Sunday, 16 September 2012

Sunday Sermon: Mohammed is not the Last Prophet

Hello Everything. Thank you for all of your world, your people and your revelation. Bless our paths that they may together lead to peace and a place of understanding. Forgive us our imperfections and ignorances as we forgive the imperfections and ignorances of others. Thy will be done. Amen.


The Bahá'í faith is a relative newcomer to the monotheist club. It was started in 1866 in Iran by one Bahá'u'lláh who claimed to be a messiah type figure prophesied by a dominant Shi'a version of Islam. He is the Bahá'í prophet, to them a later prophet than Mohammed, the latest in a line that included Moses and Jesus as well. He is also an incarnation of Elijah and John the Baptist. All of this is archaic and idolatrous enough, in my view, but no more than the other monotheisms, and I don't know how seriously practitioners take the mythology.

And on the face of it (and I wouldn't know otherwise) the religion is universalist, compassionate and progressive. Women are recognised as men's equals, universal education is emphasised, all religions are respected as different paths, and indeed millions of paths to God are respected. God is transcendent above all and all are equally God's people. My kind of theology in many ways.

But within a generation the religion was being brutally persecuted and has been periodically ever since. Today it is outlawed in Egypt, variously persecuted in several other Arab countries and severely repressed in its homeland Iran.

I can't say the following better than Wikipedia: "Bahá'ís as well as the United Nations, Amnesty International, the European Union, the United States and peer-reviewed academic literature have stated that the members of the Bahá'í community in Iran have been subjected to unwarranted arrests, false imprisonment, beatings, torture, unjustified executions, confiscation and destruction of property owned by individuals and the Bahá'í community, denial of employment, denial of government benefits, denial of civil rights and liberties, and denial of access to higher education."

There appears to be a critical and popular consensus that the origins of this persecution are theological - the proposition that Mohammed is not the last prophet, but merely one of God's 'manifestations'. It's not to do with politics, oil, western imperialism or Zionism. It's religious persecution for religious reasons - blasphemy of the prophet.

The Ayatollah would have it that the persecution is for political reasons - because the Bahá'ís are tied up with Jews and/or imperialists - but not only is this not accepted by the Bahá'í or commentators, it can not be historically true as the sentiment they draw upon goes back to before Zionism and before the end of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The persecution arrises from the Mullahs and the language of 'heresy' and 'apostasy' is used.

Quite aside from anything else happening in the world, the plight of the Bahá'í should concern anyone concerned with compassion, freedom of speech and belief or just common decency. I haven't heard many Christians, Muslims or anyone else defending them but then again I haven't heard me defending them before either, so it appears to be a general challenge to us. These people - good people apparently - need friends.

But what has provoked this morning's sermon is the disturbing and violent events of this week in Libya and elsewhere in response to a third-rate film blaspheming their prophet. All of the above was to make the point - the critical point, the missing of which is disastrous - that the Islamic based anger against blaspheming Islam is not merely political, inspired by anger at the West or the violent legacy in places like Libya and Afghanistan, important though these factors may be to carefully note. The theology that Mohammed can not be insulted and that doing so is a profound theological crime precedes all of these things. This is first and foremost theological anger and must be named such. (Read theology as ideology if you wish.)

I am suggesting, humbly, that if we want the reasons for the protests and violence, we should not look to our media but to the placards and statements of the protestors themselves. They say it's about blasphemy: "Behead those who insult the prophet" was prominent in the Sydney protests in Australia. "We must defend the honour of our prophet, we must act now," was the mass Twitter/text that mobilised the Sydney protest. There is a tradition of this which precedes modern problems and may outlast modern problems. Theology really is the most likely explanation.

Sometimes I think the West thinks, "It's all about me."

Last week I spoke of the test of compassion and I want to see if we can at least understand a number of points of view here, even if we think they are finally wrong. But if we are going to speak of compassion at this time, Decency 101 demands that our compassion is first for the victims of violence and their families and friends. These people are utterly innocent. Regardless of the source of the anger, these people were not even the right targets. They were knowingly arbitrary and symbolic which makes the anger even more ridiculous and tragic. The makers of the blaspheming movie are unhurt.

Now, about the movie itself, I don't have much of a response as such. In this I am being consistent to criteria I consciously attempt to apply when it comes to determining things which are worth criticising. Apparently (I've read enough and don't intend to watch it) the poverty of the movie speaks for itself and it makes no coherent argument which requires the flattery of a response. It's garbage, in other words. Without the religious controversy it would be doomed to immediate and pronounced oblivion. "Condemning" it seems indulgent, frankly.

To make my theological point I would far prefer that the day's example was not so puerile. I would far prefer to be defending Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses but that highly principled conflict seems long past now. We are left with a foolish pastor burning the Koran or a film-sized effort to troll rather than a considered and educated literary critique of the impact of religion on history. So much of the commentariat abandoned Rushdie at that time and when one of his colleagues was murdered there was not much upset. I'm not sure if the media are afraid or genuinely so relativistic in their morality, or a bit of both. Never mind.

The makers of the film may be extremely foolish. They may be ignorant. They may be twisted by their own religious idolatry and hatred, but it's not difficult to comprehend the sorts of things that may have sparked their anger. Empathy goes all ways or not at all, and even though we may think such insult is childish and wrong, not everyone is as blessed with education, nobody chooses their upbringing, there is daily material to reinforce any suspicion of the other which is Islam, and surely we are big enough to understand from where such antipathy toward Islam might arise. If we should understand the political anger of many in the Arab world - and we most certainly should attempt to - surely we can comprehend the anger of these deluded Christians too. They honestly think their society is under attack, with reason.

The predictable response of Islamic extremists only adds to the impression and the foolish, hateful cycle continues. A straight libertarian response right now might be to insult the prophet as loudly and often as possible, and to encourage all to embark on such a non-violent campaign for freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is, after all, far more important than the name of Mohammed, and many blame the lack of it in the Islamic world on the religion itself. There is a more constructive response however, in my view.

Islam is also one of the World's great religions and it is fair to say, as many rightly do, that most Muslims are very peaceful people who, whilst perhaps upset by people ignorantly insulting their prophet, are appalled at the violence that ensues from portions of Islam. As I write there are various Muslim leaders lining up to condemn the violence. At its heart Islam is a beautiful, peaceful religion because at its heart is not idolatry but a single transcendent God of all peoples. In that Islam is no exception to the major world religions.

If you're unfamiliar with this far more flattering view of Islam, here is an article that is getting around with the express intent of showing us the peaceful, merciful side of Islam and also for arguing that violence against insults to the prophet are counterproductive (tactically true, if the objective is to promote 'the religion of peace'). The account of Mohammed and his motives is clearly biased, but that is speaking as a historian, and in terms of religious belief and practice the living meaning of the story is more important than its historicity. It is a beautiful, edifying view of the meaning of Islam and I recommend the article for this reason. Most Muslims see things in this way, just as most Christians would prefer to emphasise the love of Christ rather than judgement and guilt. Most Muslims, just like most Christians, abhor violence.

The article successfully places some of the criticisms of Mohammed and early Islam into historical context, and draws the reader to the bottom line of the prophet's message which was mercy, forgiveness and tolerance. The last paragraph begins with the refreshing conclusion that, "The world is a better place because Prophet Muhammad survived against his opponents and won. And even as the Prophet showed grace and clemency to his enemies, so must his heirs do so today." But the very next line reveals a theological assumption which taints the entire article: "With the grace of God, Islam is an unstoppable force that will keep growing. That triumph is assured by history, demographics and its inherent attractiveness as a way of life for humanity."

Aside from all politics the theological point must be made that this certainty that one's way is the only way, and that history will give it final victory, whether from a Christian or a Muslim, is arrogant, idolatrous and implicitly means indefinite conflict and war. The ineffable, transcendent one God is not Arabic (or any other ethnicity), does not just have just one book, one prophet and one cultural tradition. The idea that Mohammed is the last prophet insults Allah, the majority of Allah's people, and every conception of the one God.

I am not inclined, as I fear many will be, to insult the prophet to challenge the point. Insulting the dead is poor form at the best of times I think and especially one so revered by so many. But I am inclined to promote the following theological corrective: Mohammed is not the last prophet. It's hardly insulting. It makes him human.

And a stand does have to be taken: a theological stand, against an archaic, idolatrous idea, no less than an ethical stand has to be made against genital mutilation or the legal subordination of women. Like the parallel challenge to Christianity that their prophet is not God, it does not challenge the heart of the religion at all. For the heart of both, however poorly represented by history, is compassion and truth, under the one God of all peoples.

And we would not be being merely reactive or self-centric. We would also be helping the Bahá'ís in their plight, and any number of others. We are working for the big plot here, one world and one heart.
Every, I admit that I get disheartened when I see your great pathways clash with one another. Help us all from idolatry Everything. Lead us together to a future of peace and wholeness. Bless my readers that they are able to discern wisdom from dross in my words, and in any words that they encounter. So be it.

1 comment:

  1. Amen.

    Wow Hamish, what a great sermon. A lot to digest here: I look forward to ruminating on it all. I appreciate your compassionate approach to one of the biggest challenges of our times.

    As we were discussing the other day, I think what you (and some other thinkers like Karen Armstrong) are doing is revealing that the 'centre' of most monotheistic religions is not the very thing that adherents cling to ('Jesus is God' or 'Mohammed is the last prophet'), but The Golden Rule, and compassion itself. You are a Galileo for our times, asking people to shift what they believe to be the centre of their theological universe. The implications of such a shift are profound.

    If I were to pray right now, I would address the impersonal, non-interventionist and awe-inspiring Everything to witness that my heart is crying out for a compassionate pathway through fear and hate to love and peace - both in my immediate daily interactions with the world, and for all human hearts.

    My friend Brian posted this on facebook this morning (after watching the 14-min youtube trailer that has provoked the riots): "What is interesting is that I've heard a number of people saying that the video itself shouldn't have been made or seen. This argument is too conveniently and selectively applied, often according to narrow ideology. I absolutely think that nutjobs should be allowed to make propaganda, but I just wish they would make it at least a little bit better." Brian is an accomplished choreographer and dancer and was lamenting the fact that such a BAD piece of 'art' was responsible for the discussion - not unlike your own point that you'd prefer to be discussing Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. I think it important to have these online discussions, but I also want to take my love of and frustration with humankind, and my hope and desire for a respectful and peaceful world more explicitly into my artmaking.

    My first response was a hearfelt impulse to pray; my second response is to make really good art!

    Thanks for all the provocations and the rich conversation. I love you, Dawn.

    Love Dawn.