Islam, Past And Future


This is the Kabaa, the central shrine of Islam, located in Mecca. Mohammed regarded himself as a Messenger of God, like Jesus.—perfecting, not replacing, the earlier message. He laid down five Pillars of Islam, supreme rules for the Moslem. One pillar – giving alms to the poor – essentially reiterates a call from Jesus. Two other pillars – the pilgrimage to Mecca and the call to prayer five times a day – both include a focus of energy towards this shrine. The other two – fasting at Ramadan and dietary restraints – mainly support a spiritual, meditative state, but also reaffirm the earlier Jewish prohibition against pork. In a way, this is the first entry point to the far more complex story of the First Caliphate, the story of the Abbasid Empire.


These are whirling dervishes, performing a sacred dance used to raise spiritual energy. The dervishes of Turkey are one of the most notable and energetic branches of Sufism, a collection of brotherhoods dedicated to the cultivation of the soul, within the context of Islam. This is an entry point to the large and complex story of the Second Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, whose spiritual, economic, intellectual and political achievements were far more pure and impressive than those of the Abbasids. If I ever figure out how to get copyright permission, I will post some very interesting material here about Rumi.

A central question being asked in the Middle East today is: will there be a Third Caliphate? And if so, what are the details? For the moment, I will skip the historical background, important though it is to a full understanding. But I will include a preliminary paragraph on some basics.


A Few Basics


Islam – like Christianity and like Buddhism – is an important stream of thoughts and institutions, with many different faces. For a Westerner trying to learn about Islam, the first big challenge is to understand that there really are many different faces; it is a great mistake to generalize too much from one or two examples of people you know, even when they present what appears to be a universal kind of face. This was not such a great challenge for me, because the Moslems I have known have all been very different from each other in many ways. The mass media now make it seem as if the world of Islam is a bewildering mixture of anarchic factions, all dedicated to the struggle to dominate each other as well as the rest of the world – a kind of war of all against all. The second challenge, then, is to understand the underlying unities which are there as well. I say “unities,” not “unity,” because in reality the only true unity is that which includes the entire human species and more.


Seeing Into and Through the Present Situation


Economic realities are just as important as spiritual realities in defining the present situation in the Middle East and what may come out of it. Some of these realities are described in my web page on Marxism and Maoism and Current Challenges.


Marx’s theories are only half true, and only half grounded in the true empirical experience of history. Yet no one is perfect, and no one is perfectly wrong, including even Marx.


Religion is not just the opiate of the masses (as Marx claims) – yet powerful political and economic forces have often used money and power to try to put a very strong spin (or perversion) upon religion, in order to strengthen their power. Such spin often outlives its creators, as secondary inheritors find it is useful to their personal political status as well. Normal, undisciplined human brains find it very hard to resist the seduction of allowing a few bits of illogic here and there in their minds, when the social costs of asserting the full truth can be high. By the way, I would claim that the Abbasids were guilty of such distortions far more than the original Ottomans. The partial decline of the Ottomans owed a great deal to the importation of perversions created by the Abbasids and never fully overcome outside of the heartlands of the Ottomans. (For one example, click on the Crusader fort on the Christianity page.) Certain hate-mongers in the mass media today (both East and West) often try to inflame passions regarding secondary issues, in order to better control and delude ordinary people, so as to serve the cynical interests of those who pay for them.


Likewise, Marx is not correct in saying that a transition from one economic reality to another must always be accompanied by enormous bloodshed. Stafford Beer, in analyzing some of the great transitions in Europe, contrasted the very bloody transition in France in 1789 with the very calm transition to universal sufferage and such – the “great nonrevolution” – in England (circa 1830?). When the rulers of an old regime DECIDE to fight history, they can create the kind of growing polarization that leads to the kind of absolute chaos that happened in France, and might well happen in the Middle East as a whole. But Beer described how a different kind of thinking in England – somewhat more resigned to change, and appreciative of a comfortable transition – led to a very different kind of outcome, better not only during the transition itself but in what followed. (Of course, it may have helped that England had had a prior revolution, circa 1630, which better prepared it deal with the later challenge.) The question which then emerges: which kind of path will the world of Islam follow? Will it take a path like that of the French royalty, which ended in huge bloodshed, in all of them losing their heads, and in a very short-lived imitator empire (Napoleon) whose main long-term accomplishment was a united Prussia of no great value to the French? Or will it take a path more like that of England, which benefited that nation for many decades even after further changes in the flow of history?


In analyzing this situation, I would actually see through the eyes of mathematics and through the eyes of spirit. But it is not appropriate to lay it all out here in the most graphic and clear terms. And so… I will simply continue the comparison to French and English history.


The recent decision (November 2007) by the Moslem Brotherhood to work with the Sunni powers in the “grand bargain” suggested by some of the oil companies has many parallels to what the French nobility decided at a certain point. The Moslem Brotherhood seemed once to have some parallels to the Jacobins in France, which also had many members in the aristocracy, but the current grand bargain is very, very different in character; it has the effect of setting the stage for very unfortunate consequences. In effect, it provides a kind of union of feudalism. Of course, it is no secret that Saudi money has been a major factor for several decades in paying for a perversion of Islam (reinventing much of the Abbasid approach which was already unstable before the year 1000AD!), but the new bargain goes much further.


As for Al Queida… the obvious analogies are to forces like Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon. Bin Ladin himself comes from the emerging capitalist sector in feudalistic Saudi Arabia – but he has only halfway liberated himself from the perversions created by the regime. And certainly he and his followers have Napoleonic dreams.


Where in the Middle East can one find anything like the path that England took? Ironically (in light of recent tensions), the obvious answer is Iran. In fact, Khomenei was perhaps more like Oliver Cromwell than Bin Laden – except that no one should expect any kind of return of a king in this case. Iran was also the birthplace of Rumi. Will Iran really open the door to serious economic growth, or will it succumb to the barrage of psychological and spiritual pressures (and red herrings) which emanate at present from parts of its neighbors? And will the spiritual centers in Cairo have the strength to avoid being used by forces which would enshrine feudalism, and would ultimately aim to engulf the entire world in something not unlike the French revolution and Napoleonic wars? (In a nuclear world, one can certainly see a path to total human extinction there.) Will they raise their consciousness and willpower to the highest level, truly reflecting the One, or will they follow the easy paths of purely mundane consciousness and myopia? In this case, not to be conscious and not to chose is itself a choice. Of course, the same goes in the West, where equally serious choices are at stake; for example, some oil leaders have chosen to think like the French aristocrats, while others have begun to ask how they may adapt to a new, more sustainable world. As of now, the struggles are not between the Middle East and the West, or between Islam and Christianity, but between the conscious forces and the entropic forces of the world as a whole. A “grand bargain” and union of entropy is certainly not a path towards peace and stability.


A more sustainable and global grand bargain would include at least the following elements:


(1)   An agreement that real interest rates will be gradually lowered to be “effectively zero,” as described below. This is an essential element of the valid core of Islam – and of any proper ethical concern for the future.


(2)   An agreement that we will all work together towards complete sustainability, the necessary foundation for stable long-term existence of human beings on earth. This includes an agreement to accelerate our efforts to find alternatives to overdependence on oil in cars, and to our overdependence on coal and fission in primary energy generation. It also requires enhancing education worldwide, in a way that truly helps liberate the spirit and provides more meaning in life both to females and to males than the mere increase of population.


(3)   As implied by (1), restraints on the production of crude oil (saving it for the future), enough to allow a steady rise in the price of crude oil “as fast as the world economy can accommodate without great dislocation” even as we try hard to increase the world’s ability to accommodate such a price increase. This might even include a $100/barrel floor on the price of crude oil.


(4)   An agreement to strive carefully and conscientiously towards greater mutual understanding, and towards an absolute maximum of mutual tolerance.


Of course, political sorts of agents cannot and should not take full responsibility for all of these minimal requirements, but they should at least agree to stop getting in the way.



**************************Earlier Version of this web page (October 2006)

Justice and balance demand that I say something about Islam, immediately, at this time (October 2006) when I have posted incomplete but detailed pieces on Buddhism and Taoism, and Christianity. Yet the history and diversity of Islam is somewhat overwhelming, and the gaps in my personal knowledge are harder to avoid here when I think of how hard it would be to create an integrated picture. Facing this dilemma, I will try to make a few scattered observations, and beg the readers’ forgiveness for the lack of organization.

            Some Moslem scholars might say that I have already presented their most important core beliefs in what I have already said about Christianity. I have already talked about the One, and the One Reality. I have stated that Jesus was an authentic and inspired prophet, but that light, revelation and even the link to our Father in heaven did not end with Jesus. Of course, they did not end with Mohammed either. They are available to all of us here today. In discussing the ancient idea of “One Man, One Soul,” I cited the classic dream of Mohammed and some of its implications. But these are only a few of the main streams of thought in Islam.

            Many of the internal struggles within Islam have been very similar to the struggles within Christianity and even to the struggles within China.

            For example, there are themes of order versus freedom of the soul, and the dangers of corruption when power is too centralized. At the extreme of order, there are the famous shariyah or “Islamic Law”, and the ideal of complete political rule by religious authorities. To champion the freedom of the soul, there have been the whirling dervishes and the orders of Sufis. But many Sufis would urge me to be more careful with my language here; they do not advocate the most extreme Western concept of freedom, but a kind of submission (“Islam” means submission) to the higher spiritual flow. Yet “submitting to the spirit” and “going with the flow” (as in Taoism) may really be pointing to the same thing, in the end; in order to do full justice to the objective reality, it may be essential to understand the equivalence between the two. Sufism also contains many important practical ideas about the cultivation of the soul beyond the scope of this page.

In practical terms – does an individual human try to open up to the flow, and feel it, and understand it, or does he or she let someone else guide him or her? Are you submitting to God, to the spiritual light, to a corrupt leader, to a demagogue with dreams of personal glory, or to shared human weaknesses? How do you know which is which? That is a universal dilemma. But in general, humans in any society will be able to respond better to the authentic flow of spirit if more of them try hard to open their eyes and ears and understand, and avoid those political circumstances which get in the way of this. Perhaps when Mohammed insisted that everyone visit Mecca physically at least once, and try to visit it in their minds five times a day, he was trying to encourage everyone to make the effort to open their own eyes and ears to the greater inner light.

            Political chaos and political order can both get in the way. This has always been a major challenge and stimulus to Islam, but they are important to the entire world here and now.

            Right from the beginning, Mohammed in Mecca was confronted with a world where drunken chaos and myopic, cut-throat competition between tribes and families blocked the manifestation of the underlying spiritual unity of all humans. Biologists like E.O. Wilson have often glorified the ancient pastoral societies, and their models make sense at a mundane level. But on a spiritual level, the diversity of tribal gods and idols did violence to the spiritual side of human nature. Also, on the level of economics, the level of sheer chaos was incompatible with the kind of orderly competition necessary for an efficient market economy serving the common good. Mohammed (like Genghis Khan later on) did not want to live his life like one of the animals in E.O. Wilson’s zoo.

            Facing a kind of war of all against all, Mohammed recognized that it was essential to face up to the mundane conflicts of interest that had gotten out of hand. He realized that it was essential to act on the mundane level, and not only the spiritual level, in order to create a physical, mundane situation where the inner light would have room for its expression. The required mundane action was the kind of action that Locke, Hobbes and E.O. Schelling would understand very well: people needed a kind of new social contract, a “new deal,” a kind of balanced agreement in order to create a breathing space. Mohammed’s new Contract for Medina was extremely context-dependent, because he had to face up to immediate practical realities, and keep things simple enough to get to a new state directly from the old state. The Contract itself was not actually one of the original Five Pillars of Islam, but a tool intended to support them.

            But this was only the first chapter of a long history. William McNeil, in his World History (Third Edition, 1979), gives a useful and serious overview of this history, filtered as it may be through American eyes.

            As Islam expanded, leadership fell to a succession of political leaders less able to rely directly on spiritual inspiration. A critical turning point came when most of Islam was taken over by the Abbasid Emperors, who played a role in Islam similar to the role of Constantine in Christianity. In effect, these Emperors invented the first Sunni formulation of Islam, a deal in which secular people got to rule society as a whole and have all the drunken parties they wanted in the palace, but the courts of justice for Moslems would be ruled by pious lawyers (Ulema) who invented the shariyah. The shariyah was developed by an elaborate scholastic process, using written sources and precedents, very similar to the origins of the canon law in Catholicism or the rules of Orthodox Judaism. In all three cases, the scholars bowed their heads to the idea of the One God, but the methodology had only a third-hand connection at best with the original source. Yet in all three cases, many people came to love the system of rules they were subject to, because it did provide some measure of security in life; without breathing space and peace, one cannot really relax at the local tea house or find expression for the spirit. Being able to relax at the tea house is a serious matter, not only for health but for the spirit.

            And yet – excessive order and excessive political control can also suffocate the spirit. It is said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. History shows that theocracy is not exempt from this problem. Islam has experienced a series of movements, like Shia and Wahhabism, analogous to Lutheranism and Oliver Cromwell in Europe.

            The challenge before Islam and humanity now is how to construct a kind of new deal, more suitable to the facts of the entire earth at present. Somewhere between the extremes of suffocating order (and the danger of wars whenever one group tries to impose its order on others) and of suffocating chaos, some new kind of balance is needed, to create more breathing space. This challenge is with us both between and within the major regions of the world.

            Not being Mohammed, I do not have a new contract to propose at this point – at least, not one unified contract for everything. In fact, in today’s world, no contract would be enough any more to ensure mundane security and breathing space for the bulk of humanity. That requires more effective international cooperation (with mutual understanding and enlightenment to give it a foundation) aimed at achieving global sustainability. The entire world needs to make adjustments, one way or another, to achieve this goal. Otherwise, there will be no breathing space for the spirit – and perhaps no humans at all. And yet, this is necessary, not sufficient. As the Clintons have said, we must also remember that “capitalism’ and “freedom” are not exactly synonyms; humans need to be free to live under shariyah or to dedicate themselves to make money if they so choose, but they should also be free to follow another path, and to heed the call of the spirit as it calls them from one realm to another in the course of their lives.


Cycles of Glory and Corruption


It is impossible to understand Islam without some knowledge of its history.

            Memory of history is one of the great strengths of Islam. Modern Islam is an amalgam of many very different streams emerging from the past. Yet some teachers of Islam, like many false teachers of Christianity or of computer science, try to shield their subjects from real knowledge of history, except for the story of Mohammed himself. This is simply a technique for weakening the student, so as to control him and to exaggerate the teacher himself.

            Islam was once indeed the main center of light and civilization for the entire world. At its peak, under the green flag of the Ottomans, it did more than just conquer territory. It did more to advance the inner, spiritual growth of humans on a massive scale than any other organization in history. It led the world in mathematics, in poetry, and in religious tolerance. Yet at another period, under the Abbasid Emperors, the rich and powerful and cynical would indulge in every possible form of corruption condemned by every culture of the world, even as they cynically ordered their servants to construct a system of laws – the shariyah – which would serve as an effective straitjacket to control the lower classes of their empire.


Some Technical Details

Rules about Interest Rates


There is one interesting aspect of old Islamic Law which needs to be updated, but merits more serious attention from the entire world: the prohibition against paying interest on money. The traditional version of that prohibition is not viable in today’s new world, but the idea behind it may be. Interest rates sometimes articulate the idea that pain and happiness by people in the future (including ourselves!) is less important and less valuable than pain or happiness in the present. Perhaps we need to think hard about how to establish a regime of “ethical interest rates” which do not discount the future. As it happens, such a regime would give greater weight to the value of oil holdings in the Middle East, and prevent the excessive pumping-out of oil at prices which are too low according to this ethical precept. But a zero interest rate on utility functions is not the same as a zero interest rate on dollars, and the technical details are far beyond the scope of this page.


Rules about Images and Statues


Mohammed was deeply horrified by the statues and images of tribal deities worshipped in Mecca before he returned from Medina to conquer Mecca. Probably he would be equally horrified by the sight of people kowtowing to a golden statue of a Ming Emperor in China. They were horrifying, because they signified humans filling their minds and souls with obedience to something much lower than the greater unity we are all part of. And it is right that he did not want people to worship him himself as if he were God; he did not want the same misunderstanding of him as what he saw unfolding for Jesus.

            Yet what would he say about the image of the Kabaa? In my view, he would say that the inner thought of the person bowing to Mecca is what matters, not the use of a picture as such. Pictures, like words and feelings (and music), are an essential part of the inner language of the mind. The danger lies in the misuse of images, words or statues, not the thing itself. Images or visual symbols are a major part of how the associative memory in the brain achieves its powers; the same is true of our inner unity, the “noosphere,” as well, in my view.

            In the same way, of course, when people approach the Kabaa as if it were a tribal statue, symbolizing the worship of a God different from the one of Christianity and Buddhism… and inciting the kind of tribal warfare that Mohammed tried so hard to stop… certainly he would want another iteration of correction here.