Islam, Past And Future
This is the Kabaa,
the central shrine of
Islam, located in
These are whirling dervishes, performing a
sacred dance used to raise spiritual energy. The
A central question
being asked in the
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
are just as important as spiritual realities in defining the present situation
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 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
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
Where in the Middle
East can one find anything like the path that
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.
of the internal struggles within Islam have been very similar to the struggles
within Christianity and even to the struggles within
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.
from the beginning, Mohammed in
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
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.
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
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
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
Rules about Images and Statues
Mohammed was deeply
horrified by the statues and images of tribal deities worshipped in
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
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.