He preached the importance of personal responsibility, truthfulness, and caring about the well-being of others and the environment, all nicely summed up by the creed, “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” According to his divine revelation, he promoted the God of Wisdom to the status of Creator and Supreme Being, represented by the light of fire and the sun. The essence of goodness, everything that Zarathustra’s Supreme Being had created was pure, to be treated with love and respect. The other gods also lingered, though, representing falsehood, darkness and destruction; thus spoke Zarathustra of the twin spirits of Truth and Falsehood, leaving people with the freedom of choice between the two, with prayer being simply the invocation and celebration of truth, goodness, and purity.

Reza Aslan highlights the historical importance of Zoroastroism in No god but God:

“More than a thousand years before Christ, Zarathustra preached the existence of a heaven and a hell, the idea of a bodily resurrection, the promise of a universal savior who would one day be miraculously born to a young maiden, and the expectation of a final cosmic battle that would take place at the end of time between the angelic forces of good and the demonic forces of evil.”

By the time an Arab named Muhammad was working for his uncle as a merchant in the pluralistic sanctuary of Mecca, home of the universal shrine called the Ka‘ba, around the beginning of the 7th century, Aslan explains, “Zarathustra’s primitive monotheism had transformed into a firmly dualistic system in which the two primordial spirits became two deities locked in an eternal battle for the souls of humanity: Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda), the God of Light, and Ahriman, the God of Darkness and the archetype of the Christian concept of Satan.”

Just as the ancient Persian dynasties set the precedence for good governance that would influence civilizations across three continents for millennium to come, Zoroastrianism laid the foundation for the world’s great monotheist religions that were born out of this potent region, this cradle of prophets. And like Zarathustra, both Jesus of Nazareth and Muhammad of Mecca were also fundamentally social reformers. 

Aslan defines Jesus as “the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost.” By “Kingdom of God,” according to Aslan, Jesus was talking about “a radically new world order wherein the meek inherit the earth, the sick are healed, the weak become strong, the hungry are fed, and the poor are made rich.” But this Kingdom of God “is not some utopian fantasy wherein God vindicates the poor and the dispossessed. It is a chilling new reality in which God’s wrath rains down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful.” This Jesus of Nazareth fellow, Aslan explains, was no hippie peacenik, as teachings such as “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” were spoken by a Jewish man to a Jewish audience in the tradition of Jewish moral codes that applied only within the Jewish community. The establishment of Jesus’ Kingdom of God on earth would, no doubt, be a violent revolution.

Some six hundred years after Jesus’ Kingdom of God had been transformed into an ethereal celestial kingdom and after his gospel had transformed from a call for Jews to rise up in revolt against the current order into a wholly new, universal spiritual calling, another righteous reformer appeared – with mission very similar to that of the historical Jesus of Nazareth:

“When fifteen centuries ago Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid, and inequitable strictures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism, he tore apart the fabric of traditional Arab society.”

Religion as myth

In No god but God, Aslan writes, “It is a shame that this word, myth, which originally signified nothing more than stories of the supernatural, has come to be regarded as synonymous with falsehood, when in fact myths are always true. By their very nature, myths inhere both legitimacy and credibility. Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is ‘What do these stories mean?’”

And therein, my friend, lies the crux of the matter of religion.

Myths are like art, which Pablo Picasso referred to as a lie in service of the truth, and like literary fiction that illuminates reality in ways that the truth cannot, reaching deeper truths than facts can get at. Myths are vivid stories encoded with symbols that represent a shared cultural identity and pass along information – about people and places, about knowledge, about ethics, about aesthetics – in a way that will be internalized and then passed on to future generations. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell’s amazing conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell puts forward that myths provide perspective on what’s happening in our lives. He says that, because what we are seeking in religion and spirituality is not the meaning of life, but rather, to “feel the rapture of being alive,” myths serve as “clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

Religion, itself, Aslan says, is a story. Religion isn’t defined as faith. Rather, it is the story of faith, concerning a sacred history that is “like a hallowed tree whose roots dig deep into primordial time and whose branches weave in and out of genuine history with little concern for the boundaries of space and time.”

Thus, prophets can be understood as mythical characters whose truths lie in their encounter with the Divine – outside the realm of facts. So true believers may have full faith that their prophets were conduits of the “Word of God,” with the understanding that their messages have been interpreted, first by the prophets to speak to a specific group of people at a specific time and place, sometimes dealing with a very specific situation (Muhammad’s words about the veil, for instance), then by their disciples to speak to different audiences at different times and places and contexts, and they will continue to be interpreted by many others through time.

Sacred traditions, according to Aslan, become religious institutions when their myths become orthodox and their rituals become orthoprax. Christianity is an orthodoxic religion because it is based on profession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, while Judaism is orthopraxic, as it is primarily expressed through the practice of its laws. Islam, too, Aslan characterizes as orthopraxic, particularly Sunni Islam. He is careful to define orthodoxy as “the correct interpretation of myths” rather than using the more common definition of “established doctrine,” and orthopraxy as “the correct interpretation of rituals,” emphasizing the key fact that myths and rituals originate from human experience.

In fact, by definition, Aslan states, religion is simply interpretation – that is, it is dependent on its social context – and interpretations are always valid. The thing is, some interpretations are more reasonable than others. It is the religious scholar’s job to compare a religion’s myths with the environment from which they arose to form a reasonable interpretation of how that religion was born, grew, diversified through the ages, and is now interpreted by people in diverse societies.

Interpretation of Islam

In the case of Islam, a reasonable interpretation looks at 7th-century tribal Arabia, then traces the gradual transformation of what Aslan refers to as Muhammad’s “revolutionary message of moral accountability and social egalitarianism” into the competing ideologies that created a widening rift between the mainstream Sunni Islam and Shi‘ism, the largest sect in Islam, as well as Sufism, the mystical traditions of Islam.

To understand Islam, one has to begin by learning about the story of Muhammad’s life, taking into account the environment that he arose from. Muhammad’s great triumph was the creation of a new kind of tribe, a radically new social organization that was based not on ethnicity or race or kinship, but on a common social and religious identity. The communalism of Bedouin tribalism persisted, where the leadership was charged with caring for the well-being of every member of the tribe, but Muhammad eliminated class structure, instituted broad egalitarian reforms – including for women – introduced laws based on moral principles rather than simply on utilitarian principles, and predicated leadership on religious authority (a concept drawn from ancient tribal Judaism).

The Fatimid Zulfiqaar
(image via Wikipedia)
As Aslan explains, Shi‘ism has an orthodoxic nature that is absent from Sunni Islam, as this sect is based on rituals surrounding the myth of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad who died at the hands of the Umayyads at Karbala fighting for the right of the descendants of the prophet to lead the Muslim community. The Shi‘ah believe that these descendants were chosen by God and endowed with the living spirit of the prophet. Similarly, Shi‘ites believe that certain divinely inspired people, the Imams, have been chosen by God to lead the Muslim community. That the schism occurred so soon after the death of Muhammad is not at all unique or surprising, as chaos often ensues among the generations immediately following great personages in history. The story of the period immediately following Jesus’ time on earth is the same; in fact, the schism among his Jewish community was so great that a new religion was born out of rapidly evolving interpretations of why Jesus died and what the myth of his rising from the tomb means.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Muslim community was forced to rethink the role of faith in a rapidly changing world, responding to colonialism with some pushing to develop “Islamic alternatives to Western secular notions of democracy,” while others completely rejected Western cultural concepts and pushed for the Islamization of every aspect of society. And here, Aslan offers an interesting insight into the socio-political events that are reshaping the Muslim world today, when he states that “at the center of the debate over Islam and democracy is a far more significant internal struggle over who gets to define the Islamic Reformation that is already under way in most of the Muslim world.”

This is interesting because equating today’s Muslim struggles – between movements such as the pan-Islamists, pan-Arabists, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic socialists, radical Islamists, and Wahhabists in situations such as destabilized Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring of North Africa, and the civil war in Syria – to the Protestant Reformation highlights the colossal scale of the process involved in coming to consensus on how diverse peoples can meaningfully interpret the myths and rituals of Islam, a religion that is centered around building communities, in today’s world. Aslan makes clear that, rather than being at the center of the Muslim struggle, as we in the West may perceive it to be, tensions with the West actually stand on the periphery of the internal struggle for control of the future of Islam.

What Reza Aslan is doing is not only interesting but very, very important. Understanding religion in the way that Aslan perceives it is an exercise in peace-building. Acknowledging religion as the story of faith, and encouraging the reading of scripture – by those within the religion as well as those outside of it – in the poetic, allegorical, cultural, and historical contexts that produced them brings reason and validity to the ineffable experience of faith. His message is uplifting in its celebration of religion as a connective force and its rejection of the idea that religion is the cause of any more conflict and strife than nationalism, political dogma, or the struggle for power.

Uninformed Westerners might take note of the fact that Muslims are far more familiar with the Torah and the Bible than Jews and Christians are familiar with the Quran because Islam’s sacred history encompasses those of Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Muslims don’t consider their religion to be separate from Judaism and Christianity. Rather, it is a continuation of its predecessors, known as “the religion of Abraham.” Allah is not a separate god, just a different word for YHVH, Yahweh, Jehovah, Theós, God, Gott, Dieu, Dios, etc, etc. The Islamic prophets include Muhammad as well as Jesus, David, and Moses, and Islamic holy books include the Gospel, Psalms, and Torah along with the Quran – it’s just that Islam interprets them differently and has faith that Muhammad is the ultimate prophet.

Of course, throughout human history, people have regularly demonize others who are perceived as a threat to their identities or well-beings, and this is true of religious factions as well as of political factions, tribes, societies, nations, and entire regions of the world. And it can’t be denied that extremists exist in every conceivable form of ideology. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are dangerous Islamic extremist groups, women are treated horrendously in some cultures, and there will be groups of Muslims who will riot any time someone provokes them by desecrating the Quran or drawing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. But there is a massive perception problem in assuming that these groups characterize the entire Muslim community.

First of all, as the title of this article from the Pew Research Center, “World’s Muslim population more widespread than you might think” reveals, people in the West, especially in the United States, associate Islam with the Middle East and North Africa, whereas the reality is that nearly two-thirds of world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, alone, is home to 209 million Muslim souls, and another 176 million or so live in India.

Then there is this report on Muslim views of extremist groups from September 2013, which shows that, rather than being anything close to the norm or even acceptable, al-Qaeda is “widely reviled.” And about women’s rights, here’s a generalization-busting fun fact: Women won the right to vote in the Muslim country of Azerbaijan in 1908, two years before women in the United States were enfranchised. Finally, this article titled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society” has a lot to teach us, showing just how differently Muslims around the world interpret their religious scriptures and traditions.

Iran today

Iran is often described as a theocratic republic, as it has an elected president and representatives but its constitution places the real power in the hands of the religious clerics, with the Supreme Leader sitting pretty at the top of the heap. He gets to appoint people to many powerful institutions, including the armed forces, the national security councils, the state television network, and major religious foundations in addition to having final say in all matters.

Hassan Rouhani
official photo
Yet the will of the people still matters, and the more moderate politicians and clerics there are in the government, the less autocracy will be tolerated. The election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 has already proven to be a major victory for moderation and diplomacy. The Iranians deeply appreciate their prominent place the geography and history of the world, and the opening up of relations between President Rouhani and President Obama constitutes a widening of Iranian influence, which, historically, has been a beautiful thing.

What we in the West can do is to partake in the peace-building exercise by making an effort to understand the complex context of what is happening and support the people of Iran and this movement toward moderation, encouraging the injection of reason into the way that the Iranians and, for that matter, anyone else interprets their religion instead of roundly rejecting – as I have been guilty of doing for many years – the whole idea that organized religion can play a positive role in the modern world. Religion, for better or for worse, is not going away any time soon, so imagining peace is going to require us to imagine something other than no religion. People of all colors and creeds can identify with the power of mythical stories to resonate across space and time and contexts, to speak to the universal human experience. Indeed, this is what imbibes them with their awesome spiritual power, and our spirituality is what connects us as human beings.

For more on this topic, see: Iran Nuclear Deal as Geopolitical Global Warming, my article for SpeakOut at TruthOut.org

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