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Which world is more vivid? This, or the next?

[ by Charles Cameron — bin Laden, Abu Bakr, Bernard of Clairvaux, Qur’an burning, Tora Bora, David Ignatius, Emptywheel, and impassioned belief ]

image: Paulo Uccello (1443) depicts the Resurrection
life after the grave, seen through a glass, darkly

We keep on stumbling over this one.

To the western mind, mostly, this world is axiomatically more vivid than the next. But there are those for whom the next life is axiomatically the more vivid – even if their day to day practices are geared to success and continuity in this life.

And this has consequences for our own lives, in the world around us — and for security.


Some who are of this mind – bin Laden in this video among them — may quote or paraphrase Abu Bakr‘s message to Khosru:

I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life.

That particular quote is from the rich tapestry of Islam – but Jewish history speaks also of Kiddush ha-Shem, martyrdom for the glory of God, which became in the time of the crusades “the exemplary answer of Jews threatened in their life and faith” when offered the options of conversion to Christianity or death.

And in Christendom, there is St Bernard of Clairvaux, who is quoted as writing in his letter to the Templars at the time of the Second Crusade:

The Christian who slays the unbeliever in the Holy War is sure of his reward, the more sure if he himself is slain.

and for good measure in his sermon promoting the Crusade:

Christian warriors, He who gave His life for you, to-day demands yours in return. These are combats worthy of you, combats in which it is glorious to conquer and advantageous to die.


It is with this difference in axiomatic understanding in mind, that we should approach such issues as the relative importance – in our own minds, and in those of many Afghans – of the loss of human life in a night raid, as compared with the burning of copies of the Qur’an [In Reactions to Two Incidents, a U.S.-Afghan Disconnect]:

The mullah was astounded and a little angered to be asked why the accidental burning of Korans last month could provoke violence nationwide, while an intentional mass murder that included nine children last Sunday did not.

“How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?” said an incredulous Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council of religious leaders who investigated the Koran burnings. “The whole goal of our life is religion.”

And a quick note here — this is an issue I’ve raised before, eg in Burning scriptures and human lives, in Of Quantity and Quality I: weighing man against book, and more recently in On fire: issues in theology and politics – ii.


The same understanding also explains bin Laden’s retreat to the Tora Bora caves. As I said in an early guest post here on ZP, with a hat-tip to Lawrence Wright and his book The Looming Tower:

When bin Laden, at the lowest point of his jihadist efforts, leaves the Yemen for Afghanistan and betakes himself to the Tora Bora caves, he will inevitably remind some Muslims of the Prophet himself, who at the lowest point of his prophetic vocation left Mecca for Medina and sought sanctuary in a cave — where by the grace of his God, a spider’s web covered the entrance in such a way that his enemies could not see him.

Our natural tendency in the west is to see Tora Bora in terms of military topography, as a highly defensible, almost impregnable warren of caves deep within some of the world’s most difficult mountain territory. What we miss may be precisely what Muslim piety will in some cases see — that bin Laden’s retreat there is symbolically aligned with the “sunna” or life of the Prophet, and thus with the life of Islam itself — in much the same way that Christians, in the words of Thomas a Kempis, may practice “the Imitation of Christ”.


It was in fact Emptywheel‘s piece about bin Laden’s comment re killing President Obama (and thus promoting Joe Biden) that caught my attention today and prompted this post.

Emptywheel quoted the same passage from David Ignatius that had triggered my own post On the “head of infidelity” and the tale of Abdul-Rahman ibn Awf late yesterday —

“The reason for concentrating on them,” the al-Qaeda leader explained to his top lieutenant, “is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make [Vice President] Biden take over the presidency… “

— and commented:

OBL was going to kill Obama not for the sake of killing the US President, but because Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years, almost 12 of which he served as one or another powerful committee Chair, “is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis.”

I just don’t think that’s right. I think it’s wrong, in fact, but [and here’s the important part] subtly wrong.

I believe that OBL lived at the confluence of worlds — one that we might call mythic or spiritual, and one that’s the one we call the “real” world. I believe that it was his myth, archetype, spirit based reality that was the more vivid to him, the one to which he was entrained, and that he found means in the practical world of strategies and tactics to adhere to the demands of that other world.

A world that was both invisible to us, and to him axiomatically victorious – at least as much so in death as in life.

5 Responses to “Which world is more vivid? This, or the next?”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    For some reason unknown to me, comments on this item were set to “closed”.  I have “opened” them.

    Living, as I do, at the confluence of worlds, I’ll attribute the phenomenon to a vexation of spirits in the software.

  2. ZZMike Says:

    One difference between the early Christian advocates for killing and martyrdom, and the Muslim ones, is that we gave it up over 800 years ago.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    All the more reason for us to understand what used to make some Christians tick — St Francis, even 800 years ago, took a non-aggressive approach and quite literally crossed enemy lines at risk of his own life to preach to the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, who in turn received him graciously and gave him free passage on his return journey — how it still makes some in Islam tick, and how (and with what difficulty) we “gave it up” and arrived at our present, post-Westphalian conception of peace through mutual tolerance…

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    For the record, here’s the opening para of Time’s latest on the topic:

    When Mullah Abdul Rahim Shah Ghaa thinks back to the day in February when a couple of Afghan employees at a U.S.-run detention center outside of Kabul yanked five partially burned Korans out of a trash incinerator, he shudders with anger and revulsion. “It is like a knife to my heart,” says the head of the provincial religious council. The March 11 slaying of 16 afghan civilians by a lone U.S Army staff sergeant named Robert Bales in Kandahar, however, has left less of a scar. “Of course we condemn that act,” he says. “But it was only 16 people. Even if it were 1000 people it wouldn’t compare to harming one word of the Koran. If someone insults our holy book, it means that they insult our faith, our religion and everything that we have.”

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    I thought I’d add in a few New Testament verses that relate to the theme of welcoming death, because it really is a fundamental part of Christianity (I’m not equating this with the appreciation of killing in eg the quotes from Bernard of Clairvaux above): 

    Matthew 16.25: For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
    Luke 14.26: If any man comes to me, and hates not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

    These are among the sayings known as the “hard sayings” of Jesus, and it may be that their meaning is only partially related to the question of martyrdom. The next two quotes are arguably less ambiguous, with the last quote — from Revelation — quite clearly referring to martyrs.

    Philippians 1.21: For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
    Revelation 12.11: They loved not their lives even unto death.

    For contemporary Christian advocacy of this position, see this Youtube video.


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