"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Friday, October 8, 2010

Kafiri and Jahili Tendencies In Us All ... maybe?

Notes and my reflections as I read Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time by Karen Armstrong

I was slightly amused as I read Karen Armstrong's description of the kafirun of Muhammad's day.  She notes instead of "unbeliever," kafir "implies a discourteous refusal of something that is offered with great kindness and generosity."  (Like God's offer of free salvation as a gift, not earned by your works, perhaps?) According to Muhammad, God had revealed himself to the people and some of them rejected God, therefore, the Quran scolded them not for their "lack of religious conviction, but for their arrogance."   Instead of realizing their dependence upon God, they regarded themselves as "self-reliant" and refused to submit to Allah or anyone else. 

That's not really what amused me, but this did.  "The kafirun are bursting with self-importance; they strut around haughtily, addressing others in an offensive, braying manner, and fly into a violent rage if they think that their honor has been impugned. They are so convinced that their way of life is better than anybody else's that they are particularly incensed by any criticism of their traditional lifestyle."  (pg. 79)

Armstrong notes that the "chief vice of the kafirun was jahiliyyah" -  not how it is usually translated as the "age of ignorance" that supposedly characterized the pre-Islamic period.  Rather she notes the jahili had "an acute sensitivity to honor and prestige; arrogance, excess, and above all, a chronic tendency to violence and retaliation." 

Um, does this not seem very much like a number of self-called Muslims today who are quick to issue death threats, burn tires and hurt or kill others when they perceive their honor or religion has been slighted by the evil West?  Are these who consider themselves followers of Muhammad not demonstrating these kafiri and jahili traits?

Indeed Armstrong admits it wasn't easy for the Muslims at this time to give up the traditions in which they were raised. It wasn't always easy to moderate ideal bedouin standards to "act like a slave ('abd), praying with ..nose on the ground and treating the base-born like equals."  I think this attitude still lingers and is why the descendants today can mistreat Filipino maids for instance.   These "base-born" servants certainly aren't on equal footing in society with the powerful Saudi, right?

Armstrong said the Quran "urges Muslims to behave with hilm, a traditional Arab virtue. Men and women of hilm were forbearing, patient and merciful."  OK, wait, I thought the pre-Islamic Arabs had few virtues, but these hilm traits are fantastic!  In fact as she went on to describe such things as being slow to retaliate, controlling anger, remaining calm in difficult circumstances, leaving revenge for Allah instead of hitting back (what?!) and turning the other cheek, I thought I was reading a description by the Apostle Paul or Jesus!  (pg. 80-81)

By the way, I'm not casting stones. I realize there are plenty of so-called Christians - myself included more times than I care to admit - who don't act according to Jesus's wonderful traits.  That's why I noted the information from the author about it not being easy to give up the traits in which we were raised.  Not that anyone had to teach me how to be selfish or want to retaliate when I feel wronged or threatened.  It all came very naturally.  And it's why living like Christ is difficult and can only be done through his power.  (see John 15)

I think the point of this post is that we all have a bit of kafirun in us, don't we?  We all have a bit of those jahili tendencies so let's not be so quick to judge fellow humans and let's encourage each other to walk the way Jesus taught us by example: in love, serving others.


Suroor said...

Hmm, Can I be honest? I find Armstrong very irritating! I don't what it is about her; may be I think (wrongly) that she is a hypocrite. I don't know.

Anyway, I think she is not even a historian. She likes history but offers her own (often wrong) interpretations. Modern Muslims have little access to pagan Arabian history because records were not maintained or preserved by Muslims. Archeological evidences were destroyed. It is unfair then that when we do have access to a few historical facts, that Armstrong ignores them completely to present her own twisted *facts.*

Educated and enlightened Muslim acknowledge that pagan Arabs were haughty but very honest. They were angry people but generous. Above all they believed in Allah. The Quran acknowledges that as well.

Kafir is one who commits Kufr and Kufr means to hide or conceal - in this context it means that although the pagans knew that the greatest God was Allah they still rejected His Unity.Also, Jahiliyah literally does mean ignorance - real or feigned. BTW, in Islam even agnostics are kufaar and Jahil! Yea, that was nasty, I know.

Sarah said...

Yes, we definitely do all have those tendencies! Great point.

I also agree with Suroor about Karen Armstrong. I still haven't forgiven her for failing to quote the relevant Quran verse about the Hudaybiyyah treaty. :o)

Susanne said...

Suroor, I like your feedback and corrections since I know you know more than a lot of these authors. :) Thanks for what you shared about this particular post. She really makes Islam very palatable. Hey,I am open to my opinion being changed for the better so I take notes on things that catch my eye. Great to read your thoughts of what I'm reporting from her.

Sarah, did you also read this particular book? It seems she has written another about Muhammad and maybe Islam itself? Thanks for letting me know your thoughts on Karen Armstrong. :)

Sarah said...

I think it was maybe the other one about Muhammad that I read... and actually I didn't read all of it ><

I also read "A History of God" which I did enjoy at least in the beginning.

Susanne said...

Ah, I see. Well if you don't like a book, there is no point in wasting your time finishing it, right? Unfortunately I usually have a hard time stopping once I start so I plug along even if I don't really like the book much. Thankfully that's a bit rare. This book is rather small so I'll probably finish it. :)

Actually I was curious what you meant in your first comment about K.A. not including certain verses in her book. Did she conveniently leave out something you thought should have been covered or at least acknowledged?

Sarah said...

From what I remember, Karen Armstrong does the same thing as Tariq Ramadan with the Hudaybiyyah incident - overlays her own interpretation of the "wisdom" behind signing the treaty onto the story, while conveniently ignoring what the Quran actually says about it. Quoting several verses around it but not that one. I wonder why?!

I wrote about the verse in this post: http://wrestlingwithreligion.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/the-unbelievers-are-the-enemy/

Suroor said...

Sarah, This is so funny because I never wondered why she didn't mention the verse! As a born and raised Muslim, I am so used to the kind of stuff she wrote that I never once thought there was something *wrong* or missing there! :D

Susanne said...

Sarah, thanks for posting that link! I enjoyed rereading it. Now I understand what you meant. You are good about knowing the Quran and then being able to apply it to books you read. I can't seem to do that so much.

I do think Reza Aslan mentioned that treaty because I remember writing on my blog how it was a great way to show unbelievers PEACE and how it impressed the Meccans and they converted en masse. I didn't realize the Quranic reason for Muhammad signing it that you pointed out in your post. Thanks for drawing my attention to it. I remembered how much I enjoyed WWR while reading it, too. :D

Suroor, I like what you added. :)

Ze2red said...

That was a very nice intake on the book, and it will make me put up on my to read list.

Now I have a question that popped up in my mind while reading the comments, somewhere i understood that Karen only pointed out the bad when it came to kufar and jahilya, so my question for those of you who read the book, was she intending to show how they were before Islam and how being a moderate Muslim change those bad traits keeping the good ones. Or was she only attacking?

because i read several reviews before, and from what i understood that she covered Islam in a very nice way, and talked about prophet Mohammed covering his life informatively. which made readers at the end of the day be convinced that Muslims are human beings like any others, there exist the good and the bad among, and yet Islam is another religion that encourages people to be better human beings and treat everybody alike not taking into consideration their race or religion. How far am i correct in that?

Susanne said...

Ze2red, thanks for taking time to read and comment! I think this is only one of three books Karen Armstrong has written about Islam and/or Muhammad and it's my first. My impression is that she makes Muhammad out to be very down-to-earth and human. He comes across as someone with good ideas and goals, but he often reverts back to doing things the traditional Arab way for the sake of survival. If you read my latest post on this book (the one about jihad and dilemmas), you'll see some examples of what I mean. I think overall she is very favorable to Islam and Muhammad and the review summary you gave seems correct. I'm not quite finished the book, and I'll post a few more notes in the next few days. Leave your feedback on them if you like. Thanks for your comment!