Ayatollah al-Sistani: Getting out of Muslim Politics is Easier Said Than Done

Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s decision to get out of politics reminds us of the closing poem from the Chinese author Wu Ching-Tzu’s novel The Scholars:

For love of the Chinhuai River, in the old days I left home;
I wandered up and down behind Plum Root Forge,
And strolled about in Apricot Blossom Village;
Like a phoenix that rest on a plane
Or a cricket that chirps in the yard,
I used to compete with the scholars of the day;
But now I have cast off my official robes
As cicadas shed their skin;
I wash my feet in the limpid stream,
And in idle moments fill my cup with wine,
And call in a few new friends to drink with me.
A hundred years are soon gone, so why despair?
Yet immortal fame is not easy to attain!
Writing of men I knew in the Yangtse Valley
Has made me sick at heart.
In days to come,
I shall stay by my medicine stove and Buddhist sutras,
And practice religion alone.

Sistani has evidently decided to leave Shi’ite politics to the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Retreat such as this makes sense in a religion such as Buddhism, where the whole idea is to escape desire and reach Nirvana. Some forms of Christianity encourage this kind of thing. But in Islam, especially with Sufism in retreat and Islamicism (Wahabbi and otherwise) taking over, we find the idea of a prominent Muslim leader retreating from politics an oxymoron, irrespective of his own desires in the matter.

Although most Americans dislike the idea of Muqtada taking over, and his theocracy would be a disaster for everyone else in Iraq outside of Shi’a Islam, putting him in the driver’s seat would give mullah and lay politician in Tehran a serious case of heartburn.

Quotation from Wu Ching-Tzu, The Scholars. Translated by Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.

There’s Nothing Like Conversion Growth

We find al-Qaeda’s attempt to reach an American audience by convert Adam Gadahn interesting in one important respect: his appeal for Americans to convert. He tells us, “It is time for the unbelievers to discard these incoherent and illogical beliefs…Isn’t it the time for the Christians, Jews, Buddhists and atheists to cast off the cloak of the spiritual darkness which enshrouds them and emerge into the light of Islam?”

Well Adam, not really. As we noted in an earlier posting, Islam’s “consistent beliefs” have put it “behind the eight ball” for a long time. Islamic politics don’t help: Gadahn himself was turned out of a mosque for attacking its leadership. (Isn’t it amazing how converts get themselves up to speed so quickly?)

But his appeal underscores something that we too often forget: the battle going on presently is certainly political, but ultimately is one for the souls of men and women. So where do you stand in this?

The Dilemma of Islamic Civilisation: St. Thomas was Right

As the deadline for a proper response from the Iranians regarding their nuclear weapons programme passes, it probably behooves a few of us to step back and think: what is Islamic culture and civilisation all about? What would things be like if they actually achieved their objectives?  This is not an idle question. In the early years of Islam, conquest of vast civilisations was the rule rather than the exception. The early Muslim generals were right not to pursue conquest in Europe too hard; Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia were far more valuable places. All of these had been great nations at one time and even at the rise of Islam were still advanced from remote, crude places such as Britain and France.

Early Islamic civilisation was a wonder in many ways, especially when it got past the usual power holder/power challenger/careerist Arab politics. A good example of this were the Crusades. Muslims were not only able to (eventually) run the Christian forces out of the Holy Land, they were also able to demonstrate to same forces that they were living like pigs (and, as Moses Maimonides reminded us, with them) back home. Such was an impetus to do better. And Europe did. The whole genesis of modern Islamic radicalism is a shame-honour reaction to “Western” superiority, especially in the sciences. So how did this reversal take place?

One explanation comes to us in a book entitled The Ancient Engineers, written by one L. Sprague de Camp. He describes what happened to Islamic civilisation in the wake of the devastation of the Mongol invasions by the likes of Tamerlane as follows:

As a result of these devastations, Islam underwent another change: a return to religion. Many caliphs had been indifferent Muslims–skeptics, materialists, winebibbers. In view of the disasters that had befallen upon Islam, the time was ripe for a return to the true faith. In +XII and +XIII lived two of the greatest philosophers of the age. The first was an Iranian, al-Ghazzali; the second, a Neapolitan, Tomaso d’Aquino or St. Thomas Aquinas.

The pious and learned Saint Thomas (1225-74) spent much of his life arguing, at enormous length and in tiny illegible handwriting, that there was no conflict between science and religion; that all truth was one, and that therefore Aristotle’s logic must fit into the Christian faith. In face, Saint Thomas promoted Aristotle to a kind of pre-Christian saint.

The pious and learned Ghazzali (1058-1111) also studied the science and philosophy of the Greeks but came to different conclusions. After mature and searching consideration, he decided that these studies were harmful, because they shook men’s faith in God and undermined religion: “they lead to loss of belief in the origin of the world and in the creator.”

Europe followed St. Thomas, while Islam followed Ghazzali. For example, in 1150 the Khalifah of the moment proved his piety by burning the books of a philosophical library of Baghdad. As a result of these diverging trends, science and technology flowered in Europe so richly and advanced so swiftly that the rest of the world is still breathlessly trying to catch up. On the other hand, science in Islam withered away.

The real irony is that Ghazzali was right and Saint Thomas wrong. Sciences does shake men’s faith in God and undermine religion. It has been doing so for many years and shows every sign of continuing to do so . As to how it will all end, and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, only our remote descendants–if any–will be able to say. (L. Sprague de Camp, The Ancient Engineers. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993, p. 285 (original copyright 1960))

Although there is much truth to this quotation, Sprague de Camp overlooked an obvious fact: although he asserts St. Thomas was wrong, the Christian civilisation he contributed to moved forward in ways that the Islamic one Ghazzali contributed to did not. Like most secularists, Sprague de Camp both underestimates people with religious conviction and tends to run all religions together as the same when in fact they are not. This is why the secularists that inhabit the high places of North American and Europe just can’t quite fathom what they’re looking at when attempting to deal either with radical Islam or the Religious Right. (It also explains the many foreign policy errors that Western governments make when dealing with the “war on terror.”)

There are many was of explaining the disparity between Aquinas’ Christianity and Ghazzali’s Islam, but we prefer to go to the heart of the matter: the differing concepts of God. Anyone who has read St. Thomas Aquinas knows that he depicts a God who has free will, who chooses to consistently do good, and who has brought into being a creation that has order and structure (even though Aquinas and other Aristolelians don’t quite get how that order works.) That concept is backed up by the Bible, which shows us an orderly process from Creation forward. God himself has chosen to interact with his people on their level, which reached its culmination in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Such a concept invites people to look at the creation both inferior to its maker (an idea Christianity shares with Islam) and of interest to study and use. This proved a springboard for the Renaissance (which ended up being more than just a “rebirth” of the ancient world) and beyond. It survived its greatest challenge with the Reformation. For all of the positive things that came out of that, the radical Augustinianism that moulds Reformed theology is simply too close to an Islamic concept of God.

Turning to that, the Qur’an has an unbending consistency in setting forth the absolute sovereignty of God. Many of the self-imposed limitations (and we emphasise the phrase, “self-imposed,” we still hold that God is omniscient and omnipresent) of God as he interacts with his creation are out the window: goodness, caring and love for his creation and people, allowing his creatures free will, just about anything. Allah does as he pleases, and our only response is to submit. Such a concept leaves little room for anything else. This is why the two religions–and civilisations–went in two different directions.

As long as the Middle East and other Islamic areas were ruled by “local” rulers, especially the Ottomans, no one there gave the disparity much thought. It is the forced invasion of Western power, first colonial, then economic and last the establishment of a very Western (if not Christian) State of Israel proved a civilisational “shock and awe” the reaction to which the West is dealing with every day. It’s one thing to try to win by destroying your opponent, but what do you do for an encore? Islam has already dealt with this problem once. As we said above, the Crusades were a great victory for Islam. But the aftermath was centuries of decline. This may explain why most Muslims are defensive about the Crusades; they may have won the war but they followed up by losing the peace.

And this is the dilemma that thoughtful Muslims must wrestle with. We know from personal experience that there are many fine minds out there in the Islamic world labouring in scientific and technical fields. (We’ve helped a few along, too, with our free civil engineering downloads.) For the last half century, many Muslim nations have had the revenue to develop their countries in many ways, but far too much of this has been squandered. For example, the Iranians should have been able to develop their own nuclear capabilities without help from the Russians, but they did not. There are bright spots, but overall the impression is not a happy one.

Islamic radicals may be able to inflict a great deal of damage on the West, especially if our governments don’t shake off political correctness on the one hand and the raw, untempered desire to prove manliness on the other. But if such Muslims don’t adopt a more positive view of their purpose on this earth, someone will sooner or later defeat them, if they don’t inflict defeat amongst themselves. Can they find this in Islam? History, in this regard, is not encouraging. al-Ghazzali’s ghost still haunts the halls of power in Riyadh, Tehran and in bin Laden’s cave too, and until it is exorcised forward progress will be impossible.

The Sad End of Mao Dun

During my first trip to China in March 1981, I had no idea that one of the great figures of twentieth century Chinese literature was passing away: Mao Dun, the pen name for Shen Yanbing, novelist and author of Midnight, the social realist novel of Shanghai in the 1930’s. Long a place of interest, going to China only made the place an obsession. The following year, back in China, I was able to acquire Midnight for myself. Reading it left no doubt: Midnight is one of the great novels of its genre, certainly a rival to Emile Zola’s Germinal. It depicts a world where economics and war interact in an intricate way, certainly relevant for our own time. Mao Dun’s portrayal of this world isn’t two-dimensional; he saw the human complexities of the world around him in spite of his own Marxist ideology. “In spite of” eventually caught up with him. Accounts of his life present the fact that, for a while, he was Mao Zedong’s Minister of Culture. Ultimately he was caught, appropriately enough, in the Cultural Revolution. That event trashed him and many others in a way that people in the West can only imagine, with its “group struggle meetings,” public humiliations, long imprisonments, shipping intellectuals to the countryside to tend pigs, and of course capital punishment. Mao Dun survived many of these indignities, and was rehabilitated to become the president of the All China Union of Writers and many other positions. On 28 April 1978, he granted an interview with the Canadian theatre critic John Fraser, Beijing correspondent for the Globe and Mail. Having read Midnight himself, Fraser was ready for an interesting interview. Unfortunately, he was sorely disappointed:

Mao Dun turned out to be an aging mockery of what I had built him up to be. I caught him in the midst of what was clearly a difficult assignment for his somewhat confused state of mind: the assimilation of the new Party line on literature. He droned on and on about “the Party’s correct policies” and the “havoc wreacked by the Gang of Four.” Every question on contradictions facing Chinese writers were either ignored out of hand or sidestepped. I was present with a sad old man who had survived a horrible disgrace to rise again another day. He was certainly not going to be disposed of again if he could help it. Except for few moments, which I actually managed to get him to digress on his beloved daughter who died during the civil war, he declined to show his human face. Instead he lectured me on how Chinese writers now had the freedom to explore and speak out on any issue whatsoever–”except if they oppose socialism or seek to spread bourgeois ideas.” He delineated again the old Communist theories of “revolutionary romanticism and revolutionary realism” to prove that under Communism there really was true freedom of expression.

As I listened to him, noting his air of loyal confidence in the regime that had once relegated him to the dust heap of “revisionist irrelevancy,” he seemed transformed into a Chinese version of Vicar Thwackum in Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones: “When I speak of religion, Sir, I mean the Christian religion, and not just the Christian religion but the Church of England.” Mao Dun says much the same thing when he defines how a young Chinese writer should use the freedom of expression the Party has allowed him: “He [the writer] should be an optimist and put that optimism into his writing. In describing events and developing his characters, it would be be natural to look for this quality. With this optimism a writer should be able to see into the future, and by the future, of course, we mean Communism…” (John Fraser, The Chinese: Portrait of a People. New York: Summit Books, 1980 pp. 127-128.

Ever the theatre critic, Fraser’s account of the interview was capped off by Mao Dun’s own exit from the interview:

I felt toward Mao Dun the same sense of betrayal anyone feels when someone he admire turns out to be a bit of a fraud. For me, this fraud was symbolised by his departure. As I went out to my car, he was escorted with suitable fanfare to his waiting Red Flag limousine. The vast and sinister automobiles the Communist state makes available for its leaders are far larger than any equivalent vehicle a “feudal comprador capitalist exploiter” could have had in Shanghai during the thirties. Mao Dun got in and closed the door of the roomy back-seat passenger section. His chauffeur wheeled out of the entranceway with the blast of the car horn. The driver, as is usual in Peking, never stopped to see if there were any oncoming bicycle traffic: the horn blast was sufficient to alert the masses that greatness was descending upon them. Mao Dun set bolt upright in the back seat, holding his cane in front of him. One could just make out his image when a shaft of sun shone through the heavily curtained windows. As I followed him along the street for about half a mile, the limousine belched out loud honks while humble cyclists and pedestrians hurried to get out of the way. The scene could have been lifted straight out of Midnight. (Fraser, p. 128)

Below: Red Flag Limousine, the same kind as Mao Dun was whisked away in.  Beijing Hotel, 1981.

One of the appeals of left-wing movements to intellectuals is that they feel that they will be honoured and followed once the left-wingers achieve power. Unfortunately the opposite is usually the case, and Mao Dun’s life and tragic last years are as good of an illustration as one could want. Left wing leaders, politician and revolutionary alike, are fine with these people when they support their cause. But the needs of absolute power do not admit the free rein of people who see “contradictions” (the meaning of the name “Mao Dun.”) So they must be gotten out of the way. It is a cycle repeated time and again in the last century and is destined to be so again if allowed to happen.

Katrina Reflections, One Year Out

Last year, when Hurricane Katrina did her destruction on the Gulf, we spent a good deal time on the subject, as we had spent a good deal of time in South Louisiana in years past. Some of our postings were as follows:

We also had the sad task of eulogising an Arabi resident, business associate and personal friend who perished in the wake of Katrina.

We still hold that the glacial reaction of governments to the disaster is at all levels and crosses political lines. It is the failure of a generation which has lost a basic vision of the public good and sees government only to advance their agenda, be it in an active way (the left) or a passive one (the right.) This generational shift’s Waterloo took place in a state (Louisiana) where government is largely seen as a method of personal advancement for the participants. But, given the lack of shared values (which make a vision of public good possible,) we don’t see relief in the near future, or perhaps during the lifetime of anyone reading this site.

Politicising this will only make it worse.

Throwing the Minstrels Out of the House

Without a doubt one of the strangest passages of the King James Version of the Bible is as follows:

While he spake these things unto them, behold, there came a certain ruler, and worshipped him, saying, My daughter is even now dead: but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live. And Jesus arose, and followed him, and so did his disciples…And when Jesus came into the ruler’s house, and saw the minstrels and the people making a noise, He said unto them, Give place: for the maid is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn. But when the people were put forth, he went in, and took her by the hand, and the maid arose. And the fame hereof went abroad into all that land. (Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26)

This was Jesus’ first raising of the dead. It was at the instance of a synagogue ruler, which reminds us that everyone needs the power of God in their life. But what is the business about these minstrels? And why did Jesus have to throw them out?

The English language has changed a great deal since King James’ men put together their enduring translation. The term minstrels conjures up images of a bunch of guys in tights with mandolins, or the Christy Minstrels in blackface before the U.S. Civil War, or the New Christy Minstrels in the 1960’s. (Jethro Tull fans are doubtless thinking about the Minstrel in the Gallery, but we deal with the Tull fans elsewhere.)  Why would they be at a wake?

The reality is that the “minstrels” were probably professional mourners whose job was to drive home the sadness of the death by wailing and bawling, backed up by instruments, doubtless in that minor key common in so much folk music in so many places in our world. This was a common practice all around the Mediterranean. An interesting reminiscence in more recent times (before the establishment of the State of Israel) is found in Barnes’ Notes from a Professor Hackett:

During my stay at Jerusalem I frequently heard a singular cry issuing from the houses in the neighborhood of the place where I lodged, or from those on the streets through which I passed. It was to be heard at all hours– in the morning, at noonday, at evening, or in the deep silence of night. For some time I was at a loss to understand the cause of this strange interruption of the stillness which, for the most part, hangs so oppressively over the lonely city. Had it not been so irregular in its occurrence, I might have supposed it to indicate some festive occasion; for the tones of voice (yet hardly tones so much as shrieks) used for the expression of different feelings sound so much alike to the unpracticed ear, that it is not easy always to distinguish the mournful and the joyous from each other.

I ascertained, at length, that this special cry was, no doubt, in most instances, the signal of the death of some person in the house from which it was heard. It is customary, when a member of the family is about to die, for the friends to assemble around him and watch the ebbing away of life, so as to remark the precise moment when he breathes his last, upon which they set up instantly a united outcry, attended with weeping, and often with beating upon the breast, and tearing out the hair of the head. This lamentation they repeat at other times, especially at the funeral, both during the procession to the grave and after the arrival there, as they commit the remains to their last resting-place. (from Barnes’ Notes)

The well known men’s ministries leader Patrick Morley tells us that we should be focused on people who will cry at our funeral, and the minstrels’ job was to make sure that they–and everyone else in earshot–did.

The idea of people being paid to whip up grief hasn’t died around the Mediterranean. We saw this during the recent war between Hezbollah and Israel. We saw the same woman mourning the destruction of two different houses, both of which were supposed to be hers. We saw the same stuffed toy lying in the ruins on more than one place. And some of the minstrels, abandoning their lutes and mandolins, turned to Adobe Photoshop to increase the emotional reaction. Hezbollah reminded us that they could run with the best in terms of whipping up mourning and sadness, which they did to further their cause. As is usually the case in the Middle East, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

They had help from that gullible institution, the Western press. No matter how many paid “mourners” are sent in, no matter how many paid protesters march down the street, or any of the other devices people and organisations use to induce emotions, the press is there to uncritically report everything and sometimes join these modern-day minstrels in the show. In doing this they are turning from reporters of the facts to conduits for advocacy.

Why is this? Leaving aside straightforward bias (which is prevalent enough in our media,) part of the problem is haste: they’re in too big of a hurry to “get the story” to make sure it is the story. There’s also laziness at work here; it’s a lot easier (and safer, especially in the Middle East) to sit in the hotel and gather rumours from your local handlers than to do a little digging. Journalists, like the prophecy preachers, also show a consistent lack of sophistication and common sense in interpreting the workings of the world around them. Many came into the profession to change the world; when the world doesn’t fit their mould, they simply ignore the contradictory facts and go on. Their philosophy mirrors the Moody Blues: “But we decide which is right/And which is an illusion.”

This is not to say that we should be callous to human suffering. Jesus himself, at his last raising from the dead while on this earth, wept at the passing of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35.) And when on this earth, he shared our sad state: “Our High Priest is not one unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who has in every way been tempted, exactly as we have been, but without sinning…Jesus, in the days of his earthly life, offered prayers and supplications, with earnest cries and with tears, to him who was able to save him from death; and he was heard because of his devout submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from his sufferings…” (Heb. 4:15, 5:7-8)

But Jesus’ work on this earth is ultimately about healing, reconciliation and the truth. In his first raising from the dead, he found it necessary to clear the house of all of those who were profiting from the tragedy that was in front of them before he reversed it. The lesson from this is clear: if we want healing (Isaiah 53:5), reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18), and the truth (John 14:6), the first thing we’re going to have to do is to throw the minstrels out of the house.

A Ninth Anniversary, and a New Face for Our Blog

The end of August represents this site’s ninth anniversary. It was in 1997–right about the time Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed careened into eternity in Paris–that we started this page’s predecessor.

Many things have changed since that time, not the least of which is the advent of blogging. In a sense, this page has been a blog from the start, but blogging in straight HTML isn’t the easiest thing to do, even when you understand the code.

We have used FushionNews since April of last year. The web never stops changing, and this routine has been outpaced by the changes (most not for the better) on the web. So we start afresh.

We’ll still offer access to the sixteen months of postings we made while using that. For those of you who follow us with RSS, that has changed too; the new URL is at the bottom of the page. But with change comes the possibility of improvement. We’ve eliminated the 300 character comment limit, we now have modern blogging features such as trackback, we can categorise our postings (as we do on the “traditional” part of our site) and we have the possibility of podcasting, one we won’t pass up.

We want to thank you who are regular visitors for supporting this and our other sites and look forward to seeing you again.