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Not Paris, much nearer home

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — religious satire USA, plus two Charlie Hebdo resources ]
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Jesus dinosaur detail 602

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I hadn’t realized that comic book satire had entered the religion vs science debate — foolish of me, it’s an obvious medium for the task:

jesus-and-darwin 602

And here for total impact is the full page of Jesus riding the dinosaur (detail above), text included:

jesusdinosaur large

I have to say, neither these nor the Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten cartoons disturb me personally — but in our discussions of free speech and blasphemy, I think the voices of those who may be offended deserve a hearing.

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Sources and Resources:

  • Popperfont, Did Jesus ride on a dinosaur?
  • Beliefnet, Jesus and Darwin fight
  • Daily Beast, 16 most ‘shocking’ Charlie Hebdo covers
  • Understanding Charlie Hebdo, Charlie Hebdo’s satire
  • Sisi followup: two publications of significant interest

    Friday, January 16th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — SH Nasr’s The Study Quran and the Diyanet collection of ahadith ]
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    Quran & Ahadith

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    In a recent post I quoted President Sisi‘s speech calling for “a revolution” in Islamic thinking about “that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries” and which is now “antagonizing the entire world”. I would like to bring your attenbtion here to two publications which may well provide support for such a rethinking: SH Nasr’s The Study Quran and the Diyanet collection of ahadith

    **

    The Study Quran:

    I have seen some of the proofs of this Quran, and it strikes me that once it is published (in Fall this year) it is likely to be the resource of record for anyone lacking in depth Arabic language skills and knowledge of Islamic thought across history. Superb, and very auspiciously timed.

    From their prospectus:

    In The Study Quran, renowned Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr and a team of editors address the deeper spiritual meaning of the Quran, the grammar of difficult passages, legal and ritual teachings, ethics, theology, sacred history, and the place of various passages of the Quran in Muslim life.

    For the first time, both Muslims and scholars will have a clear and reliable resource for looking up the history of interpretation for any passage in the Quran—together with a new, accurate English translation.

    From the book itself:

    The Quran is the constant companion of Muslims in the journey of life. Its verses are the first sounds recited into the ear of the newborn child. It is recited during the marriage ceremony, and its verses are usually the last words that a Muslim hears upon the approach of death. In traditional Islamic society, the sound of the recitation of the Quran was ubiquitous, and it determined the space in which men and women lived their daily lives; this is still true to a large extent in many places even today. As for the Quran as a book, it is found in nearly every Muslim home and is carried or worn in various forms and sizes by men and women for protection as they go about their daily activities. In many parts of the Islamic world it is held up for one to pass under when beginning a journey, and there are still today traditional Islamic cities whose gates contain the Quran, under which everyone entering or exiting the city passes. The Quran is an ever present source of blessing or grace (barakah) deeply experienced by Muslims as permeating all of life.

    Inasmuch as the Quran is the central, sacred, revealed reality for Muslims, The Study Quran addresses it as such and does not limit it to a work of merely historical, social, or linguistic interest divorced from its sacred and revealed character. To this end, the focus of The Study Quran is on the Quran’s reception and interpretation within the Muslim intellectual and spiritual tradition, although this does not mean that Muslims are the only intended audience, since the work is meant to be of use to various scholars, teachers, students, and general readers. It is with this Book, whose recitation brings Muslims from Sumatra to Senegal to tears, and not simply with a text important for the study of Semitic philology or the social conditions of first/seventh-century Arabia, that this study deals.

    **

    The other publishing venture of great interest in this context is Turkey’s Diyanet project for a contemporary selected edition of the Hadith.

    Emran El-Badawi, co-director of the newly formed International Qur’anic Studies Association, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2013:

    Change is certain to come to the Islamic world, not just to the streets of Cairo or Istanbul but deep within Islam’s religious tradition as well. The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, called the Diyanet, recognizes this with its seven-volume revision of the Hadith – which is the source of Sharia law and second only to the Quran.

    Thousands of the prophet’s sayings and traditions were circulated and eventually collected in the centuries after his death in 632. The sheer size of Hadith collections and their archaic 7th century Arabian context have made the texts too intractable for many Muslims today. This is the challenge which the six-year Turkish Hadith project, with its selections and interpretive essays, seeks to overcome.

    The central issue surrounding the Hadith, as with other foundational religious works such as the Bible, is whether it should be read literally or in a historical context and for its inspired message. A literal reading, for instance, may seek to justify medieval practices like severing the hands of thieves or allowing underage marriage. An inspired interpretation would see them as historical practices absent the kind of rule of law that democracies like Turkey have today.

    The question for Turkey’s new multi-volume set is whether its contemporary interpretations can be widely appreciated by the Islamic community, or whether they will be considered too avant-garde – the fate of previous modern interpretations.

    Elie Elhadj, in his post A Turkish Martin Luther: Can Hadith be Revised? on on Joshua Landis‘ Syria Comment blog wrote in 2010:

    The Indian Islamic thinker Muhammad Ashraf observed that it is curious that no caliph or companion found the need to collect and write down the Hadith traditions for more than two centuries after the death of the Prophet (Guillaume, Islam, 1990, 165). Ignaz Goldziher concludes “it is not surprising that, among the hotly debated controversial issues of Islam, whether political or doctrinal, there is none in which the champions of the various views are unable to cite a number of traditions, all equipped with imposing Isnads” (Goldziher, Muslim Studies, 1890, Vol. II., 44). John Burton observes, “the ascription of mutually irreconcilable sayings to several contemporaries of the Prophet, or of wholly incompatible declarations to one and the same contemporary, together strain the belief of the modern reader in the authenticity of the reports as a whole” (Burton, An introduction to the Hadith, 1994, xi).

    Leaders of Turkey’s Hadith project say successive generations have embellished the text, attributing their political aims to the Prophet Muhammad (BBC, February 26, 2008).

    And Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor for Reuters noted in 2013:

    The collection is the first by Turkey’s “Ankara School” of theologians who in recent decades have reread Islamic scriptures to extract their timeless religious message from the context of 7th-century Arab culture in which they arose.

    Unlike many traditional Muslim scholars, these theologians work in modern university faculties and many have studied abroad to learn how Christians analyse the Bible critically.

    They subscribe to what they call “conservative modernity,” a Sunni Islam true to the faith’s core doctrines but without the strictly literal views that ultra-orthodox Muslims have been promoting in other parts of the Islamic world.

    As to its likely influence, in Egypt and thus (I infer) on Sisi’s project, Heneghan offers this hint:

    “Among intellectuals in Egypt, there is a welcome for this new interpretation which they think is very important for the Arab world to be exposed to,” said Ibrahim Negm, advisor to Egypt’s grand mufti, the highest Islamic legal authority there.

    **

    I haven’t seen any reference as yet to the preparation of an English translation.

    Paris, the Prophet and his veiled face

    Sunday, January 11th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — the role of iconography vs idolatry within Islam and Christianity ]
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    Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tweeted an image of Muhammad today:

    This image, according to Wikipedia, is not merely Persian but specifically Shiite, “reflecting the new, Safavid convention of depicting Muhammad veiled”. It is also non-satirical.

    As such, it is neither offensive in the sense of insulting the person of the Prophet, nor does it in fact show the features of his face, nor is it the product of the Sunni “mainstream” branch of Islam.

    **

    In considering the revulsion that many Muslims feel at the images of their Prophet in Charlie Hebdo, it may be helpful to understand the respect in which the Prophet is held within their faith.

    The Qur’an says of the Prophet:

    And We have not sent you but as a mercy to the worlds.

    Muhammad is sent “as a mercy”, and thus whatever representation of the Prophet, his words and deeds serves to carry human thought towards the divine participates in that divine mercy, whereas whatever representation scorns that mercy or merely distracts us from it is to be avoided.

    The normative manner in which the Prophet is represented within Islam, then, is abstract and calligraphic, with the artist showing devotion and respect for the Prophet through the care with which the work itself is endowed with beauty:

    412px-Hilye-i_serif_7

    Simpler, and in its own way no less beautiful, is this calligraphic representation of the Prophet’s name in tile from Samarkand:

    Muhammad_calligraphy_tile

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    Icon or idol?

    One facet of the controversy over Charlie Hebdo has to do, then, with a deep issue in representation, which crops up elsewhere in the jihadists’ relish in destroying “idols” — the Bamiyan Buddhas, yes, but also the tombs of Muslim prophets and saints; there has even been discussion within Saudi circles of the destruction on the Prophet’s tomb and relocation of his remains to an anonymous grave.

    Within Christianity, there have been those who encouraged the painting of icons, believing that they carry the minds and hearts of believers deep into the mysteries of faith — and those who would tear them down, holding them to be “graven images” (via Judaism, Exodus 20.4) that give mind and heart a resting place far short of those same mysteries: iconodules and iconoclasts.

    Wars have been fought in Christendom too over such questions [in both East and West].

    The great Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev‘s most celebrated icon is often referred to as The Trinity — though literally (or should I say, figuratively) speaking, it portrays the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18. 1-15):

    Rublev Trinity icon

    It is significant for our context that Rublev has not in fact attempted to portray the Trinity, a mystery deemed beyond human comprehension — the Athanasian Creed, speaking of the Three Persons in one God says explicitly “there are not three incomprehensibles .. but one incomprehensible” — but these three angels, considered as “types” or foreshadowings of the Trinity, which can therefore both veil and represent it.

    Phineas Priesthood 2a: back in the old days

    Thursday, December 18th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — who was admittedly more concerned with champagne than cuneiform as a student ]
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    Back in the old days, this is how it was:

    SPEC DQ Moabite Stone I Sam 15.2-3

    While researching Phineas Priesthood 2: The Tanakh, I found myself reading John J Collins, The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimization of Violence, his 2002 Presidential Address to the Society of Biblical Literature — and ran across the Moabite Stone, which I should probably have remembered from my time reading Theology at Oxford under such luminaries as HFD Sparks of Oriel, who introduced me to Pritchard‘s Ancient Near Eastern Texts (“ANET”) if I am not mistaken.

    The parallel is a familiar one to more diligent scholars than I — but worth bearing in mind, I think, when considering the story of Phinehas / Pinchas / Phineas.

    Phineas Priesthood 2: The Tanakh

    Thursday, December 18th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — continuing exploration of the Phineas story as it leads to the recent Larry McQuilliams incident among others ]
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    pinchas
    Phineas vs Zimri & Cozbi
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    I

    Paradise is depicted in many traditions as a garden — indeed the very word “paradise” (pardes) means “garden” or “orchard” in Hebrew. It is a place where the divine presence “walks with man in the cool of the day” — glorious phrase — a green and fruitful garden, rich in beauty and tranquility, where the purity of love is unsullied by despair or hatred.

    In our scriptures, myths and rituals, we give expression to all that is noblest and most generous in our nature: the “peace that passeth all understanding” manages somehow to cross the great Cartesian divide between mind and body, promising us both inner peace of mind, and external relief from war and strife.

    All is not well in this garden, however. Along with the refreshing breezes and the sounds of voices lifted in praise, our scriptures and religions also offer us reasons for killing and warfare, divinely sanctioned injunctions to the sword as well as to peace. One of the recorded sayings of Muhammad teaches that Paradise is found under the shade of swords.

    Christ, too, is reported to have said he “came not to bring peace, but a sword”.

    Like a perennial landmine in paradise garden, the story of Phineas (also spelled Phinehas or Pinchas) lies await in the Tanakh / Old Testament for some reader to take a wrong step and explode it once again.

    Introducing this series in Phineas Priesthood I: Larry McQuilliams, I said:

    Since I shall be discussing how the tale of Phineas / Pinchas / Phinehas has been used as offering divine scriptural sanction for acts of religiously-motivated killing, I shall chiefly focus on the negative implications of the tale .. Accordingly, I’d like to invite my friends in the Jewish and Christian scholarly communities, in particular, to assist me in the comments section by suggesting alternative ways of reading a story which in its most literal interpretation has been the cause of untimely and hateful deaths

    That goes for the series as a whole. In later posts in this series I shall follow the trail of Phineas (the lone wolf) and touch on the Maccabees and Zealots (his “group” equivalents), first in the ancient world, and then more recently.

    II

    The story of Phineas is told in the book of Numbers / Bamidbar, chapter 25:

    While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; and the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord.

    In all likelihood, I must have heard this passage read aloud at least once before the age of eighteen in the chapels of the British boarding schools I attended — yet I have no vivid childhood memory of a God who encourages mass hangings out in the open air. The God of my childhood and schooling was caring, loving, far-seeing (which I understood to be one of those divine omni-attributes, thus distinguishing him from my parents or teachers), and wise.

    Thinking back on my time as a choir-boy, I imagine those sonorous phrases about the anger of the Lord, delivered in the splendid prose of the King James Version, must have rolled right over me, like Alan Bennett‘s reading of the text, “My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man” in his sermon in the satirical revue, On the Fringe — something along these lines:

    And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” Here endeth the first lesson. Let us now sing Hymn five hundred and eighty seven, All Things Bright and Beatuiful.

    God, however, has not finished with the Baal of Peor and those who worship it. But whereas in these first verses he had commanded Moses and the Judges of Israel to string some of his own chosen people up in the sun, the next episode describes an independent action taken by someone who knows His divine anger, knows His wishes, and does not need a direct command nor any official permission or sanction to act on that knowledge:

    And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

    That’s a fairly graphic description of a double murder, particularly when one considers that the phrase “pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body” is generally taken to mean that Phinehas caught the pair of them in flagrante and speared them through their conjoined offending parts.

    God, who according to other passages in scripture is Love, is distinctly pleased by this turn of events:

    And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, `Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.”

    Killing is killing, however, and it is only fitting that we should know the names of the victims. Our text continues:

    The name of the slain man of Israel, who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, head of a fathers’ house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the head of the people of a fathers’ house in Midian.

    Cozbi and Zimri: their names have not perished from memory.

    And the Lord said to Moses, “Harass the Midianites, and smite them; for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

    From a counter-terrorist perspective, this is the incipit — chapter one in the still unfolding history of religio-political violence, and our first instance of the “lone wolf” operative.

    III

    As Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee notes in his article, Extremism and Zealotry: The Case of Pinchas, the story certainly appears to offer some sanction for religious violence.

    At initial glance, this text appears to validate extremist ideology and behavior. An Israelite male and a Midianite female are engaged in publicly lewd behavior. God is angry and sends a plague. Moses appears to be incapacitated, possibly on account to his own marriage to a Midianite woman. So Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, decides to act on his own, grabs a spear, kills the offending couple, and the plague is stopped. Subsequently, God confers his “covenant of peace” upon Pinchas as a reward for his “zealotry.” Latter-day zealots in fact have modeled themselves upon the case of Pinchas.

    In writing these posts, I take the story of Phineas as emblematic of all the apparent sanctions for religious violence (the “landmines in the garden” of my title) buried in the world’s scriptures, rituals, histories and hagiographies. But the issue is not restricted to Judaism alone, or Judaism and Christianity, or indeed the three Abrahamic religions. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita gives sanction to Arjuna‘s battlefield violence, and even Buddhism has a prophecy of a righteous war between the Buddhists and Islam in the very same Kalachakra Tantra that HH the Dalai Lama teaches — though in that case, the violence is envisioned as taking place centuries hence.

    IV

    Perhaps not surprisingly, given its place within the scriptures of two great religions, this story of Phineas, Cozbi and Zimri echoes down the centuries.

    It is first retold in Psalm 106, and again, I probably sang these words to the glorious four-part harmonies of the English choral tradition (at the 6.27 mark in this Guildford Cathedral rendition) in my childhood:

    Then stood up Phinees and prayed * and so the plague ceased.
    And that was counted unto him for righteousness * among all posterities for evermore.

    This might seem to add nothing to the account in Numbers, but in fact a subtle shift is already taking place. As Bayme puts it, the Psalmist “quietly transformed the word for Pinchas’s zeal into one connoting prayer.”

    It is often the case that the normative teachings of a great religion strongly promote peace and are at pains to offer alternative interpretations of such passages as the Phineas story, while individuals or extreme groups within them still refer to these “landmine” passages for religious sanction.

    **

    In the next section of this post I shall follow the trail of Phineas / Pinchas through the deutero-canonical Books of the Maccabees, in New Testamental, Talmudic and Patristic writings, and perhaps up through Milton and Brigham Young.

    A final post will deal with Hoskin‘s book Vigilantes of Christendom, its tie in with Louis Beam‘s theory of “leaderless resistance” and related events of the last half-century or so — and the happily failed attempt at a massacre in Austin these last few days.

    I have a lot of work before me, as well as much already written: I look forward to your pointers, corrections and support.


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