Last of the Starry-Eyed Orientalists

Since Iran deteriorated into Islamic fundamentalism in 1979, and the Ayatollahs resurfaced to rid Iran of unclean things such as infidels, heretics, and homosexuals, we haven’t heard much from the starry-eyed orientalist; that scholar who tires of the daunting empiricism, formal scientific process, excessive prosperity, and agnostic materialism of the West, and turns to the Orient of whirling dervishes and flying carpets for a renovation of romance.

It’s rather like stepping back in time.

I can understand the need, but I cannot bear to conflate a feline curiosity for the exotic with the transparently negative escapism of these naive daydreamers.

The last of these gullible scholastic tourists was perhaps Henry Corbin, who died in his native France in October 1978, while Ruhollah Khomeini was living in exile in the very same land. I recently read Corbin’s book Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (1960), hoping to educate myself further on the thought and culture of ancient Iran.

One of the dominant themes of the book is its continual denigration of the West and its loss of faith. Complementing that theme is the book’s air of absolute certainty with regard to the author’s own gnostic and theosophical doctrines. Fair enough: it would do Corbin no good to appear uncertain or impartial, for it is clearly just that impartiality and “pious agnosticism” of the West that he yearns to forsake.

Corbin’s primary need, next to a general desire to believe and to be a Persian, appears to be to find a foundation for immortality. He finds his beloved eternity in a sort of a world of forms—or images, or more: it’s a world of dimensions, sights, smells, and tastes just like our own—very real. The only difference is that his world of images has no death or deterioration.

Let me guess what you’re thinking: in a world full of unchanging, immortal images, can anything or anyone ever be truly alive?

To each his own. Some people simply cannot see the forest for the trees. They cannot see that a living world exists right before their eyes. All they need do to attain immortality is to loosen their grasp on their idols and let the changes flow. But they refuse to acknowledge the rules of the game, though it be the only game in town.

“Through my meeting with Suhrawardi, my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed.”
—Henry Corbin, Jambet, 1981, pp. 62-3

Corbin, purportedly following the lead of his idol, the Islamic mystic Suhrawardi, made a fundamental misjudgment of the character of Zoroastrian thought. There appears to be a consensus among scholars of Zoroastrianism that it is a life-affirming religion of this world. It is, in fact, quite the opposite of Suhrawardi’s mysticism. Suhrawardi may have revived a form of ancient thought—Manichean thought perhaps, but his efforts only served to increase the distance between Islamic and Zoroastrian Iran.

I would venture to claim that mainstream Shi’ism is closer to Zoroastrianism than the abstract, world-denying asceticism of Suhrawardi (and Sufism in general). This may possibly discredit Zoroastrianism in the eyes of Western admirers of Sufism, but it remains a fact—for better or for worse—that Zoroastrianism is not a mystical, ascetic religion. It is a religion of community and engagement with the world; in no danger of the solipsism and amoral disengagement that Sufi practitioners have always been hazardously near. Not to discredit Sufism: it offers a lot to admire, but it has little in common with the religion of pre-Islamic Iran.

Now’s it’s peculiar, though not surprising, that Corbin has ample indignation reserved for the religion of most Muslims. Attempting to distance his thinking from the suffocating legalism and orthodoxy of the dominant institutions of Islam, Corbin continually refrains the abyss between “legalistic Islam” and what he calls “spiritual Islam.”

“spiritual Islam, to be sure, … is profoundly different from the legalistic Islam, the official religion of the majority.” —page 52

The majority of Muslims, of course, lack the capacity to appreciate spiritual Islam:

“he who does not possess the inner ear cannot be made to hear …” —page 54

This kind of elitist end-run around reason leads one to wonder whether the rest of us ought to simply take his word for all his gnostic, theosophical mumbo jumbo.

One of the first tasks of this “spiritual Islam” is—of course—to recast the Qur‘an as a spiritual book:

“the ta‘wíl is preeminently the hermeneutics of symbols, the ex-egesis, the bringing out of hidden spiritual meaning.” —page 53

Corbin goes on to assert that it was by means of this methodology that Shí‘a mystics transfigured “the meaning of Islam.”

“In the Qur‘an there are verses whose complete meaning cannot be understood except by means of the spiritual hermeneutic, the Shi’ite ta‘wíl. —page 66

I suppose it would charitable of the Shí‘a to let the Sunni use their ta‘wíl, just so they can understand their own scripture? Of course, that will only benefit those with an inner ear, but it’s worth a shot.

Parsí Dualism in Shí‘a Islám

Continuing from our discussion of ketman

Some aspects of Islám are reminiscent of Zoroastrianism in ways unique to Islám, for example As-Sirát (Arabic: الصراط), the Bridge of Judgment, which is reminiscent of the Zoroastrian Chinvat Bridge. Other Zoroastrian influences, such as those involving eschatology and angelogy, appear to have entered Islám by way of Judaism and Christianity.

All this pales before the deeper common themes between Zoroastrianism and Shí‘a (شيعة) Islám.

One aspect of Shí‘a Islám that bears a striking similarity to Zoroastrianism is the Shí‘a catalog of najis (ritually unclean) (Arabic: نجس‎) people and things. Shí‘a Islám has historically singled out non-Muslims and human corpses as unclean, whereas, before the advent of Islám, Zoroastrians had considered foreigners and human corpses as unclean. Even to this day, many Zoroastrians refuse to bury or cremate their dead, for fear of contaminating the elements of nature.

A more fundamental similarity can be found in the dualism of Good and Evil common to Zoroastrianism and Shí‘ism:

Concurrent with this dual vision [of exoteric and esoteric], Shi‘ite doctrine is based upon another fundamental belief: a dualistic vision of the world. According to this, the history of creation is a story of a cosmic battle between the forces of Good and Evil, between light and darkness. Given the vital role of initiation and knowledge, as we have just seen, one might say that Good is knowledge and Evil is ignorance. The battle between these respective forces, of these universal antagonistic powers, is woven into the fabric of existence. According to cosmogonic traditions, what marks creation ever since its origin, is the battle between the armies of cosmic Intelligence (al-‘aql) and those of cosmic Ignorance (al-jahl), …
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Encyclopedia Iranica

As in Zoroastrianism, we see that Shí‘ism associates light with the Good. Furthermore, the struggle is metaphysical, that is, “is woven into the fabric of existence”.

“Zoroaster was the first to discover in the fight of good and evil the very wheel in the machinery of things: the transposition of morality into the metaphysical, as a force, cause, and end in itself, in his work.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

The cosmic aspect of this struggle cannot but remind one of Zoroastrianism, presuming that one knows anything at all about Zoroastrianism. How much, I wonder, was Zoroastrianism conquered, subjugated, and humiliated, but how much did it survive in new garments?

What then follows from this cosmic struggle is a worldly, political struggle between the forces of good and evil that culminates in the return of the Shí‘a saoshyant, the Imam Mahdi:

According to theories of cycles, which are far from being clear, ever since creation, the world has known two kinds of government (dawla): of God in which prophets and imams, as guides of light and justice, are able to openly teach esoteric truths, and that of Satan in which these truths can only be transmitted and practiced secretly, as the world in this case is under the influence of the guides of darkness and injustice. Satan having been the adversary (zµedd) of Adam, the history of adamic humanity is marked by adversity and violence by demonic forces of Ignorance; during the adamic cycle, these forces will remain dominant–a majority driving the minority of persecuted initiates towards marginality and isolation. Thus it will be until the End of Time and the advent of the Mahdi, the eschatological savior, who will definitively conquer the forces of Evil.
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Encyclopedia Iranica

Closely related to this struggle between Good and Evil is the Shí‘a belief that God does no evil, which is quite similar to the Zoroastrian idea of a Good Creator (Ahura Mazda).

Also tightly bound to moral dualism is a belief in freewill, as a distinguished from the Quranic doctrine of predestination (for example: the Qur‘án says in many places that God misleads men into evil). The Semitic God of the Qur‘án is truly, consistently omnipotent; the Shí‘a and Zoroastrian Gods are not, but benevolent instead.

What does this mean? Shí‘ism is certainly a form of Islám, in spite of all its esoterism, secrecy (ketman), and moral dualism. It has been a de facto division of Islám too long to be cast aside as heresy, regardless of what the Wahabis assert. Shí‘ism’s submission—however twisted by esoteric interpretations—to the God of Islám makes it irrevocably Muslim, yet it seems quite clear that Shí‘ism shows in its very soul the signs of Iran’s Zoroastrian past.

Further Reading

Encyclopedia Iranica:

Najis Stuff:

  • The Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s Unclean infidels page.
  • Majalla’s list of Unclean Things
  • Bernard Lewis, “The Jews of Islam” (1984). See pages 33-34 in particular.

Ketman: Veiling God

“There is not a single true Moslem in Persia.”
—Reported statement by a Persian to Arthur Comte de Gobineau
(cited in “Versions of Censorship”, by McCormick & MacInnes)

One of the great accomplishments—or offenses—of Islám was in conquering and subjugating the Persian Empire. Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire a millennium earlier, but it hadn’t been very long until another Iranian empire had taken the place of Alexander’s Hellenistic successors. Even during that short Hellenistic era, Iranians were disenfranchised but they were not so subjugated and humiliated as they would be under Islám.

Classical Islám is known for having been somewhat tolerant of the “people of the Book” (Arabic: أهل الكتاب, Ahl al- Kitâb), but it was far from certain whether Persians qualified as People of the Book at the time of the Arab conquest. Zoroastrianism, as it was practiced, was an oral tradition. The high priests of Persia used books as archives, not as liturgical aids.

It couldn’t have helped that Zoroastrians were generally seen as idolators, because of their use of fire in worship.

Modern Shí‘a (شيعة) Muslims—at least those of Iran—do generally consider Zoroastrians People of the Book, but that is more likely due to the influence of Zoroastrian apostates on the development of Shí‘a Islám than any early Arab view.

It is no secret that one of the closest companions of Muhammad and ‘Alí was a Persian, but that Persian (Salmán) was a Christian. The Arab conquerors had little reason to show tolerance to Zoroastrians, except that the latter were the citizens of a great empire, and may have had a thing or two to share with the Arabs, if only the Persians could be converted.

Many of the Zoroastrian “converts” to Islám were known to be less than dedicated Muslims. There are records of mass apostasies in the years after the Arab conquest. There may have been many Iranians that welcomed Islam, but there were certainly many that did not.

The persecution complex of the Shí‘a is well-known. It is understood to have originated in the persecution and disenfranchisement of the Shí‘a by the Sunni, but I cannot help but wonder whether some of this Shí‘a sense of injustice is rooted in the near-annihilation of Zoroastrian Iran.

The persecution of the Shí‘a apostates of Zoroastrian Iran may have also contributed to the practice of Islam as secretive, esoteric religion that seems rather antithetical to the worldly, practical, and political nature of the Qur‘án.

discretion: … in order to protect one’s own life and security, and those of one’s imam and his companions, as well as the integrity of his doctrine, “secrecy” designated by terms such as taqiyya, ketman and kòab÷ [?] is a canonical obligation for the Shi‘ite.
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi

Zoroastrianism, like the Islám of the Qur‘án, is not an ascetic or esoteric faith. Secrecy and esoterism may have been the only means for Iranians (and others) to entertain their heretical epiphanies under the yoke of Islám. If their faith was to survive, it would have to do so in the name of Islám. So I’m not surprised that so many Súfí mystics gave lip service to Islám, or called their heresies “esoteric” readings of Islám. What choice did they have?

Esoterism and secrecy were not Persian passions before Islám. To the contrary, one of the defining characteristics of Zoroastrianism is its aversion to deception. The Zoroastrian notion of Evil, Druj, is typically translated “the Lie”, but alas, it became easier to lie under the shadow of Islamic swords.

It is perhaps best to describe Islamic esoterism as a natural bi-product of Islám. It was probably the might of Islám and its ruthless persecution of heresies (not to be confused with Jews and Christians) that gave rise to Islamic esoterism, so esoterism is an ironic inevitability in the Islamic world. Still, we may yet detect the whisperings of pre-Islamic religion in the orthodox doctrines and esoteric heresies of Islám.

To be continued

Further Reading

The Divine Guide to Early Shi’ism: Sources of Esoterism in Islam, by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi.

Encyclopedia Iranica: Shi‘ite Doctrine by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi (2005)

Christopher Hitchens:

A discussion of chapter three of “The Captive Mind” by Czeslaw Milosz.

The Trinity of Islam

I was raised a trinitarian of sorts. I was taught that the Prophets of God are like perfect mirrors, where God is like the sun. The sunlight, though not God, was like the spirit of God—what Christians call the Holy Spirit and my Baha’i friends sometimes call the Maid of Heaven. The idea is that if you want to see God, all you have to do is look in the mirror. I mean—you know what I mean—don’t you?

Muhammad and Gabriel

Muhammad and Gabriel

Now that’s behind us; let’s look at Islam. How does it compare?

Islam’s creed gets off to a great start:

I testify that there is no god but God, …

… but then in falls into idolatry mid-sentence:

… and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.


If we are somewhat generous, we might recognize unitarianism in the first phrase of the creed; an assertion that no man can claim any partnership with God.

Unfortunately, that lofty ideal is nullified by the second phrase, which essentially causes the creed to state, “There is no god but God, but every word and act of Muhammad is of God.” Just look at how Muslims generally revere Muhammad as the perfect example of man.

There you have it: a divine incarnation; God in the flesh.

It doesn’t do any good to debate whether God really is incarnate. The only thing we need concern ourselves with is, as they say, the taste of the pudding. Is it a divine image, or isn’t it?

Now Muslims may insist that there’s a difference between “what would Jesus do?” and “what would Muhammad do?”, but I think it all comes down to a choice from among idols.

Moving right along, Muslims generally consider the Qur’an, that is, the words spoken by the Angel Gabriel, to be inerrant and uncreated (eternal). That sure sounds a lot like the Holy Spirit to me. What do you think?

So let us review. The following are the fundamental elements of Islam (more fundamental than the pillars themselves):

1) Father = Allah

2) Son = Muhammad

3) Holy Spirit = Gabriel (uncreated, divine words spoken by Holy Angel)

These three things that Muslims revere above all else are ultimately one in spirit; that is to say, they are one in their divine purpose. They are one so far as the believer is concerned. Muhammad may not be God in his essence, but he is divine in appearance; he is a “mirror”, as the Baha’is say. Is this not a trinity?

I have for years regarded my religion of birth, the Baha’i Faith, to be a trinitarian corruption of Islam, but lately I’m beginning to realize that Islam has been trinitarian from its beginning. I have on several occasions accused Baha’is of elevating Muhammad to a divine station that Islam does not claim. I’m beginning to suspect that I was mistaken.

Sorry guys!

I am God, and so are you.

Agnostic Religion

Only God exists; He is in all things, and all things are in Him.

Sufi pantheism, as defined in a footnote to the Seven Valleys of Baha’u’llah

We have previously considered that Islam’s strength is that it forbids idolatry, that is, associating partners with God, and that Islam’s weakness is that its object of worship, Allah, is unknowable, and that this leads to agnosticism. The Islam of Muhammad is a religion of practices and politics, rather than beliefs or mystical experiences.

Forbidden Yearnings

From fairly early on, Muslims began to seek ways to develop relationships with God, and ideas of gnosis began to develop. Sufism was being born. This was a uniquely Muslim form of mysticism, inasmuch as it was a mystical response to a non-mystical religion.

It ought to surprise no one that a mystical religion in a realm where heretics are murdered would be based upon secret knowledge. Severe penalties for apostasy and heresy may have forced mystics to appear more cryptic than they might otherwise have seemed.

The problem with secret knowledge is that it tends to favor the enlightened over the unenlightened. Such favoritism encourages idolatry, so it is easy to see that Islamic mysticism ran the risk of violating what is perhaps the fundamental principle of Islam. Mysticism must not be exclusive if it is to be true to Islam. It must permit no secrets. Unfortunately, secret knowledge was sometimes necessary for survival.

Unity of Being

“I am Truth.” — al-Hallaj

What if we are God? Pantheism provides a possible solution to the problem of non-idolatrous worship. Each individual knows truth in his or her own context. No hero worship is necessary. Muhammad is only a man, no better than any other. Worship is possible, because God is knowable, but idolatry has no place. Perhaps that is what the Sufis ibn `Arabi, Bayazid Bistami, and al-Hallaj were thinking when they made their contributions to the doctrine cited above, generally referred to as Wahdat-ul-Wujood (“Unity of Being”).

Emanation vs. Existence

A metaphysics of emanation is an alternative to pantheism worth considering, but emanation seems to be a construct derived from an unnecessary, artificial distinction between Creator and Creation. Why must I regard myself as a created object, when I possess an existential sense of a will that is my own? Perhaps that is the Will of God that I feel, but even then: why should I presume that Will is not my own?

Existentially speaking, I am no object. I am no emanation, shadow, or reflection.

I do not think of the world as a mere fact. It does possess will, and it does possess a sense of good and bad. This is why I recognize it as divine. For this very reason, I can be neither a strict atheist nor a theist. Pantheism seems to be the most natural view of the world as we experience it.

Omnipotence and Freedom

In Sufi Islam, the only true reality is God, and that the world is but a shadow of that reality. Generally, Islam regards the world as a deterministic effect of God’s will, which is not too different than a shadow. According to the Qur’an, even the most fundamental decisions are made according to the will of God, insha’Allah. Though it presumes a human capacity to choose, it also asserts that unbelievers only continue in their disbelief because God blinds their eyes. Thus the omnipotence of God trumps human freedom.

When it comes down to it, divine omnipotence and human freedom are incompatible. The only way to reconcile the two is to regard them as one and the same thing. Human will is divine will, and human freedom is divine freedom. Why not embrace such a simple and logical assertion? No gnosis necessary; it is really quite intuitive. Of course it requires a deep, subconscious notion of freedom that runs beneath our self-awareness and is ultimately a single Will, but it still allows for freedom. As God is free, so are we.

The Agnosticism Intrinsic to Monotheism

I recently wrote here about the strict monotheism of Muhammad. It occurred to me that the ultimate logical end of monotheism is free thought and tolerance; something of the sort that one might expect from a Unitarian congregation. In this sense, Islam is essentially a modern religion. Existentially, Islam seems quite primitive and barbaric, but its unitarian foundation may give us hope for it.

On the other hand, there’s a spiritual problem that arises from strict monotheism. It begins with this logic:

He [God] does not reveal Himself to anyone in any way. God reveals only His will.

Isma’il Ragi al Faruqi

Strict monotheism requires that no man can rightly claim knowledge of God’s essence, therefore the rightful perspective toward divinity is agnosticism. Christian Unitarianism has taken a path toward agnosticism. Might Islamic unitarianism do the same? Rationally, this may be a good thing, but I find it spiritually threatening, because it creates an impassible divide between man and God.

This is perhaps the principle reason why I cannot be a Muslim. There are, or course, no lack of particular objections that keep me at a distance from Islam, but this agnosticism, this cold isolation from God, is a fundamental philosophical problem.

Monotheism need not be agnostic, but gnosis comes at a high price: idolatry. So long as a man can gain knowledge of God, he can become a partner of God, which is the unforgivable sin of Islam. It is indeed a sin: but it is a sin unique to soft monotheism.

Offender of the Faithful?

This blog got its name “Idol Chatter” for a reason, or even a couple of reasons. First of all, the blogger is a rather militant unitarian (note lowercase ‘u’). Secondly, he tries not to take his own chatter too seriously.

By “unitarian” is here meant anyone who recognizes the tendency of leaders, doctrines, and ideologies to become idols that stand in the way of our search for truth. Idolatry, according to this school of thought, is a mighty sly shape-shifting devil. As a former Unitarian minister once challenged us:

“We boast our emancipation from many superstitions; but if we have broken any idols, it is through a transfer of the idolatry.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Similarly, a Greek philosopher once cautioned:

“It is wise to listen not to me, but to the Logos, …” — Heraclitus

I use the term “unitarian” because this cautious mode of thinking is embodied in the Unitarian tradition, in which some Christians long ago determined that worshiping Jesus is missing the message of Jesus, who did not forbid blasphemy against himself, but rather forbade blasphemy against “the spirit”. It is the spirit of the message that gives life, he said, not the flesh of the messenger; not even the letter of the message.

In this sense, we can see that Jesus, whom some identify with the Logos, was not so different from Nietzsche’s anti-prophet Zarathustra:

“All the names of good and evil are parables: they do not declare, but only hint. Whoever among you seeks knowledge of them is a fool!” — Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The Great Iconoclast

Imagine if you will a medieval man, centuries after Christ, who was familiar with Judaism and Christianity. Imagine that this man was impressed by the Judaic aversion to idolatry, but also recognized Christ as a man—or messenger—of Truth. Imagine that he rejected the Trinity, and the notion that Jesus is God. Imagine that this man became quite well known for his opinion that Jesus is not God, such that we might consider him the first Unitarian. Imagine that he was a man of his time, and realizing the efficacy of power, mustered an army and ordered that army to pursue idolators and smash idols to the ends of the earth.

Let us call this man, for lack of a better name, Muhammad. Maybe this man was so single-minded about smashing idols that he might be called a prophet. Perhaps he was such a dedicated Unitarian that he rejected the very possibility of any religion other than the religion of Unitarianism, going so far as to call himself “the Seal of the Prophets”:

“Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the Apostle of God, and the seal of the prophets: and God knoweth all things.” Qur’an (Rodwell translation)

Let us further imagine that this man was seen by by his enemies as a militant religious fanatic and his followers as a crusader for his god Allah. Perhaps we can imagine that they had him wrong. Perhaps we can imagine that he was after something more fundamental, and that the rest—his doctrines, methods, and even his personal beliefs—was all circumstantial.

Idolatry in Islam

The man in the painting is not going bowling. If we look closely enough, we find that even Muhammad was an idolator; but who isn’t? Shall Muslims be permitted to rise above the man? Not if they continue to idolize him.

It is commonly understood that Islam means “submission”, but submission to what? Submission to Islam? Certainly not. That would be circular, would it not? It has always been understood to mean “submission to God”; but what is God? Is God to be taken as the Islamic image of God, “Allah”, or is God to be taken as that ultimate, unknowable creative essence behind—or within—things? Perhaps the core meaning of Islam is “submission to no idol, however subtle”.

“Seek knowledge even unto China” — Muhammad

If we were to take this as the essence of Islam, could this not be a religion of the future? Could we go so far as to say that Islam is faith in Reason? If this seems like too much of a stretch, can we at least see how Islam might be seen as a medieval attempt to free humanity of idolatry?

Let the true Muslims step forward to smash the idols of Islam.