Mystical Tradition: Lectures 29-35 – Sufi Mysticism

Notes on Sufi mysticism from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Sufism is the dominant form of mysticism in Islam.  It is often difficult to say whether Sufism is authentically Muslim or if it just wears the garb of Islam.   No one is quite sure what influenced it, either.  There was a gnostic sect in Iraq known as the Mandians that may have influenced Sufism.  Or it could have been influenced by Neo-Platonists.  Or maybe Manichaeism which arose in Persia.  Iraq was also the center of Jewish mysticism (Merkabah Mysticism) so it could have been influenced by that.  Or, it could have been a reaction to the rigidity of the time.

Dr. Johnson thinks the most likely influence is the universal impulse for personal transformation that is seen in all religions.  This search always takes on the symbols in which it finds itself.

According to Sufis, one must move past appearances to find what is most real (al Haqq).  The empirical world is not what is most real.  It is illusory.  The goal of the path (which is understood internally) is unity with that which is most real.  Ordinary empirical existence camouflages that which is most real.  This camouflage is what is known as “The Veil”.  One must move past appearances to find what is most real.  This is what it means to “Pierce the Veil”.

The Sufis have a threefold path of self-transformation.

  • knowledge
  • love
  • prayer

The Sufi’s progress is marked by definite stages (stations) and is described as a caravan. You cannot rise from one station to another until you have fulfilled the provisions of the first.  A state is a gift from Allah over which the Sufi has no control.  A state could be an ecstatic mystical experience, for instance. States are bestowed, stations are attained.

Early Sufi mysticism is similar to Jewish Merkabah mysticism – there is much referent to going into the heavenly places and receiving knowledge.   Rabi ‘a al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (717-801) was an important early female Sufi and probably the most notable among all the female Sufis.  There was gender equality among the Sufis, thanks in part to Rabi’a.   The sayings of this woman resemble those of the Christian sayings of the Desert Fathers.  They are very short sayings.  Rabi’a lived a life of extreme poverty and trust in Allah.  Stories of miracles began to accumulate around her.

There was a spectacular spread of Islam in its first centuries.  With this spread came an explosion of intellectual energy and innovative speculation in philosophy and theology.  Muslims were making major contributions in every field – math, literature, science, medicine, and this contribution was far exceeding that made by the Christians of that time.  Islam’s greatest brilliance was in the 10th-12th centuries.  It took a while for Europe to catch up.

But there were also tensions in Islam.  Several questions caused quite a bit of division among Islamic thinkers.  Could ijtihad (free inquiry) be applied as much to the doctrines of Islam as to its law?  Is the Quran and Hadith internally coherent, or are they coherent with other knowledge?  Was there any possibility of reconciling the rational inquiry associated especially with Greek philosophy and the highest achievement of human intelligence, but found among idolaters and the Quran, which is directly from God and therefore must bear all truth in itself?  Were there limits to the Sufi experience for it to remain in Islam?

There was an early theological dispute between faith and works: How can Allah be all powerful but hold humans accountable?  This is especially problematic in Islam because the omnipotence of God is so stressed.  Judgment is on the basis of what humans do.  So how can God be both just and powerful?  Perhaps God must be weak and just?

There were three stances taken on this topic.  The Mu’tazila Party took the rationalists approach.  God’s justice must logically be measured by human reason and the human understanding of justice.  Therefore, the Quran is not an eternal word, but only a human word.  The Orthodox Party appealed to Allah as known through the Quran as an absolute measure.  We know justice from what Allah does, and human reason must conform itself to what Allah actually does.  The Quran is therefore eternal and not subject to eternal reason.  Abu’l Hasan al Ash’ari (874-936) applied free inquiry (reason) to faith but still made faith the measure.  He did this by distinguishing the physical Quran as a finite expression of the eternal word of Allah.  This was a compromise position for a problem that is impossible to resolve completely.

Al Ghazzali sought to resolve many of the intellectual tensions and suffered a spiritual crisis in his obsession to do so.  Deliverance from Error (1100) is akin to Augustine’s Confessions (both are spiritual autobiographies).  Al Ghazzali was a student of law, theology and philosoophy.  He was professor and Dean of Nizamiyah University in 1091 and would lecture to as many as 300 students at a time.  He wanted to find out what constitutes certainty in knowledge which eventually led him to become a skeptic for several months in 1095.  Then he became Sufi.  The certitude that al-Ghazzali finally realizes – “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.”   His experience of the Sufi way brought him a kind of certitude.  He discovered that it is located in the heart, not in the mind.  Al Ghazzali adopts an epistemological position that resembles that of Democritus or Epicurus  which is also later adopted by David Hume – all that philosophers can actually see are atoms interacting at random, not real causation.  Philosophy does not give rational certainty because ultimately, it can only provide opinion.  For Al Ghazzali, this means it is Allah alone that causes everything.  Therefore only faith gives secure knowledge of what is real.  Mysticism is the inner meaning of the system, but the Sufi must stay within the exoteric framework of the Shari’ah (law).  The mystic is answerable to the Shari’ah because the patterns of law for the community can itself be a source of inquiry for mystic knowledge.  The Sufi mystical way is an intensification of the Shari’ah way of life.

Ibn al’Arabi is another great Sufi master (1165-1240).  He was born in Spain which was a center of Muslim culture at the time.   He compared Jesus’ ability to raise people from the dead to Gabriel’s utterance of the Quran.  It is Breathing.  His writing is reminiscent of the Kabbalah (the one and the many) and he represents a form of gnosis.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) is probably the best known of all Sufi masters.  He said that Allah is the God of all, both good and evil, and it all goes toward creating a masterpiece, a beautiful tapestry.  Rumi’s religion is one of love.  He founded the Mawlawi Sufiorder that spread throughout Turkey and played a very large role in Turkey’s culture and history.  The order is known for its singing, dancing, and Whirling Dervishes and has always been led by a descendant of its founder.

Europe launched 2 Crusades against Islam in the 13th century, but by this time they had been in Europe for a very long period of time, a time period equivalent to the American Revolutionary War to Ronald Reagan.  It was during this time period that Muslims started making their way into North Africa.  And they remained influential in North Africa for centuries (think Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton).  It’s an ancient civilization by the time of later Sufi mystics.  The Islamic way of life is deeply entrenched in North Africa.

Among the Sufis that greatly influenced this Islamic way of life is Umar ibn al-Farid (1181-1253).  He was a member of the Shafi’i school which emphasized ijtihad – free & critical inquiry.  He was a remarkable poet who lived as a Hermit.  Ibn al-Hasan (1997-1258) founded the Shadhiliyyah Order which resembled a Third Order (lay people) in Christianity.  The Emphasis was on right thinking and right practice and it was a merging of Islam and Sufism.

Ibn Ala’illah (1250-1309) wrote The Book of Wisdom.  He said that the way of the Sufi is not one of instant gratification.  One must move through stages or stations to receive more mystical states.  One should not be longing for special psychological experiences if the fundamental groundwork has not been laid. “The Real is not veiled from you.  Rather, it is you who are veiled from seeing It; for were anything to veil It, then that which veils it would cover It.  But if there were a covering to It, then that would be a limitation to Its Being; Every limitation to anything has power over it.  And He is the omnipotent, above his servants…. The devotees and the ascetics are alienated from everything only because of their absence from God in everything.  Had they contemplated Him in everything, they would not have been alienated from anything.”  For Ala’illah the ascetic is someone who starts off being hard on himself and ends up being hard on everyone else.  The ultimate point of musticism is to be able to have compassion and understanding of all that is.  One is not simply looking at Realy.  One is looking at Reality with Allah’s eyes.

The last North African Sufi Master mentioned by Dr. Johnson is Ibn ‘abbad of Ronda (1332-1390).  He said that the knowledge that comes from the mystic way is diametrically opposed to the Law in the Shari’ah.  Therefore, those who get caught up in the specifics of the Shari’ah are missing the point of the Shari’ah which is the mystic way – the internal transformation of the person.

Then there are the Sufi Saints of Persia and India…

Islam was in Persia from the start.  Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (1006-1089) was extremely conservative intellectually and spiritually.  He was a member of Hanbali, a 9th century conservative legal school that only recognized the Quran and Hadith.  He wrote against the use of ijtihad and was actually imprisoned for a time because he was such a hyper-literalist.  “If the teacher says Allah has a hand, then Allah has a hand.”  He wasn’t capable of great poetry, but there is no mistaking his poetry for the longing of God.  He provides a mystical counter example to Sufism.

At another extreme is Fakhruddin Iraqi (1213-1289) who was a child prodigy that traveled widely.  He actually met Rumi and several other famous Sufis.  His primary interest was esoteric gnosis.  He wrote remarkably gorgeous poetry.  As with Teresa of Avila claiming to be a speck of foam in a vast ocean, Iraqi used the ocean to denote unity with God for waters merge and become One.

Nizam ad-Din Awliya (1242-1325) grew up in intense poverty and down-played the miraculous in favor of humanitarianism.  There is a repeated emphasis in his teaching on directed service and sharing of material possessions amongst people.  There is also a strong emphasis on hospitality and paying attention to manners.

Sharafuddin Ahmad ibn Yahya Maniri (1263-1381) was known as the Spiritual Teacher of the Realm.  He left his wife and children to pursue a life of celibacy.  He found a teacher and escaped into the woods.  After many years, he was persuaded to be a teacher.  He built a center where he taught until his death. The Sufi movement had an internal progression.  It was said to start with Adam and all the prophets were Sufis who wore the cloak that had been bestowed upon them by their predecessors.  Moses and Jesus were in this sense Sufis.

Sufism in the 20th century has been directly affected by modernity, just as Jewish and Christian mysticism.  Sufism, to rationalists, represented everything backwards about Islam.  It appeared way too otherworldly and out of touch with the modern world.  At the same time, it was very threatening to conservative Muslims because Sufism advocated a conversation between Islam and philosophy and science.

Conservative Muslims attack what they consider to be the pantheism of Sufism.  Islamic reform has been constantly moving toward the Exoteric and away from the personal transformation advocated by the Sufis which has made it very difficult for Sufism to find a place within Islam since modern times. It has become quite popular among non Islamic western spiritualists, however.

Fatimah al-Yashrutiyya (1891-1978) was born when her father, the Shaykh Ali Nur al-Din Yashruti was 100 years old.  She was orphaned at the age of 8 but her father had encouraged her and many other girls to follow the way of Sufis and she dedicated herself to the Sufi path.   She was invited to submit a paper on Sufism at a conference in Houston, which she did.  It was subsequently published and provides an example of how Sufism has made it’s way into the wider world.

Idries Shah (1924-1996)  was born in India and has traveled world wide as a Sufi Master.  He presents Sufism as a cognitive mastery that predates and transcends Islam.  In a sense, he de-Islamicized Sufism.   Inayat Khan (1882-1927) was also born in India and claimed Sufism transcended all religion.  He is the Founder of Universal Sufism and the Sufi Order International.

Thomas Merton had read Alawi and was deeply fascinated.  Huston Smith saw Sufism as the key to a philosophia perennis which priveleges spirituality over religion.  The idea is that religious convictions divide people but spirituality unites them and Sufism offers an appropriate candidate for a world embracing spirituality.

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 26-28 – A Brief History of Islam

Notes on Islamic mysticism from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Mohammed as Prophet and Mystic

The politics of the west tend to ignore the significance of Islam in the world.  Christians, in particular are guilty of a deep bias toward Islam.

However, Islam embraces all ethnic groups in the world and there are key beliefs that connect it with Christianity and Judaism.

  • There is one God.
  • This one God, Allah, has created the world.
  • Allah has revealed himself to humans in history through commandments.
  • Humans are to respond to Allah in faith and obedience.
  • On the basis of that conviction individuals either face an eternity of heaven or hell.

Islam traces its beginnings to Adam.  Muhammed (570-632 CE) is the founder of Islam.  His name means “highly praised”.  It is difficult to derive a biography of Muhammed.  In order to do so, the Quran must be supplemented by the Hadith. The Hadith are stories concerning the Prophet Muhammed.  There were 200,000 stories by the year 800 CE.   Al-Bukari (810-870) managed to bring the 200,000 stories down to 73,000 stories which was much more manageable, but is still a lot to wade through.  The technique he used to do this was very similar to the Jewish technique that was used for the Talmud.

Islam came about because there had been a major dislocation in pre-Islamic Arabia from rural life to urban life.  Both were primarily polytheistic, but there were also dissident groups of Christians (those shunned by orthodoxy, of course) and Jews.  (The Quran has elements of the Gospel of Thomas).  The Ka’bah was controlled by wealthy families in Mecca and was a polytheistic idol.

Muhammed was a member of the Quraish tribe and was an orphan.  He was raised by an uncle who managed a well called ZamZam.  It was associated in lore with the well owned by Hagar and Ishmael.  This is how Muslims trace their Abrahamic descent.  Muhammed  became the business manager of a woman who was several years his senior and married her (Kadijah) in 595.  Kadijah was immensely important. She was an immediate and powerful supporter of the prophet emotionally.  She had a cousin who happened to be a Christian.  And she offered financial stability which enabled Muhammed to pursue his religious vocation.

Muhammed was disturbed by the religious and social immorality of the cites.  In 610, he had a mystical experience that was mediated by the angel Gabriel.  It was Kadijah who helped Muhammed understand the significance of his experience – that Muhammed was being called to be a prophet and to proclaim that Allah, alone, is God to all people.  All should submit to Allah for all of their life (islama – submit).

In Mecca, he was mocked for 12 years so his message had little success.  He therefore left Mecca and went to Medina.  This flight from Mecca to Medina is known as the Hijrah.  Those who went with him are called immigrants.  Those who welcomed him are known as helpers.   Hijrah is the first date of the Muslim calender in 622 CE.  This is an important date because it is when the message was finally accepted.  In 629-630 CE, Muhammed conquered Mecca with 10,000 troops.  He returned to Medina and died in 632 CE.

Some things that set him apart from other prophets in the Abrahamic faiths is that he was not an ascetic, he was not a monk (there are no monks in Islam), and he died with many wives.

The great miracle associated with Islam is the Quran which is known as the mother of all books.  It is thought to be the literal word of Allah as dictated to the illiterate Muhammed.   The dictation began on Mt. Hira in 610 with a recitation throughout the 9th lunar month of Ramadan.  It was memorized by the Prophet’s followers as he recited it and it was not written down until after his death.  It was standardized under the third Caliph Uthman in 651 and 652.  There is no narrative structure.  It is all revelation, poetry, legal materials, etc.  There is no story in it whatsoever.   It contains both Jewish and Christian materials, but it thoroughly reworks them.

The House of Islam

God and humans are in relationship.  Islama is full submission…

  • submission of the mind
  • submission of the will
  • submission of the heart

The relationship of Islama to God is what leads to peace (salam).

Rather than trace Christianity to Moses – Paul traced it back to Abraham in Galatians.  Muhammed does the same thing…  “Abraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian, but he was an upright man who had surrendered (to Allah), and he was not of the idolaters.  Say: Allah speaketh truth.  So follow the religion of Abraham, the upright.  He was not of the idolaters.”

Muslims are said to be descended to Abraham by Ishmael through Islama [submission] to God.  “I bear witness.  There is no God but Allah.  And I bear witness Muhammed is the Rasul [ambassador, messenger, representative] of Allah.”  Muhammed embodies the message of Allah to the people.  This is a very simple compared to the complicated creed of the Christians.

The Fatihah (opening) of the Quran…

Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, the Beneficent, the merciful, owner of the Day of Judgment, Thee Alone do we worship; Thee alone do we ask for help.  Show us the straight path, the path of those whom thou has favored; not the path of those who earn thine anger nor of those who go astray.”

The path is for those who submit, not for those who shirk.   (Shirking is to neglect, to forget, to wander away, to stray – it is the opposite of Islama.)

The monotheism of Islam is strict and radical.  Giving partners to Allah, in any form is forbidden.  Humans are God’s special creation and reflect Allah.  All humans are created equal in Allah.

The Quran is the final interpretation just as Muhammed puts the final seal on prophecy.  According to Muslims, Jews and Christians shirk.  They have corrupted their scriptures which is why a definitive prophecy is required.  Jews make two mistakes.  They do not recognize Jesus as a prophet and they make Torah equal to God.  Christians shirk by making Jesus a partner of Allah.  Jesus is a prophet of Allah.  Jesus has a place in heaven and bypassed death (probably based on gnostic gospels circulating at the time).  But for Muslims, Jesus remains only human.  “It becometh not Allah to have a Son.”  Jesus is not divine and Christians who make Jesus divine are shirking.  They have given partners to Allah.

In Islam, there is a tension between universality and particularity.  Islama is open to all, yet Muhammed must be recognized as the prophet.  The Quran can be read by all, but only in Arabic.  There are no rituals of initiation in Islam.  All you must do is slowly recite the Shahadah with intention and consciously mean it.  If you do this, then you are a Muslim.

There are five pillars of observance…

  • Confessions of faith
  • Prayer of salat
  • Obligatory alms/zakat (sharing of possessions)
  • Practice of fasting during Ramadan
  • Pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)

The Shi’a

85-95% of Muslims adhere to the Sunni tradition.  (Sunni means custom).  However, there are distinct schools of interpretation of “The Law” (Shari’ah).   Within the Sunni tradition, there are several schools of thought that arose to interpret the law and all are recognized. However, the Shi’a party of Muslims (10-15% of Muslims world-wide but are the majority in Iran – 95% and Iraq – 65%),  have a very different view than that of the Sunni.  The Sunni maintain a non-mystical, secular understanding of succession.  For the Shi’a, there are no legitimate successors from any of the Sunni sources.  For Sunni’s, the Imam is the leader of prayer.  For the Shi’a, the Imam is an authority.  According to the Shi’a, and Imam has to be related to Muhammed.  Therefore the Shi’a view the Sunni as illigitimate because of how they regard the successors.  This means the Shi’a are allowed to carry out jihad on the Sunni.

The Shi’a believe it is not just the message that is needed, but the messenger that is needed to protect the message – a personification of the message.  Therefore, the prophet must designate a leader from the family.  (This is similar to the idea of Christian incarnation and Jewish Tzadddik.)  There are sects within Shi’a.  Twelvers are the majority of Shi’ites.  They recognize 12 Imams (this is found mostly in Iran).  Muhammed al-Mahdi is thought to be the 12th Imam.  He has simply removed himself although in the eyes of others, he died in 873.  According to the Shi’a, he will return.  There is another sect known as Seveners because they only recognize7 Imams.

This once again makes a point Johnson brings up frequently: The more central a symbol, the more cause for religious division.

I’ll move on to the Sufis tomorrow.  That’s where the real fun begins!!!

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 2-3 – Symbols Used in Western Mysticism

Continuing with The Great Courses lecture series entitled Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam offered by Timothy Luke Johnson, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University…

The three “Western” religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (called western because they moved westward, not because they originated in the west) are monotheistic which means they share an understanding of God in relation to the world.  God is other/different than what is seen in the empirical world.  In order to approach God, one must likewise be “other”/different (holy).  This one God has created the world which is real, but relative. It is dependent upon the creator. God and world are constantly created in a process of becoming.

All three religions are prophetic religions and they are “religions of the book”. The primary prophets are Moses, Jesus and Muhammed.  Prophets do not predict the future, but they are able to see what others do not see through the use of the “third eye”.  Each tradition has scripture and a means of interpreting scripture.  In Judaism, the means of interpretation is the Oral Torah. In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit. In Islam, it is the Hadith. The first response to God is not love, it is obedience – doing the will of God. Piety toward God is understood as morality toward the neighbor.  Prosperity that neglects the need of the poor is condemned in all three traditions.

Today, scripture is read more for information than for transformation.  Prior to the 1800s, it was read for transformation.  The Bible was used as a set of examples for its readers to follow.

The TaNak (Old Testament) is a direct source for Christians and Jews, and an indirect source for Muslims.  Moses is the first and greatest of prophets and provides the first great experience of God. (A prophet is a mystic – somebody who has a direct vision of God).  There were those before Moses who had encounters with God, but it is through Moses that the Bible first shows a life permeated by the direct experience of God.

Moses goes up the mountain and draws close to the thick darkness where God is. The ascent up the mountain is an ascent into darkness. This ascent is an exoteric symbol for an esoteric experience.  It is described as an outward ascent but is actually a descent into interiority (inner experience).  The approach to God is often described by ascent or pilgrimage. These are spatial metaphors for what is happening internally.

The most common symbols of human access to God:

  • crossing the sea and desert
  • ascending the mountain
  • experiencing a dark cloud and fire
  • a sea of glass or sapphire
  • the land of rest

Isaiah had a vision of a throne inside a palace. The place is known has hekel and recurs frequently. Ezekiel’s vision remained at the heart of Jewish mysticism for centuries.  The heavens open, there is a storm in the North, flashing flames, and the appearance of four living creatures with four faces, four wings, moving in fire-filled clouds.  Ezekiel also describes the merkabah, the heavenly movable throne chariot.  Daniel provides the first apocalyptic writing.  Like Ezekiel, he describes a heavenly throne, flames, and wheels which shows literary dependence – the symbols of previous prophets are used by later prophets.

Daniel refers to the covenant of marriage between man and woman to describe God’s relationship with His people.  Jeremiah introduced the language of the heart into the prophetic.  Ezekiel uses the language of eroticism between God & human beings, which has proven to be quite dangerous when misread by literalists.  The punishment of the bride refers to God’s people, but literalists take it to mean the punishment of actual female brides. The Song of Solomon provides powerful erotic poetry without an explicit religious motif and it becomes one of the most important sources for erotic poetry for God.

Mystics within Judaism, Christianity and Islam work and rework these sets of symbols for centuries.

Waiting for Armageddon

Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I have lived around End Times theology and theories all my life.  Many a lunch break was spent discussing what would happen during the rapture in middle school and high school.  Everyone wanted to be rapture ready because being left behind was unthinkable.

I inherited the mentality from my friends, not my family.  And that was before all the Left Behind books became popular.  As each voyeuristic episode grew more destructive and violent, more people were hooked, and more people started writing their own versions.  (We lived across the street from a semi-popular “left behind” novelist.)  Apparently, millions of Americans love the idea of horrible harm coming to those who do not think as they do.  A compassionate Jesus? Who needs him if you are waiting for Armageddon?

Waiting for Armageddon, a documentary by Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, and Franco Sacchi, explores the people who believe that Armageddon is around the corner and that Israel will be the site of Christ’s second coming.  It begins by stating that more than 50 million Americans believe that the Bible lays out the future of humankind in precise detail.   Among these, many believe that Christ will return to lead a final holy war in the land of Israel.  The show claims that 20 million Americans believe Jesus will return in their life time.  And remember the Pew statistics I quoted the other day?  41% of Americans believe Jesus will return before 2050.

According to many who believe in Biblical prophecy, the world will be destroyed in a chain of miraculous events:

  1. The Rapture – believers are snatched up by Jesus
  2. The Tribulation – seven years of war, violence, and destruction for those left behind
  3. Armageddon – the final epic battle between good and evil
  4. The Millennium – the return of the believers to a paradise on earth where there no longer is any evil

First comes  “The Rapture” which is based on Thessalonians 4:17: “We will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

The Rapture comes from the Greek word harpazo which means to snatch up or take up.  When Christ returns in the clouds, he will snatch up believers with him.  This will happen in an instant.  Suddenly, the 50 million or more believers will be gone – whisked out of their offices, homes or wherever it is they happen to be.  One minute they are here.  The next, poof!  Gone.  They will be snatched out of their cars, leaving them unmanned on the road which will cause accidents.  It will completely terrorize those who are left behind.

Second comes “The Tribulation”, based on Matthew 24:21: “Then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world.”   Those who chose not to believe in God before “the Rapture” will be left to suffer the seven year tribulation.  75% of the earth will be wiped out.  Ecological disasters, meteors hitting the earth, episodes like 9/11 happening every day, 1/3 of the waters will turn to blood.  Five to six years into “The Tribulation”, half of the world will be dead.  Violence and wars will radically increase. This is the time period when God finishes his judgment and discipline of Israel.

There is a belief that during this time, there will be enough Jews to create a nation.  Supposedly, 144,000 Jews will convert and evangelize. The Jews who do not convert, will perish. The temple will be rebuilt. (The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine. Leviticus 25:23.)  Thousands of Americans who believe in End Times make pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year to visit the Islamic mosque that used to be the temple.  This can be problematic because both evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Jews hope for the destruction of the mosque in order that the  temple can be built again.  Jews because they believe it is their right.  American evangelists because it points to Armageddon.  In fact, many Americans interviewed in the documentary dream of something absolutely horrible happening to destroy the mosque (like an earthquake or nuclear boms) so the temple can be rebuilt. Very few are interested in peaceful negotiations.  It’s no wonder things are so contentious.

American evangelical fundamentalists explain Islam as a world dominating religion. Believers are required to take over the world for Allah. Yet, throughout history, it could be argued that Islam has been far more tolerant of Jews than Christianity.  And get real – it’ not as though the fundamentalists love the Jews.  They fully expect them to convert or be destroyed by the wrath of God.  It would seem that the God of Christianity wants Christians to take over the world for God more than does Allah want the Muslims to take over the world for Islam.  It’s a projection – cast the finger out there at “those people”, when the finger should really be pointed at yourself.

But that’s the nature of fundamentalism.   You have to have something to point the finger at so that you don’t have to look too closely at yourself.  In the 1970s, the “evil ones” were Red China and the Communist Block of Russia.  But with the fall of Russia and the end of the cold war, the evangelicals have had to find new “evil ones” so have shifted their focus to Islam. There must be an evil “them” in order to have a righteous “us”.  Doesn’t matter who it is.

Apocalyptic literature was never meant as a script for those in power.  It was written for those persecuted by those in power.  In the hands of the powerful, it is no longer inspirational, but rather a self-fulfilling prophecy of violence and destruction. For example, John Hagee called for a strike on Iran because of what he understands as Biblical prophecy.  Yet, no where does the Bible claim that WWIII is part of God’s plan.

Armageddon is the third stage in the chain of events.  “Their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, and their eyes will rot in their sockets.”  Zechariah 14:12.

I’d never heard this before, but mysticism is of genuine concern for many evangelicals because they claim it has led to an interpretation of the Bible that isn’t literal.  Yet, mysticism has been around a lot longer than has fundamentalism and has always been the common link between world religions.  According to Huston Smith, fundamentalism didn’t come into being until the 19th century.  Far from creating bridges, fundamentalism creates deep divides by claiming that it’s way is the only way to Truth.

Anyway, the story goes that the Jews will sign a peace treaty with their Arab neighbors that turns out to be false.  This treaty allows the antichrist to move into the temple and declare himself God.  This will be when the Jews realize he is not the promised Messiah and this will lead to Armageddon, the epic end-time battle.

The Millennium is the fourth stage in the chain of events.  “And they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Revelation 20:4.  Christ is going to trash the planet, but he’s going to clean it up for the millennium.  No EPA necessary.

All of this would simply be amusing if there weren’t so many powerful political personalities who believe it.  These people are organized and are making their way into every part of politics, both local and national.  It’s so bad that many evangelicals who don’t share these particular End Times theories are concerned by the power of those who do.

Rick Steves: A Perspective on Iran

This Rick Steves lecture on is about an hour and twenty minutes long but I started watching and couldn’t stop!

Rick Steves usually takes us on travels through Europe but says he decided to make the trip to Iran with his camera crew because you should get to know the people you want to bomb. He wanted to show the human side of Iran which hasn’t really been done in American media.

Even amidst the “Death to America” propaganda largely displayed throughout Iran, he said he felt very welcomed by the Iranian people. He thinks the propaganda is primarily white noise for most people. In fact, one day his driver said, “Death to traffic!” He asked his driver why he would say “death to traffic” and was told that Iranians say death to anything that frustrates them. So, “Death to America” is somewhat akin to an American saying, “Damn those teenagers”.

Many other things we are horrified by become reasonable once you understand them from the Iranian perspective. For instance, Steves was at first horrified to see that there was a “Woman’s Only” subway car. What he discovered, however, was that women could travel in whatever car they wanted but that the “Woman’s Only” car was available to those who wished to use it. A woman suggested that women in New York City might appreciate the ability to travel in a Woman’s Only subway car. (Are they called cars? I’ve never lived where there are subways.)

We are also very often appalled to learn that women and men are separated for worship. But again, this is practical. Muslim prayer is very active – lots of bowing down. How distracting would it be if you are behind a beautiful woman whose butt keeps flashing in front of your face during prayer?

What Steves wants us to realize is that Americans are as blind to our brainwashing as the Iranians are to theirs. Our main thrust is to sell things so that we can make money and become affluent. If you are up late at night, what’s on TV? Shopping advertisements of all kinds and cute girls telling you to call them. In Iran, if you are up late at night, there are all kinds of channels giving you the opportunity to pray. For us, shopping and selling is a sort of religion, but we don’t see it that way.

The Iranians are very threatened by the encroachment of Western Values on their values and with good reason. It’s not an unreasonable fear on their part. And if we would take more time to try and understand them, we might be able to stop doing the things that make them put the hard-line politicians in office. They would be far more moderate than they are today.  

The point Steves makes is definitely true:  if we had had a terrorist attack just before the recent elections, we’d probably have a different President right now. When people are afraid, they always go for the hardliner. What we need to do is replace that fear with understanding.

You’d probably get more out of watching the lecture yourself than reading my thoughts about it.  (Also, check out his website: Iran: Yesterday and Today.)

Under the Bombs (2007)

Under the Bombs is a riveting movie about a Shiite woman (very untraditional, wealthy, and beautiful) who is looking for her six year old son and sister. A Christian taxi driver agrees to help her find her son.

It takes place in 2006 during the cease fire between Lebanon and Israel and is shot entirely on sight in war-torn Lebanon. The devastation is unimaginable. You hear about these conflicts and you get various images from the news. But traveling with these two people throughout the country-side looking for a child provides a completely different perspective, painful, gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. Director Philippe Aractingi only used two professional actors. The rest are people playing themselves – journalists, soldiers, refugees, villagers, taxi drivers…

The amazing thing about the film is that it doesn’t take sides, although Aractengi claims he does takes sides – he is for the innocent and against those who make war. The film portrays the suffering of the children and adults who are not at all concerned with politics. As the woman says, “This is not MY War.”

Excellent, excellent movie.

Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam

I watched a movie recently called “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam”. It wasn’t a great movie as far as movies go, but I learned a lot I didn’t know.

Omar Khayyam was a Persian Muslim in the 11th century. He was a mathematician who laid down many of the principles of Algebra which were later adopted by Europeans. He was also a famous astronomer and created a calendar that is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar that we use today. It is also said that he proved, long before Galileo, that the universe does not revolve around the earth.

What he became best known for, however, is his poetry. I had read The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in college and was taught that it was a perfect example of hedonism. I didn’t question this interpretation at all until I watched The Keeper and re-read the poem.

It is clear from his Rubaiyat that Khayyam was not a religious man. He didn’t believe in a God that passed out rewards and punishments or any kind of divine intervention whatsoever. Life is for living so live it! Quit focusing upon eternal salvation in the future.

I recently made a fairly intensive study of Nietzsche who is also very often cited as promoting hedonism. But read Nietzsche carefully and you realize that an undisciplined hedonism is not at all what Nietzsche is prescribing. What Nietzsche is prescribing is a sort of mysticism. To understand this, you have to understand the term “mysticism” without all of its modern-day prejudices.

Nietzsche said “God is dead” and he was absolutely right as far as I’m concerned. But he wasn’t the first to make this claim. Read the famous medieval Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing. Both basically make the same statement. God cannot be known so any discussion about God (for or against) is nothing more than an idea. Eventually, all ideas die when they are no longer of use to society and this includes our ideas about God.

Thomas Merton, a more recent Christian mystic, had no trouble whatsoever with Nietzsche’s statement that God is dead. If you truly want to know God, you have to be willing to kill him. The Buddhists have a popular saying: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. What you are being asked to kill is an image.

For both strict rationalists and faithful believers, this is very difficult to understand. Believers ardently and faithfully uphold their image of God by claiming their image is God. Disbelievers claim there is no God and thereby likewise uphold the image the ardent believers have made. Nietzsche realized this and writes of a madman who runs into a crowd screaming “God is Dead”. The madman realizes the people cannot understand – that he has come too early. If the crowd had been a religious crowd they would have been outraged by this claim. But the crowd did not attack, they just looked at him blankly like he was crazy. The madman was exclaiming “God is Dead” to those who claimed not to believe in God. Those who claim there is no God unintentionally uphold the very idea of God they claim to oppose so they do not yet know that God is dead even though they claim there is no God. Nietzsche warns us in no uncertain terms: we have been a slave to the Christian faith for far too long and now we should refuse to become a slave to reason.

Omar Khayyam was Muslim. He did not put his name on this Rubaiyat (a form of poetry that is comprised of four lines, three of which rhyme) because what he was writing was extremely controversial at the time. He spoke out against religious hypocrisy and promoted behavior that was considered sinful. Yet he never denied the existence of God. You cannot deny or affirm what cannot be known rationally and to think everything can be understood rationally is a religion all it’s own.

A few verses from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (I have Edward Fitzgerald’s rendering):

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once is blown for ever dies.


I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And after many days my Soul return’d
And said, “Behold, Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”
Heav’n but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire,
And Hell the Shadow of a Soul on fire,
Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.


The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all Your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.


What is, is! Our piety, hopes of Paradise, and thoughts of reward and punishment won’t change what is. So accept life at face value and live in the Now! This isn’t undisciplined hedonism. It’s mysticism.

The next verse reminded me of Nietzsche’s discussions about how we need to move away from our worship of Apollo and turn to Dionysus:

You know, my Friends, how bravely in my House
For a new Marriage I did make Carouse;
Divorced old barren reason from my Bed,
And took the daughter of the Vine to spouse.

For “Is” and “Is-not” with Rule and Line
And “Up and Down” by Logic I define,
Of all that one should care to fathom, I
Was never deep in anything – but Wine

Apollo is the god of reason. Dionysus is the god of wine and ecstasy. Reason is important and valuable, but we cannot experience ecstasy through reason or the images we create. We experience ecstasy through the living of life itself on its own terms.