Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Reading Notes: The Evolution of God, Part 3

So far in Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, we've covered the evolution of religion from polytheism to monotheism, the development of a dominant monotheistic religion called Judaism, and the emergence from that of another major religion called Christianity. In Section 4, Wright introduces another major world religion to the mix: Islam.

As you may remember, the author's focus in this book is on the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and how they came to be as products of their places and times. Now, focusing on the birth of Islam, Wright begins detailing its evolution as a religion and its relationship with the already existing ones.

Wright's history of Islam goes like this (and I don't know enough to deem it factual or interpretive): Islam was born after Judaism and Christianity when a man named Muhammad claimed to be a prophet of God. God shared his word with Muhammad directly, and this is what's contained in the Koran. Being the literal "word of God," the Koran is a much more straightforward text than the Hebrew or Christian Bibles—less history, fewer stories. Muslims believe that the higher power (in this case, "Allah") existed before Islam became a religion, and he also evolved independently of other religions. And though Islam is not the same as Judaism and Christianity, Muhammad united them by deeming the Islamic God to be the same Abrahamic God shared by the other two religions, because he (Muhammad) placed himself on the same level as Moses—as one who has been contacted directly by God. This is the distinguishing point: Islam was its own movement; it didn't descend from the other religions. 

I think this is semi-accurate. Ignore the atheism website.

Muhammad is a fascinating figure, and this is ultimately what Wright tries to prove throughout this section. He was a prophet promoting an apocalyptic reversal of fortunes to amass followers, much like Jesus. And he was a politician, building an empire by making a "foreign" God local and eventually using force to demonstrate power. He preached tolerance to gain followers but once his Islamic State grew, his ties with Judaism and Christianity began to dwindle.

It seems here that Muhammad now wanted Christians and Jews to accept Islam and recognize their texts as precursors to the Koran. More problems arose with his desire for them to embrace a new religion that contradicted their own. [Islam recognizes Jesus as a person but not as the "Son" of God.] Basically, he was trying to become a leader, but others weren't accepting it. The way it played out next is sort of unclear. The big disagreement involves Jerusalem and who "took it back." Was it Muslims? Was it a Jewish-Muslim alliance? It's clear that Islam also had a break with Judaism but was that at this point or was it later added by authors of the Koran after Muhammad's time? This is where I'm hazy on religious history, and there are probably a ton of perspectives to read and consider. We're not going any further into that now.

What Wright does next is explore how Islam developed into what it is today—or, to be fair, how it is perceived in the Western world. Here he takes a scholarly, historical look at the concept of "jihad" and how it evolved into a controversial piece of modern world politics.

Apparently, "jihad" is mentioned only four times in the Koran and more times in the hadith (the oral tradition), and it refers to a constant struggle. There is, and always has been, a continuous argument about how exactly "jihad" is defined. Does it mean an internal, emotional struggle? A literal, external one? As with many religious concepts, it's up to interpretation, and one man named Sayyid Qutb decided in the mid-20th century that "jihad" should be an aggression in the name of Islam, not just a defense. This can be considered the birth of modern radical/extremist/fundamentalist/whatever-you-want-to-call-it Islam.

Wright argues that it's unlikely "jihad" was ever intended strictly as aggressive foreign policy. Violence against nonbelievers wouldn't always, historically, have benefited Islam—think about when Muhammad was trying to gain followers. But his point is that words are always interpreted to one's own benefit; you can always justify war in the name of religion. All religions have their moments of war and peace.

The author does quite a bit in the last chapter of this section to demonstrate how religions are adaptive; they may argue on a theological level, but globalization has and will continue to bring them to a peaceful coexistence based on social and economic benefit. Muhammad represents, as one man, all the highlights of Abrahamic history and religious evolution. Wright continues to argue that the Koran happens to be, theologically-speaking, the most modern text; it's evolutionary in nature, highlighting existing wonders of nature rather than miracles; these signs of nature are evidence in themselves of God's existence. If the world was created, by God, as a physical system with a purpose, then we naturally move towards "functional integration" (ie: working together and getting along), and human behavior is directly connected to both circumstance and moral consciousness. And Wright argues that the Koran, more than any other religious text, explicitly shares these ideas.

I mentioned this in my last post. Unbelievable!

I think Wright dedicates an entire section to Islam to demonstrate how connected these three religions really are, despite the assertions that each are independent of one another. I know there are years and years of further incident that drive the religions apart, but my takeaway from these sections is that these conflicts are cyclical, and Religions (with a capital R) do (or can) eventually find their way back to a cooperative, peaceful relationship with each other. Perhaps we'll find out if this is proving true in the 21st-century in the book's final section.

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