Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Religion: Understanding the Abrahamic Trilogy

In the Beginning is the End

In a world embracing superficiality and sleights-of-hand, anyone sincere can be forgiven for seeing ever-smaller areas of substance. Politics has been exposed as a reality show designed to distract voters from increasing debt levels at the same time they experience declining quality of life. Meanwhile, mainstream Christianity, especially Catholicism, appears nothing more than a political movement with tax-exempt status using public funds to advance private nepotism. Where, then, can a decent person discover pathways towards an enlightened mind? 

A young Westerner growing up pre-internet might answer "newspapers," "books," "college," and, if lucky, "parents," "coaches," or "neighbors." A teenager in 2020 might cite video streaming services, documentaries, e-books, and college. Very few would include health care workers, police departments, politicians, the military, or the majority of their teachers, despite the fact that the majority of their parents' taxes go towards some combination of the aforementioned. Accordingly, we don't need an academic to explain why Western governments have become irrelevant while multi-national corporations, especially financial and technological institutions, have risen. The technology sector's algorithms, driven by the highest advertising bids, determine what we see, while banks and venture capitalists provide the lubricant for our intellectual deadening. 

"Social media is a nuance destruction machine, and I don't think that's helpful for democracy." -- Jeff Bezos (USA, July 2020) 

As the world's current technological leader, the United States requires a reformation placing technology not above philosophy or spirituality, but beside it. Rigorous anti-trust enforcement may shift placements, but no intellectual ever credited man-made law as non-satirical inspiration, so we must examine something more fundamental than civil law to understand how we arrived at our current lopsided paradigm. As teachers, unions, lawyers, military commanders and politicians exchanged their moral duties for power and groupthink, the task of transferring institutional knowledge--for both the high and the low--is returning to institutions with the most longevity in human history: religion and its discontents. Will such reversion work? An answer requires exploring Avraham's/Abraham's/Ibrahim's influence on today's Western leaders, all of whom publicly profess spiritual backing and, even if financed by teachers' unions, will claim God a greater influence than any teacher.

I hope I have not already lost the agnostic or the atheist, and I also hope many of you equated "discontents" above with "rebels." For it is not self-professed leaders who always make history, but often the ones opposed to them; indeed, were it possible to study history through the eyes of the dispossessed, disenfranchised, and disregarded, surely we'd better understand how we arrived at our current disaffected state. However, since the victors and elites have historically been the ones with financial backing, and most of our kin illiterate for much of our history, we must train ourselves to filter existing information in ways acknowledging our existence as a product of a corrupted but successful narrative. Such training is precisely what I intend to impart here, rather than judgment or certain knowledge. But, pray tell, why religion and not science or some other more objective source? 

Wisdom in the Shadows

First, the reason technological algorithms cannot be trusted with information is because they cannot see what and who is absent. In other words, algorithms cannot and never will be able to imagine historical gaps or to extrapolate meaning by identifying missing information. For example, Frederick Douglass may be one of the smartest men to have ever lived, but it would be a mistake to consider his words the main tributary into the oceans of African-American experience. Above all, the task of learning is an exercise in humility, in realizing our information is always incomplete, and a machine, being unable to understand humility, is therefore handicapped a priori in imparting wisdom. Consequently, though we are, on our best day, sailors paddling a fjord admiring the scenery, because we are able understand the risk of drowning, our single drop of knowledge will always be superior to a machine's ability to analyze the depths of the water but not its own limits. In this way, the agnostic and the deist are better suited to the task of wisdom than anyone--or anything--certain of his or her sources of intellectual progeny. 

Before proceeding, we must address the inquisitive reader's complaint that studying Avraham/Abraham/Ibrahim is a useless endeavor, particularly if agnostics, deists, and rebels are the ones we ought to study. Two responses should suffice: 

1) We are unable to access the thoughts of a man murdered during the Spanish Inquisition, so we can stop right here, let the algorithms and academics dictate the narrative, or we can try to remember human nature has remained relatively constant since at least 2500 years ago and then examine pogroms, religion, and government overreactions generally to gain insights into human nature; and 

2) No matter how enlightened or correct we deem ourselves, all knowledge is incrementally gained. The same young man enamored with Robert Burns' poem "A Red, Red Rose" will eventually consider the poem effete in his older years without realizing it must have been a lyrical masterpiece for all ages in 1794. Even more inscrutable is the notion that listeners in 1794 would not have understood an ee cummings poem just like most Americans today cannot read Shakespeare, and so it follows that ee cummings himself was not possible in 1794 though a Shakespeare is possible today. 

"We bear the scars of patient decades and centuries' dreams... The book, too, reads its readers in real-time." -- The Booksellers (2020 documentary)

If you still follow, then you realize every piece counts, no matter how small, intangible, or incorrect, especially within an environment of incomplete information which is itself disseminated by technology unable to understand limits. We must also consider the possibility we have reached a point in human history where our information is so contrary to wisdom, we can only know what is true by shedding what is false--and, more importantly, to train ourselves to avoid making the same mistakes. 

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." -- attributed to Mark Twain (USA)  

Having resolved the reasons to study religion as a source of historical knowledge about ourselves, we can now discuss the Abrahamic trilogy of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

The Abrahamic Trilogy: Odd Man Out

Abram/Avraham/Abraham/Ibrahim represents the story of a man equally claimed by Judaism, Christianity and Islam; however, religious scholars know Abraham looms larger in Judaism and Islam than in Christianity. More specifically, Christianity places the Messiah--and by extension the Trinity--at the center of its message of faith, whereas Judaism and Islam place humanity below a single, unmorphable higher power and never on equal terms. In essence, Christianity emphasizes a personable faith, whereas its religious cousins emphasize humility. 

"I learned I was Christian. It's the easiest thing in the world. You don't have to do anything. All you have to do is stop doing something. You have to learn to stop trying to preserve yourself." -- C.S. Lewis, as portrayed in Shadowlands (1993), comparing becoming Christian to taking a dive, or a leap of faith 

And here is where we reach, aptly enough, our next lesson. Not only is all knowledge, including science, incremental, but often a reaction to what came before. 

"Science is an incremental process of amassing information over repeated studies to slowly move towards a greater understanding. Rather than yielding sure answers, it's about reducing uncertainty." -- Eva Botkin-Kowacki (2020) 

The single largest impediment to human understanding is the inability to place one's current narrative in relation to historical ones from the ancestors' perspectives, resulting in incompleteness as well as contextual bias. Yet, upon closer examination, we have enough to form a likely narrative based on human nature once we understand the process of incremental knowledge as well as humanity's rebellious instincts. 

From the prism of a religious chain reaction, if we see ancient Jewish scholars as high-handed, arrogant, and corrupted by profit-seeking, then the existence of Jesus makes more sense, from his disregard for religious pedants to his ostracism by established community members. (The same dynamic would be repeated later with the prophet Muhammad, who railed against the elitist Quraysh tribe of which he was a member.) The pattern of hard-nosed teachers producing rebellious students is not new, and in this instance, could explain why Christianity chose storytelling over dogmatic instruction, a three-pronged God instead of a more straightforward singularity. 

[W]hen a dictatorship claims absolute authority over an idea -- in the case of Iran, Islam, in the case of Egypt, a ham-fisted brand of socialism -- frustrated citizens will run to the opposite ideological extreme. [Consequently,] The Islamic Republic was secularizing Iran; in Egypt the short-robed fundamentalists multiplied and multiplied. --  G. Willow Wilson, The Butterfly Mosque (2010) 

By abstaining from a more structural belief system, Christianity as promulgated in the New Testament made itself more attractive but also more ambiguous and thus susceptible to fragmentation based on differing personal interpretations. 2,000 years later, my California community, settled by Catholic Spaniards, has a Jehovah's Witness Hall; two Korean-American churches; numerous Catholic churches, including one catering to Portuguese-Americans; a Mormon temple; and several more Christian institutions, none but the ones hosting Catholics and European history buffs aware of the reasons for such variety. 

To summarize, Christianity's multiple factions--spawned from anti-Catholic European sentiment--may reflect its ideological source code, which is itself multi-pronged; more importantly, its reliance on storytelling renders clear-cut commandments less possible, allowing authorities greater discretion and thus greater diversity of outcomes. When the engines of debt and interest are added to a culture permitting authorities in one district to rule differently than authorities in other districts, especially when no fiat or edict exists against slavery, financial Jubilees become pre-ordained. 

Facts: between roughly 300 BC and 200 AD, millions of slaves arrived in Italy, and Rome's one million inhabitants made it the largest city in Europe. In Rome, 30% to 40% of the population were slaves; in Italy as a whole, 20% to 40% were slaves. As late as 1452 AD, the Catholic Church issued a papal decree, Dum Diversas, promoting "perpetual servitude" against non-Catholics. 

So, too, is the notion of a Western Christian nation possessing the world's most destructive military while presuming to follow a hippie-like spiritual leader who never retaliated against his captors or called for war, even in self-defense. And so, too, can nations of men and women enamored with marriage hold ceremonies in churches under the literal (and often false) image of a prophet who never married. 

He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight hundred, or rather, eight thousand miles away from its shores. -- Martin Luther King, Jr., "Beyond Vietnam" (1967) 

Given such variances dislocated from logic and originalism, the Catholic Church, a centralized entity espousing the doctrine of papal supremacy, rose to power by offering to resolve such splits. From the moment it tasted power, the Church realized the shortest path towards relevance was as an intermediary between absentee rulers and illiterate commoners, especially where opportunities for personal discretion and subjective interpretation of laws existed. In such capacity, and unchecked by inbred kings mollified with self-portraits and other egotistical endeavors, it acted to supplant the court's sceptre with the papal ferula; to co-opt the military as royal advisor [Note: in chess, the bishop is next to the king and queen and equal to the warrior knight.]; to call for the Crusades; to murder non-Catholic women and children (unlike Saladin in Jerusalem); and to expel or persecute those not in line with its beliefs, whether Copernicus or common Jew. 

Warren Hinckle's If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1974)

Understanding the Catholic Church's methods as well as its status as intolerant political movement reveals a straight line from Pope Urban II's call for the Crusades in 1095; to Pope Nicholas V's "Dum Diversas" in 1452; to Martin Luther's "95 Theses" in 1517; to England's dissolution of Roman Catholic influence in 1536; and to America's Cardinal Francis Spellman and Joseph McCarthy, who, using the pretext of Communism, championed the Vietnam War to promote Catholic interests, including the installation of the Catholic Ngô brothers in South Vietnam, one of whom was an archbishop. 

Warren Hinckle (1974)

Having formed a cohesive picture, we can draw still further to today's presumptive American president Joseph Biden, Jr., a Catholic who supported the Iraq War and thus the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Semites and Muslims. Whether the target is Jew, Muslim, Protestant, or Buddhist, the Catholic Church's ability to use centralization to consolidate power throughout history is a feature, not a bug, of Christianity's subjective and personal ethos. Think: if everyone but you is dispersed or fragmented, who will prevail in a democratic system? And if you are the main branch from which others have split in opposition, which part will be the strongest until the bough breaks?  

"Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last Catholic priest." -- attributed to Denis Diderot (1713-1784) 

(NoteSplits in Islam also occurred, not due to disagreements over Islam's (or, for that matter, Judaism's) fundamental tenets, but the bane of every corporate empire: post-succession planning.)

A Linear Reaction

If logic, peace, or objective truth are not universally binding agents in today's Christian-majority United States, then what is? If you understood the Jubilee reference above, then you know the answer. 

America is the country where not one, but two trillion dollar bailouts--with another soon coming--were needed to rescue Western-led banks post-2000. (Jan Hus and Martin Luther's complaints of Catholics "selling indulgences" continues, but in a different, more global form.) This trillion dollar machinery exposes debt as the glue yoking Christian residents and their institutions together, not ideology, education, politics, or religion. To sum up, the absence of a hard rule against interest, combined with a religious corps hell-bent on subsuming government policy to its own interests, has created, ironically, a reaction in which modern America's debt-soaked younger generation views socialism as equally favorable to capitalism

"In absolute terms, the average person in the bottom half of the US income distribution today is worse off than the average person in 1980 in the US... [But] the people at the bottom half of [Communist] China's income distribution today are four times better off than they were 30 years ago." -- Danny Quah (2019), Singaporean professor of economics

Having covered Judeo-Christianity's progression and blowback from Torah teacher to anti-Establishment rebel, we can finally discuss Islam's role. At this juncture, the Trilogy's second chain reaction resembles the "flower children" and anti-colonialists of the 1960s who became corporate suits in the 2000s: 

In many countries, anti-colonial fighters and heroes would win independence and assume power, but then fail at nation-building, because the challenges of bringing a society together, growing an economy, [and] patiently improving people's lives are very different from [rebelling against injustice and] fighting for independence. -- Singaporean PM LEE Hsien Loong (2015) 

The Ottomans/Turks (Sunni but not Arab), Omanis (Ibadis, not Sunni or Shia), and Iranians (Shia, not Sunni) would protest the label of "corporate suits," but the Arabs, as traders and merchants (hence, the famous caravans), have little argument, particularly given Khadija bint Khuwaylid's (خَدِيجَة ٱبْنَت خُوَيْلِد) status as an affluent merchant and employer of the young Muhammad (PBUH). 

Despite Islam's attempts to create a more equitable economic system, the political journey from dogma to status exploited for financial gain to equitable economic system is a recurring theme in human history, with the final step appearing more and more elusive. A bright student like Jesus Christ may realize his community's teachers or priests are full of empty bombast and more concerned with stature than wisdom, but such knowledge alone does not render him qualified to work as a teacher or priest, a situation the Catholic Church capitalized upon. Thus, from one point of view, it was left to the Arabians and Sunni branch of Islam to provide a more equitable structure to the ideas of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad under the assumption the last honest man had the advantage of the benefit of time--and incremental knowledge.

As a religion that had to influence traders while led by an orphan marrying a successful businesswoman, Islam was in a unique position to create a system (sharia, or شريعة‎) that would obviate the stories returning caravans told of Christianity's loopholes for exploitation. Today, no Islamic-majority country has citizens with trillions of dollars or dinars of consumer debt, a predictable outcome once one understands Islamic law's ban on interest (not just usury). Whereas Christianity's more subjective source code allowed interest to be charged, Islam negated the possibility of usury from the outset, realizing firsthand the coexistence of greed and business. 

September 2020

Furthermore, in contrast to America's Anglican, Quaker, and Baptist founders, Islam's prophet was never a slaveowner. 

From cover of Stephanie F. Jones-Rogers' book,
They Were Her Property (2019)

Not only did Muhammad (PBUH) never own slaves, he used his wife's money to free African slaves, including Bilal ibn Rabah; however, Muhammad (PBUH) could not immediately ban the established practice of slave-trading, which was highly profitable and as important to pre-Islamic Arab traders in 600 AD as to Christian-American Southern plantation owners in 1700 AD. That being said, from 610 AD to Islam's peak in 1511 AD, no person, whether African or otherwise, could be a slave if also Muslim, though European influence in Africa post-1511 AD made Afro-Arab Muslim slave traders (e.g, Tippu Tip aka Tippi Tib aka حمد بن محمد بن جمعة بن رجب بن محمد بن سعيد المرجبي‎)  non-oddities. (Note: the business of transporting goods across a vast landscape pre-navy required workers in the same way the tobacco or cotton industry requires manual laborers, with the main question being whether one treated such workers as minority partners or temporary chattel.) 

Abraham's Origin Story

In no way do I mean to denigrate Christianity. While Islam may be incompatible with Catholicism, Catholicism is not the only branch of Christianity. If Christianity is the odd man out in the Trilogy, then Judaism and Islam are the bookends attempting to corral the excesses permissible under a storytelling system. Had law and rationality been enough, we would have stopped our religious exploration at the Torah and Talmud and suffered a shortage of brilliant authors, including C.S. Lewis. Moreover, Islam's core tenets of anti-interest and anti-slavery would be less possible without Christianity's faith in mankind, even if sometimes misplaced. So too, does Islam have much to learn from a belief system able to weave a dream any which way and then attempt the task of elevating its believers into the story, with failure not preventing another dream state. Christianity's placement of a human being on the same plane as God lends itself to egoism and the "cult of personality" but also greater ambition than belief systems more wary of mankind's limits. 

We have neglected the man responsible for this entire discussion, so let us return to his story. It is true a polytheistic religion or one allowing multiplication of an ancestor could have formed the basis for an anti-slavery, anti-debt philosophy, but not as likely. As most adults know, the difference between themselves and their younger selves is the realization possibilities exist, but probabilities dictate outcomes. Thus, the probable challenger to Christianity's three-pronged approach had to have been one that re-asserted humanity's single, unbroken bloodline back to Abraham, a common ancestor. Why is such reversion so important? Put simply, a shared common ancestor makes it harder to split humanity into racial or other factions, which in turns makes it harder to justify maltreatment of one's fellow human being. 

Once we agree human history can be traced to a single common ancestor, the unifying value of Avraham/Abraham/Ibrahim cannot be disputed. To the uninitiated, 
Islam is a monotheistic religion with five pillars at its core and a prophet who united Arabia's nomadic tribes, but if monotheism is indeed Islam's sine qua non, why not follow Judaism, which also has a prophet who united his people? While any ideology could have challenged Christianity, probabilities indicate it had to have been one that expressly opposed Christianity's embrace of slavery and interest-driven banking while appealing to a single common ancestor. Islam's overlaps with Judaism look more deliberate under this theory than accidental, further promoting the idea a common ancestor can help unite us in unexpected ways. 


Some of you might be wondering what will be the linear reaction to Islam. You are asking the wrong question. Civil governments should have replaced religious authorities in the same way hospitals replaced shamans. The fact that most civil governments lack credibility while religious extremism is on the rise means we have all failed, merchants, storytellers, and scholars included. My advice? Anyone searching for truly Islamic neighborhoods should look at the prevalence of guest worker dorms, payday loans, and credit card balances, not mosques. A surprising number of countries claiming to be Islamic sanction a surprising number of unIslamic practices. 

At the end of the day, if all you gain from this discussion is the idea that Jews were strict pedagogues, Christians were media-savvy, and Muslims were business-minded, you have not been paying sufficient attention. Look to Abraham to re-align your path, and stay the course. Humanity is counting on your perseverance. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020) 

Bonus: Cultural differences relating to marriage are often highlighted in discussions comparing Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. On this topic, I am no expert, so I'll be brief. High divorce rates in Christian-majority America; relatively high poverty and inequality, especially for women, in countries once invaded by Catholic Spain;  and child molestation judgments against Catholics should give pause to anyone looking to a priest for marriage advice, but the beauty of a belief system emphasizing storytelling means we are only one positive story away from re-writing history, statistics, and, yes, your own romance. Good luck. 

Luke, on marriage: "It's a bureaucratic civil ceremony and a pretty pointless one... It's not biologically natural for people to mate for life. Animals don't mate for life. Well, ducks do, but who the hell cares what ducks do? I mean, people grow and evolve their whole lives. The chances that you'll grow and evolve at the same rate as someone else are too slim to take. The minute you say, 'I do,' you're sticking yourself in a tiny little box for the rest of your life. But hey, at least you had a party first, right?" (Gilmore Girls, Season 2, "Red Light on Wedding Night," 2001)

"Well, I’m perfectly congenial to the idea of weddings, but what I think ruins so many marriages, though, is this romantic idea of falling in love. It happens, of course, I suppose to some people who are possessed of unusually fertile imaginations. Undoubtedly it is a mystical experience which occurs. But with most people who think they are in love I think the situation can be described far more simply, and, I’m afraid, brutally. The trouble with all this love business is one or the other partner ends up feeling bad or guilty because they don’t have it the way they’ve read it. I’m afraid things went off a lot more happily when marriages were arranged by parents. I do think it is absolutely essential that both partners share a sense of humor and an outlook on life. And, with Goethe, I think marriages should be celebrated more quietly and humbly, because they are the beginning of something. Loud celebrations should be saved for successful conclusions." -- W.H. Auden (Paris Review, Spring 1974)

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