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

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pre-Islamic Arabia, Muhammad on the Scene, Satanic Verses

I have been reading Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time by Karen Armstrong the last few days.  I enjoyed reading more about the life of the people at that place (Arabia) and time (~600 AD) in the world. I got a better understanding of bedouin traits: how they were communal and sharing because life - even survival - was difficult at times.  Little hoarding and much generosity going on. In fact Ms. Armstrong said a bedouin could be so generous and hospitable that he would use up any wealth he had on one night of feasting and hosting his guests.

Apparently this all started changing as a few tribes settled. The Quraysh for example as they became "keeper of the keys" in Mecca (I remember this from Reza Aslan's book) and started gaining wealth due to their caravan and pilgrimage businesses.  The merchants started gaining more wealth and in the process generosity was sacrificed, the divide between rich and poor became pronounced, pleasure became the new religion and people started abandoning the traditional Arab fatalism for a notion that perhaps security could be found -- in stuff!  Thus in these first seventy-three pages, I've concluded capitalism contributed to Islam's founding!

The Hanifs (those seeking to go back to the "pure religion" of Abraham) came along but "had little impact on their contemporaries, because they were chiefly concerned with their own personal salvation."  Armstrong said they didn't seek to reform society or change people's morals. Instead they "simply withdrew from the mainstream."  I noted this heartfelt quote attributed to the Hanif Zayd as he stood near the Kabah, "'Oh Allah!' he cried, 'If I knew how you wished to be worshipped, I would so worship you, but I do not know.'" (pg. 45)

Armstrong mentions Muhammad's first followers - generally young people, freedmen, slaves, women, the 'weak' - and how they were disenchanted with the market-driven direction their society had taken.  She notes Muhammad knew this could be no mere social reform, but inward reform - it had to be a spiritual solution!

On page 53 Armstrong mentions for some, Muhammad was the "long-awaited Arab prophet" and I wondered about this.  Did the Arabs truly anticipate Allah sending a prophet to them?  Armstrong notes that Allah was a God worshiped already in the region, but unlike the Muslim Allah, he was distant.  The pagan Arabs relied on three goddesses, those mentioned in the 'satanic verses', Al-Lat, Al-Uzza and Manat,  to intercede for them because Allah couldn't really be bothered directly by the people.

The goddesses who interceded to Allah on behalf of the pre-Islamic Arabians

Speaking of the Satanic verses Armstrong mentions how they were revealed during a time Muhammad was really sad about the growing division his message brought between him and the people he loved who would not accept his message from God.  She tells how Muhammad said these verses and the pagans were joyful that their three interceding goddesses were now sharing "divine honors with Allah."  Of course Muhammad never meant for this conclusion to be reached and he was duly scolded by Gabriel who revealed corrective verses which when spoken to the pagans were "a slap in the face that not only eliminated the gharaniq [the three goddesses] but insulted the revered ancestors."  (pg. 72)

Apparently this new corrected version also made it clear that "all the previous prophets had made similar 'satantic' mistakes."  Armstrong continues, "It was a struggle to make sense of the revelations and all too easy to confuse the deeper current inspiration with a more superficial idea of one's own." 

Don't you think many people have done this very thing? They have gotten into their minds what ideas they want promoted then they go to the Scripture to twist meanings, take things out of context or cherry pick in order to support their own agendas?  For instance Armstrong notes that the Quran speaks of God also in feminine terms and may be one reason so many women initially converted to Islam.  But how often do we read blogs today and read articles and hear news reports about women in Islam suffering from highly man-centered interpretations?  How often are women taught they were created merely to serve their husbands good food, keep tidy homes, satisfy their husbands' sexual needs and fantasies while also incubating and nurturing his precious children?

Also how can the Quran be the direct word of God when it includes "satanic verses"? Shouldn't it have a disclaimer that most of these words are from Allah, but there might be a few thoughts from the jinn that got in there by accident?

Those are things that cross my mind anyway.  How concerned are you that someone else's (a jinn, a man who wanted to keep women down) thoughts made it into the Quran?

More notes from this book to come including some thoughts on the kafirun and jahiliyyah according to Armstrong.


Carmen said...

Interesting, Susie. I was looking forward to comments from others on your question. I'll have to come back.

Susanne said...

It seems no one is in the mood for reading and commenting. Probably they are bored of these topics. :) Well, I keep finding things *I* want to record because they may be new to me or whatever.

Thanks for dropping by!

Suroor said...

Hi Susie!

You asked:
"how can the Quran be the direct word of God when it includes "satanic verses"?"

Yes but the Quran contains the *corrected* verses, not the original Satanic Verses which were instantly abrogated.

I am meeting more and more Muslims (at least online) who don't believe in Quran as the unchanged word of God. I think that is what happened with Christianity as well - initially Christians believed in the Bible to be the unchanged word of God with all the inaccuracies in it and later it changed to it being 'inspired' and not really revealed. I think this is what's happening with the Quran too these days. I don't expect a drastic change in views in my lifetime but I am amazed to know that secretly so many Muslims do doubt it.

Amber said...

Not at all! in re: bored of these topics.

It's just that I didn't think my answer would be particularly helpful, since I believe that that's all the Qur'an is, is the thoughts of a man with maybe some 'help' from a demon. I waffle on that last because it's not necessary for any supernatural force to have been involved, but it's possible that it could have been. Regardless, I don't believe it was God or an angel.

I think the possibility that someones thoughts or ideas got into the Qur'an would be more problematic for those who believe in it than for those who believe in the Bible, though. Because the Qur'an is supposed to be the direct word of God. He 'said' it, that's what wound up being written down. End of discussion. While the Bible is understood to be *inspired* by God, but not His words exactly. So we know that what we have is a divine message passed through human agents. We flat out get St. Paul telling us in places that this or that is his opinion and not revelation from God.

As an aside, that picture of the three goddesses reminds me of the Fates: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. Or the three Aspects of the Goddess - Maiden, Mother, and Crone.

Hmmm...also, I think the generosity and everything that was common to the bedouin and other peoples before they became settled - because you never knew when you were going to need the help yourself. If you refused to aide someone how would they react to you if you needed help further down the line? Human nature is kind of spiteful, really. Leave me to die? And then want me to help you? Hah! So the entire generosity, hospitality thing makes very good sense. You engender goodwill wherever you can because you never know when you might need to cash in on that goodwill.

observant observer said...

ahhh so with Karen Armstrong, has she declared that she is now officially converted to Islam? I understand that she wants the muslims to get her ideas to change their "misconception" of islamic teachings, sort of a psichologycal things to convince them that the teachings are actually good to expect them to behave accordingly....but that's all that i can see what she's all into. While we can see clearly in the Kuran the verse of prescribing hitting the wives for their "misbehave", that is only one example amongst many other verses that surely cannot make me convinced that it's God who literally spoke to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. Too many cutural influences of Arabian of that time that helped form the basic teachings of Islam that I fail to see that it is God who is above time and space, who produced the Kuran.

Susanne said...

Suroor, OOOOhhhh, OK. I understand that the corrected verses made it into the Quran. Thanks for correcting me on this.

I remember about two years ago someone saying to me that it will be interesting to see how the Quran will stand up to scrutiny that it is now receiving from a more literate society and also people in other countries reading it in their own languages, and scholars delving into it more like they did the Bible.

Thanks for what you shared!

Susanne said...

Amber, all excellent points and observations! I really appreciate all that you said. See there...you DID have something to say after all! Thank you!

Susanne said...

Observant, welcome! I agree that there is a lot of Arabian cultural practices in the Quran that make it questionable. The hitting wives statement is something that I can never be convinced is from God. If it is, I would never serve him. That is a God for men.

I don't know Karen Armstrong's religious stance, but she does make Islam out to be pretty good so far in this book. I wonder if/how she will explain that verse about hitting wives. I'll keep you posted if I come across it. Stay tuned. :)

And thanks for your comment!

Lat said...

Sorry Susanne for being late! :)
It's the kids' exam week.So forgive me? :)

It always revolves around economical status to how one is elevated to society.And together with religious monopoly,then the particular tribe or tribes gains the upper hand to power and control.This we know in history lessons.Humans haven't change much at all ever since.

The alleged satanic verses do sound odd to me.It's against the theme of the Surah An Najm,The Star,which the verses are supposedly revealed for.Also it goes against the theme of the whole Quran,that is worship of the One True God and no intercessions or intermediaries to God.

I've read once that there are at least 15 versions of this story! I'm actually surprised that they survived the onslaught of radicals of those earlier and later times.I do have my doubts and you know that by now :)

Susanne said...

Lat! So good to hear from you. I was hoping I'd not said something that drove you away. I was racking my brain trying to think of what it could have been. :)

I forgot about exam week and trust everyone survived to celebrate its end! :D

Thanks for what you added here. I always look forward to your point of view. Thank you!

sanil said...

I think I read that book for a paper once. And then didn't actually cite it because it's not really a scholarly, research-y source, but I still read it because it was much more fun and a nice break from my actual sources. I like her take on things. Are you liking it?

I love the picture. :) I just spent way too much time looking at the artist's website, but at least my only plans today are to do homework, so it's not like taking that time will really hurt me. I find it really strange and interesting that, as far as I can tell, worship of these goddesses hasn't continued into our time. There are still branches of Christianity that worship Gnostic gods (or aspects of the one God) such as Sophia, and people who worship Semitic gods like Lilith. And yet nothing for the pre-Islamic Arabic gods.

I think fear might have a bit to do with that. And probably also the fact that Islam is much more of a mandated national/cultural religion and so maintaining anything else might be too difficult to be worth it to most people. But if I were going to speak from a perspective of someone who believed the Quran was true, I would probably point that out as evidence that the message was not harmed by Muhammad's mistake and so this incident wouldn't worry me.

Susanne said...

Sanil, that's a good point about the fact these goddesses are not worshiped means the message wasn't corrupted enough by any supposed satanic verses. Thanks for pointing out this fact.

I'm glad you enjoyed the picture and browsing the artist's website. It's fun looking for pictures for posts from time to time. :)

Yeah, I like the book. It's the first Karen Armstrong book I've ever read. She definitely gives me a better impression of Islam for the most part. It's good for me to read some pro-Islam books to balance all the negative things I often hear and read on blogs, the news and such.

I enjoyed your comment, as always. Thank you!!

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