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Two wrongs make a right or wrong — in theory?

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — on the (Pythagorean) arithmetic of morals ]

Extermination_of_Evil_Sendan_Kendatsuba 600

Sendan Kendatsuba, one of the guardians of Buddhist law, banishing evil, Tokyo National Museum


What’s right is generally supposed to be positive, while what’s wrong is seen as negative — and as they saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right.

In effect, that’s saying two negatives don’t make a positive. And if you add them, that’s correct.

But if you multiply two negatives, you get a positive — hunh?

So two wrongs can indeed make a right — that’s the mathematics of vengeance — multiplicative:

And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

— Deuteronomy 19.13

And it is also true that two wrongs don’t make a right — that’s a mathematics that denies vengeance — additive.

And then there’s the mathematics of forgiveness :

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

— Romans 12.21

Patient men, desirous of the Face of their Lord, who perform the prayer, and expend of that We have provided them, secretly and in public, and who avert evil with good — theirs shall be the Ultimate Abode

— Qur’an 13.22

And what’s most interesting to me in all this, is that the mathematical formulations, additive and multiplicative alike, don’t make a feature of time — where as their moral equivalents tend to introduce time into the equation / situation — in each case, it’s the response to evil, real or potential, that is considered.

Is the Islamic State Islamic? The Yes and No of the matter

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — both answers are true in different contexts — IMO a significant point that previous discussion has tended to overlook ]

Were (are) the Khawarij Muslim? That’s the question I keep thinking of when discussion of whether IS (or AQ) is Islamic comes up. From a Muslim perspective, they were heretics. Joas Wagemakers identified the central distinctive opinion of the Khawarij thus:

The first of these is the Khawarij’s belief that revolt against Muslim rulers was allowed if they were deemed insufficiently pious. When ‘Ali accepted arbitration with Mu‘awiya, the people later known as Khawarij reportedly shouted ‘judgement is God’s alone’ (la hukm illa li-llah). In the context of that event, this referred to their belief that only God had the authority to arbitrate, not human beings, and that ‘Ali should not have accepted Mu‘awiya’s offer. The slogan later came to represent their broader view that all judgements and rulings should be left to God, thus applying Qur’anic rulings so strictly that they expelled Muslims guilty of major sins from their community and fought them. Because they believed sinful Muslims to be unbelievers (kuffar, singular: kafir), they directly applied passages from the Qur’an pertaining to jihad against non-Muslims to those of their co-religionists who were less than perfectly pious.

From the perspective of what I’m going to call “ongoing Islam” they were heretics — the very name Khawarij indicates those who have gone out, ie left the religion of Islam — and yet their heresy was that of “fundamentalizing” Islam, being, if you like, excessively Islamic.

Consider: according to a hadith reported in Abu Dawud:

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “There will be dissension and division in my nation and a people will come with beautiful words but evil deeds. They recite the Quran but it will not pass beyond their throats. They will leave the religion as an arrow leaves its target and they will not return until the arrow returns to its notch. They are the worst of the creation. Blessed are those who fight them and are killed by them. They call to the Book of Allah but they have nothing to do with it. Whoever fights them is better to Allah than them.”

As a student of religions might say, their use of the Qur’an marks them as clearly Islamic, and as a Muslim theologian might say, they have clearly departed the religion, in truth “they have nothing to do with it.”

Many contemporary Muslims would say of IS, its leader and members, that they “call to the Book of Allah but they have nothing to do with it” — and they have every right to say that. Those, however, who wish to understand what drives IS do well to understand the theology and eschatology involved, as well as the psychology of the passions they invoke — and also the Islamic context in which IS may well be viewed as having by the very nature of their excesses left the religion..


This post is copied wholesale from a fascinating conversation among friends (Mark Safranski, J Scott Shipman, Michael J. Lotus, Dan Tdaxp, Joshua Treviño, Lynn Rees and others) in response to Tanner Greer’s post Vox Will Never Understand Islam… Or Any Religion, Really, which is itself a response to a Vox piece by Max Fisher, The perfect response to people who blame Islam for ISIS.

Please share this post if you find it helpful.

ISIS: Paganism with an Islamic Face?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 18:21 

“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire”

– 2 Kings 17:16–17

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”

  – Qur’an 17:31

In a recent comment section conversation with Charles Cameron and RAND scholar David Ronfeldt on the character of Fascism and its resurgence, I remarked that ISIS adopting a Fascist style in its propaganda and governance may be drawing upon a ghastly and ancient lineage:

ISIS is really embracing Fascism. It’s ceremonial public executions actually supercede what the Nazis and Fascists did only symbolically with blood flags and heroic cenotaphs and so on. It is reaching back to something very dark and protean, human sacrifice, as a political symbol. I think [ Moshe] Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice, is a useful reference here on how deep this goes culturally, to the bronze age or earlier.

ISIS has for some time been making quite a perverse spectacle of its executions of prisoners, combatant and non-combatant alike, releasing videos to international fanfare and glorying in the resultant horror and global infamy. The precedent for this macabre “propaganda of the deed“was initially set by the forefather of ISIS, the Jordanian jailbird upjumped to “terrorist mastermind”, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who originally led al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation of Iraq. Prior to expiring after U.S. forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on his head, al-Zarqawi pioneered the use of  beheading videos, usually featuring himself being filmed incompetently and gruesomely sawing off an orange jumpsuit-clad captive’s head with a large knife, blood spraying everywhere.

Zarqawi’s ghoulish innovation in terrorist messaging admittedly held a certain fascination for the psychopathic segment of Sunni Islamist extremists and it attracted foreign fighters of this nature to Iraq who in turn lionized Zarqawi as “the Sheikh of Slaughterers”; but the beheading videos also generally horrified public opinion in the Muslim world and repelled even hardened jihadis, earning Zarqawi a rebuke from al Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

….Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

….However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this. 

Zarqawi’s Iraqi bloodlust ended only because it was interrupted by the American military, but the leaders of ISIS have carried on. Far from accepting Zawahiri’s advice, they have doubled down, greatly upgrading the marketing of ritualistic murder from Zarqawi’s crude snuff films to slick videos with professional editing and high production values that have become central to the online “brand” of the ISIS “caliphate”. Like the hosts of a sinister game show, ISIS spokesmen have found the time to murder creatively in order to keep their audience of Islamist terrorist wannabes in the West tuned in and captivate the attention of the global media (though sometimes, things do not work  out as planned).


However effective this circus of horrors has been at daunting their enemies and attracting the allegiance of “zealous young men” to ISIS, it reveals an atavistic impulse at play that no amount of Quranic hand-waving can paper over and conceal. Jurisprudence is absent here; not even the grim and rough Islamic “justice” of the Taliban is given to prisoners of ISIS, which violates the customary protections given under Islamic law or historical Muslim judicial practices. These choreographed and sensationalized executions by ISIS are really a cryptic revival of the ancient and terrible practice of human sacrifice, that in most cultures and religions had long been replaced by symbolic ritual, but once reigned supreme during the Bronze Age, not least in ancient Iraq, which if new findings are to be believed was like Aztec Mexico, a charnel-house of slaughter.

Originating in the Stone Age, human sacrifice in the religious sense of an offering to the gods or God, lasted a surprisingly long time. Setting aside the preColumbian cultures of the New World, the ancient Romans, for example, did not formally outlaw human sacrifice until the first century BC, though the practice had become archaic and Rome vigorously sought to stamp it out among the Gauls and Britons, among whom human sacrifice was an accepted part of Druidic religion. Nor was human sacifice entirely unknown among the ancient Greeks of the classical period while child sacrifice was probably central to Carthaginian state rites to such a degree that other peoples of the time, including the Romans, found abhorrent.

What occurred in many cases is that as civilizations evolved in social complexity, substitutionary practices for human sacrifice developed that served the same impulse, to propitiate and honor their God(s) and create powerful emotional bonds among the participants:  animal sacrifice, burial ceremoniesmysteries, religious ritual, necromancy, symbolism in theater and political matters of state religion. The Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is itself a scriptural admonition to the ancient Hebrews to adopt animal sacrifice as most pleasing to God, a practice the Israelites and Jews of the classical period continued until the destruction of the second temple by the Roman general Titus. From that point on, from the close of the first century AD, Jews and the early, still Judaic, Christians moved away from the practice of animal sacrifice and substituted prayer and theology of salvation, respectively. Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, became a distinguishing mark of paganism and the subject of Christian crusades in the middle-ages, like the brutal war waged by the Teutonic Knights against the human sacrificing Old Prussians and Lithuanian barbarian tribes.

The Binding of Isaac

The end of late medieval European religious warfare and the rise of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War slowly shifted the symbolic moral center of sacrifice from God to the State, with divine right monarchy serving as a waystation for the incubation of modern nationalism. There was an epistemic shift, as Halbertal argues in On Sacrifice from a sacred and mystical “sacrificing to” the sovereign God borrowed from the examples of Jewish martyrdom by early Christians who shared in the Romans the same persecutors. This shift opened the gates of permissible sacrifices, legitimating a new secular and political “sacrificing for” the glory of the State.

It is a profound difference but occurring within the same phenomena, as illustrated by two quotes:

…And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

                                                                              – Genesis 22:2


….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

     – Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg and Antietam were not Mount Moriah. Neither were the Somme or Stalingrad the same as the Tophet. From time of the Patriarch Abraham to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, nations of men ceased to sacrifice usually helpless others but moved to sacrifice themselves in what they reckoned as the highest cause. Movement away from human sacrifice as practiced by ancient Carthaginian or animal sacrifice as practiced by most peoples of antiquity, including the Jews, to gentler substitutionary practices, Moshe Halbertal has called the “cataclysmic shift” in the history of civilization.

If so, it is a shift that ISIS has begun to reverse.

In their outstanding ISIS: The State of Terror, counterterrorism scholars Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger analyze the dark obsession ISIS has demonstrated in its propaganda messaging with exquisitely orchestrated executions:

….As we have noted, ISIS’s psychological warfare is directed at its potential victims. But it is also directed at those it aims to control. It is deliberately attempting to blunt its follower’s empathy by forcing them to participate in or observe acts of brutality. Over time, this can lead to secondary psychopathy, or a desire to harm others, and contagion of violence. Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy.

Berger and Stern are likely correct that the methodical character of ISIS demonstrations of brutality are intended to desensitize the participants and (as they further explained) a tendency to cultivate secondary psychopathology in ISIS recruits, especially the young. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust with Nazi Einsatzgruppen and reserve unit police battalions detailed to assist the SS mobile killing squads on the Eastern front. Many serving in these units, already fanatical National Socialists, became inured to the suffering of women, children and the old who were shot and dumped still alive into mass graves, though some SS men showed signs of PTSD, depression and higher rates of severe alcoholism, desertion and suicide.

The comparison between the genocidal cruelty of the SS and ISIS, while natural, is limited by a very important distinction. However zealous their ideological fanaticism and dedicated in their murderous mission to exterminate European Jewry, the SS lacked the context of moral certainty and the psychological reinforcement effects of religious exaltation enjoyed by ISIS killers. Even the malevolent Heinrich Himmler, in his secret speech to Nazi gauleiters and SS leaders, regarded the Final Solution as a terrible burden that the SS shouldered on behalf of the Fuhrer to assure Germany’s future; a “glorious” crime that Himmler believed must be kept forever hidden from history and the German people.

Not so ISIS, which revels in its bloody terror. Worse, the repetition of garish executions as public celebrations by ISIS, with a vague but constant religious context, devoid of any shred of Islamic legality, inevitably acquire over time the theological characteristics of Halbertal’s “sacrificing to”  – what began as harsh jihadi jurisprudence and psychological warfare mutated under conditions of lazy, sociopathic brutality and totemic invocations of Islam into ritual “offering” by ISIS of its prisoners of war as human sacrifices in the manner of the ancient pagans. A perverse blasphemy, but one that draws on a powerful archetype deeply buried in the human psyche.

ISIS leaders have not only looked into the Abyss, they have descended into and become one with it.

Simply so much.. 01

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — an experiment in blogging — morality transcending laws, the pope, battleships, jellyfish, & Catholic politicians ]

There’s simply so much going on that I need to try a few way of sifting and posting my daily catch. So here’s my experiment. Each day I’ll open a Simply so much post at the start of the day, adding things that catch my eye as I go, and posting either late in the day or the next morning.


The right to migrate trumps politics as usual:

The granting of asylum does not fall within the usual logic of statecraft in which a policy is considered from the perspective of the political interests of a governing party, taking into account how it will play to popular prejudices, how it fits with internal party disputes, its consistency with budgetary and other manifesto promises, its influence on the viability of other policies the government wants to pursue, and so on. None of these have standing in the face of the moral emergency of aiding refugees to regain their lives.

DoubleQuote that with Pope Francis: Government workers have ‘human right’ to deny gay marriage licenses:

It is the “human right” of government officials to say they cannot discharge duties that they believe go against their conscience, Pope Francis told reporters aboard the papal flight back to Rome on Monday.

“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscience objection,” the pope told reporters on the plane. “But, yes, I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right.

“And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”

See also the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (my emphasis):

On the most widely accepted account of civil disobedience, famously defended by John Rawls (1971), civil disobedience is a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies. On this account, people who engage in civil disobedience are willing to accept the legal consequences of their actions, as this shows their fidelity to the rule of law. Civil disobedience, given its place at the boundary of fidelity to law, is said to fall between legal protest, on the one hand, and conscientious refusal, revolutionary action, militant protest and organised forcible resistance, on the other hand.


in the Remarks by His Majesty King Abdullah II at the 70th Plenary Session of the United Nations General Assembly, we find the following description of IS:

I am here representing Jordan, and as a God-fearing, God-loving human being. I am here as a father who wants his children, like yours, to live in a compassionate and more peaceful world.

Such a future is under serious threat from the khawarej, the outlaws of Islam that operate globally today. They target religious differences, hoping to kill cooperation and compassion among the billions of people, of all faiths and communities, who live side-by-side in our many countries. These outlaw gangs use suspicion and ignorance to expand their own power. Worse still is the free hand they grant themselves to distort the word of God to justify the most atrocious crimes.

That phrase, the outlaws of Islam, nicely finesses the ongoing dispute as to whether IS should be termed “nothing to do with Islam” or “Islamic”.


Three variants on the meaning of Man of War:

The British Man of War, c 1750


The Portuguese Man of War:


GF Handel‘s The Lord is a Man of War, from his oratorio Israel in Egypt, 1739:


  • The British Man of War
  • The Portuguese Man of War
  • Handel’s Lord is a Man of War
  • Hm, that would have made a great post all by itself!


    Great Andreessen-style DoubleQuote:

    And that’s a really interesting nested question right about now, eh?

    Krishna, meet Radha

    Sunday, September 13th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — Muslims in India celebrate Krishna and his beloved ]

    Amicable coexistence.

    Here we see a Muslim father in India, with his daughter arrayed as Radha, the beloved, lover, and companion of the Hindu deity Krishna:

    Radha and father 602

    I’m posting it here because it beautifully complements another photo which you may have seen before, since I’ve posted it here at least once:

    Krishna and mother 602

    Here a Muslim mother is walking with her son dressed in the costume of Krishna.


    Krishna is a manifestation of the divine as playful, beautiful, musical, seductive. He steals the hearts of his devotees, both male and female, with the entrancing music of his flute — but it is Radha who is his beloved.

    For a full appreciation of the love between Radha and Krishna, the Bengali poet-saints have composed numerous songs. In this one, it is Radha who speaks:

    How can I describe his relentless flute,
    which pulls virtuous women from their homes
    and drags them by their hair to Shyam
    as thirst and hunger pull the doe to the snare?
    Chaste ladies forget their wisdom,
    and clinging vines shakes loose from their trees,
    hearing that music.
    Then how shall a simple dairymaid withstands its call?

    Chandidasa says,
    Kala the puppet master leads the dance.

    I can recommend two books on the topic, the first exploring the theology of Radha and Krishna as sung by the wandering saints of Bengal, the second offering a selection of poems which might be sung of an evening to recount the story of their love, and from which the example above was taken:

  • Edward Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava-Sahajiya Cult of Bengal
  • Edward Dimock and Denise Levertov, In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali

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