Happy Twentieth! The Year of the Pig

Varaha, the Pig Avatar. Picture taken at the Art Institute of Chicago

Happy 20th of January to everyone! 2019 is the Chinese year of the Pig of the Earth. What better time to promote Epicurean philosophy? I recently came across the myth of Varaha, who is an avatar (a divine incarnation) of Vishnu in Hinduism in the form of a Cosmic Boar or Pig. In the myth, Varaha takes an incarnation in order to save the Earth from a demon who is tyrannizing her. In the end, Varaha heroically kills the demon and restores the Earth to safety. It is interesting to me that the pig in the West is seen as the embodiment of Epicurean philosophy, which is materialistic and a steadfast affirmation of the value and reality of matter, of bodies, and of this world, while in India this boar is the protector and savior of the Earth, of matter also. Varaha beautifully mythologizes the role of Epicurean philosophy in defending the value and dignity of, and giving meaning to, this world. The story is told here.

Speaking of the Year of the Pig, this year began with the Partially Examined Life podcast dedicating an episode to Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things, with a Part II, and there are a couple of new initiatives this year by New Epicurean:

Epicurean Radio

Epicurus College – Coming Soon!

We also have a new Garden of Epicurus Facebook group

A fellow student of Epicurus shared the piece Constant cravings: is addiction on the rise?, and called our attention to the following passage. Together with the curriculum for control of desires that we see in Epicurean therapy, this seems to validate the idea of wholesome association (friendship) with people who are invested in our moral development as a means to both secure happiness, and to avoid unwholesome behaviors. We know that isolation is a health risk, and we can prescribe friendship as a solution to that, but the rat park study also points to positive reasons why friendship is a natural and necessary pleasure.

Another theory about what is driving the diversification of addictive behaviours stems from a series of experiments conducted in Canada in the late 1970s known as Rat Park. The psychologist Bruce Alexander found that lab rats, while isolated in empty cages with the option of drinking either plain or drugged water, easily became addicted to heroin; if you put rats in a vast, toy-filled enclosure with other male and female rats for company, the heroin couldn’t compete. The context was driving addiction, rather than the drug itself.

Benjamin A. Rider published The Ethical Significance of Gratitude in Epicureanism in academia.edu. Many of its passages are reminiscent of contemplations about insatiable hungry ghosts in Buddhism. In it, he says:

… Gratitude anchors one in a harbor, securing (literally, ‘locking down’, katakleisas) the goods of life. Unlike the young man ‘wandering by chance’ (Vatican Sayings 17, 19) from excitement and joy to disappointment and pain, his state of mind blown by the uncertain winds of a churning sea, the old man achieves stability and peace, using his ‘secure sense of gratitude’ both to focus attention on the goods in his life and to insulate himself from misfortunes and set-backs.

… Gratitude contributes positively to a person’s experience in at least three ways. First, feeling grateful is itself pleasant. While I am enjoying a friend’s gift, a stimulating conversation, or a beautiful sunrise, the gratitude I feel contributes an additional variation or tone to that experience (Epicurus uses poikillō, ‘embroider’—see PD 18). Second, while I am grateful, it helps to etch the experience more firmly in my memory. Finally, gratitude also plays a role later, when I must draw on memories to ameliorate present suffering. It helps me to remember, to make the memory ‘fresh’ and, as it were, to inhabit that experience, blocking out or diminishing the occurrent pain or misfortune.

… Lucretius shows how ingratitude and unnatural, empty desires arise together. The soul of person who is ungrateful for what he has experienced resembles a leaky jar. His desires become insatiable and he can never experience ataraxia because he always seeks to fill the next craving.

In my book, I translated the Greek word katastematic as abiding pleasure, a term that got accepted into Urban Dictionary and that caught on a bit among the Dudeists, who like to abide. These passages point to a practice of “abiding in pleasure” and in gratitude, employed by ancient Epicureans to emancipated them from having to rely on the pleasures of the immediate moment. This, we know, is one of the things that made them different from the Cyrenaics. Anyone dealing with anxiety or insatiability should develop his or her own way to practice abiding.

There’s another article there titled Epicurus and Lucretius on the Origins of Language–which argues that language first evolved instinctively as crude vocalizations, and only later did humans apply reason and attempt to control the evolution of their language by naming things–and a related TED Speech titled The Origins and Evolution of Language, by Michael Corballis, which accentuates the importance of gestures in the emergence of language, based mainly on examples from ape behavior.

Here are some additional educational resources for those interested in delving into EP this year:

Introduction to Epicurean Philosophy Session 1

There’s also a free Spanish-language course here / También tenemos un curso en castellano aquí:

Epicuro y el Epicureísmo

And the webpage Elemental Epicureanism is also a great resource.

Eight Short Videos on Epicurus’ Thought – the source is not Epicurean but the videos are of a professional quality

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My Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago

On Thursday, at the invitation of my neighbor, I had the pleasure of visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. It opens until late on Thursdays. I had not had dinner and we were hungry, so we did not see the whole collection, but we may come back at some point. I want to see the African and Japanese collections: this time I focused on the Southeast Asian and Mediterranean collections, and the Medieval collection which reminded me of Game of Thrones, and included Christian art–mostly displays of suffering, unhappy human figures with saintly auras.

The above piece is a bronze of Lord Ganesha, who in recent years inspired the creation of a Hindu solstice festival known as Pancha Ganapati. They figured since Blacks have Kwanzaa, Jews have Hannukah, Christians have Christmas, Pagans have Yule, and Humanists and atheists have Humanlight, why not give Hindu children gifts and sweets while staying true to their own tradition?

There were many decorated fish plates with a sauce bowl embedded in the center, all Greek. This design makes a lot of sense. Typically fish in the Mediterranean was cooked in olive oil, and the drippings would have been great to soak bread in.

Here one can see a satyr in beautiful detail, which reminded me of the satyrs that helped educate and teach humans the arts and cultivation of grape, etc. in Revolt of the Angels. I love the freedom and innocence of the ancients. Later generations would have considered his erect phallus and his grin to be pornography or obscenity, but to the ancients the satyr was art, nature, playfulness and innocence.

Below we see a beautiful, heroic bust of Hercules, exuding manly confidence and wearing the head of the Nemean lion.

Below we see Aphrodite of Knidos. Or what remains of her. Many of the pieces in the museum were made around 2,000 years ago, and some (mainly the Egyptian ones) were much older.

Below is the bust of Marcus Aurelius Caesar, the Philosopher King known for having ruled Rome and for having written the Meditations. He was a Stoic. The bust has a very dignified presence.

Speaking of dignified: this bust of Athena, the Goddess of philosophy and wisdom, was missing its nose–like many other ancient pieces–but was still magnificent. Her helmet reminded me of the ape army from Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes movie.

Here is the piece that made my day: I was able to take a close-up picture of Antinous, the lover of the Spanish-born Roman Emperor Hadrian. He drowned in the Nile, was then deified by the Egyptian priests, and the emperor built him a holy city on the banks of the Nile. The emperor promoted the cult everywhere, and commissioned so many busts and sculptures of his likeness, that Antinous became one of the best preserved faces from antiquity.

The above bust is in the Egyptian style, with Antinous merged into the deity of Osiris. Below is another bust of Antinous, this one fully Greek as an ephebe, or youth. The hairstyle is typical of Antinous busts.

Trivia: Antinous makes an appearance towards the final scenes of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant novel American Gods, fighting on the side of the old gods with an entourage of leather men. Neil Gaiman is one of the most brilliant fantasy writers of our generation. He’s responsible for the Lucifer Morningstar character that inspired the TV series Lucifer, for the Sandman mythos, and many other novels and stories. Throughout his work, we see time and again a depiction of the existential state of contemporary, urban American society juxtaposed with ancient mythical characters, which produces an interesting interaction. It has always seemed to me that Gaiman is seeking to use old myths to re-enchant the modern post-Christian world, which has lost so much of its meaning and myth.

If you’re interested in both Epicurean philosophy and in the history of art, you may enjoy the book The Sculpted Word. Since Epicureans were a missionary philosophy but did not preach in the public eye, they had a passive model of recruitment that relied on strategically placed imagery and sculptures (although, in later times, Diogenes of Oenoanda built a Wall Inscription to recruit new Epicureans). An image speaks a thousand words. This resulted in an Epicurean style that sought to convey the desirable traits of a philosopher, a sage, and a healer through the media of sculpture, in the hopes that people would feel compelled by the presence of the sculpture to visit the Garden and inquire about the philosophy. The book also contains detailed analyses of ancient art pieces, and goes into detail about the psychology of conversion.

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Islam and Secularism

I am concluding my blog series after reading the Qur’an discussing secular values. In recent days, the wife of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has tried to generate awareness of the fact that there is now an Islamic Party of Ontario, which seeks to Islamicize Canada–and that media has barely taken notice of this. Also, Amazon decided to stop selling certain items after Islamist activists from CAIR (the Council for American Islamic Relations) complained that Muslims “might be offended”. Never mind how atheists might be offended by Muhammad’s marriage to a 9-year-old girl, or his massacre by beheading of all the men in a Jewish tribe.

What’s next? Will we be unable to see depictions of cute piglets because this offends Muslims? Amazon started out as an online library that helped to cause the collapse of Borders and other brick-and-mortar libraries, and libraries used to be temples of free speech and free exchange of ideas. Will all criticism of Islam be banned eventually by Amazon? To what extent will CAIR and similar organizations continue to test the limits of religious privilege?

The secular state was originally established in order to protect future generations from the long string of religious conflicts and wars that Europe experienced under authoritarian, corrupt, medieval Christianity which kept people fanatical, poor, and unlearned. Religious belief is a private matter of personal rights. The state, since it is not an individual and has no conscience, does not and can not–by its very nature–have a religious belief. Only individuals have beliefs, and the role of the state is to secure that right, and to secure the rights of other individuals who do not share one’s religious views. In order to avoid the use of the state apparatus by religious groups to enforce their agendas, it was established that the state should always remain neutral with regards to religious issues. This, in the French Republic, is known as laïcité. In the American Republic, we have the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which has allowed us to avoid the continuation of the constant religious warfare that our European predecessors suffered in earlier centuries.

Islam is notorious for its difficulties in adapting to life in a secular state. In recent years, Bangladesh has attempted to break free from Islamic totalitarianism and to become a secular state while secular intellectuals and bloggers are being killed–merely for exerting their free expression, a right that we in the West take for granted.

In Egypt, Bahá’ís have been denied national ID’s (and, therefore, government services) because they do not fall into the “divine religions” recognized in the Qur’an of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The problem was later solved by removing the requirement of identifying a religion in one’s ID–a fourth option of not answering this question is available–but does this not open the door still for discrimination? Can an employer deny one a job if one does not identify “correctly”, or if one chooses not to identify and is assumed an atheist? Should identifying one’s religion or lack thereof really be necessary?

In Iran, Bahá’ís are systematically discriminated against, denied access to an education, and other basic civil rights. The problem with theocracies is that there is an entrenched belief that the state must take an active interest in the personal religious beliefs of individuals–and this, naturally, sets the stage for totalitarianism and lack of civil rights, including the right to one’s private thoughts.

Elsewhere in places like Belgium, in the heart of Europe, there is now an Islamic Party that is beginning to exert political power. Implicit in the Islamic identity of the party is the fact that Muslims there have a political agenda, and that that agenda does not find an outlet in any of the traditional parties. They want to change Belgian society so that it looks like the unfree ones that they were fleeing in the first place.

Do Muslims in Europe really want to live in regimes similar to the ones they are fleeing from? Let us hear from someone living in a country that has already adopted Islamic politics: Raif Badawi was imprisoned and received lashes in public for calling for Saudi Arabia to become secular.

Secularism is the most important refuge for citizens of a country. Secularism respects everyone and doesn’t offend anyone. It’s the practical solution to lift countries out of the third world and into the first.

We should not hide that fact that Muslims in Saudi Arabia not only disrespect the beliefs of others, but also charge them with infidelity.

No religion at all has any connection to mankind’s civic progress.

Look at all the countries that are based on a religious ideology; look at their people and the generations born into it: What do they have to offer human civilization?

Raif Badawi, imprisoned Saudi secular blogger

The next scriptures blog series will focus on the Bhagavad Gita. Please consider subscribing!

Further Reading:
From Raif Badawi’s Blog, concerning September 11

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Deeds Versus Belief

Indeed, those who have believed then disbelieved, then believed, then disbelieved, and then increased in disbelief–never will Allah forgive them, nor will He guide them. – Qur’an 4:137

Can doubt be a sin? Can a sincerely held opinion be evil? One of the problems I perceived while reading the Qur’an is that, if people seriously believe in it, and later on experience a crisis of faith and of sincerity, it has the potential to make a person’s existential crisis far more difficult, potentially causing greater depression and anxiety, and unnecessarily adding fuel to human angst.

As we saw in our essay on how Muhammad treated proof, it’s clear that he treated belief as a mere option and exhibited little intellectual rigor with regards to the factual value of claims. Furthermore, he adopted a punitive, fear-base conception of morality as based on punishment in the afterlife–which appears to have fed his bias against unbelievers, and cemented his equating belief with righteousness.

Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are those who have disbelieved, and they will not [ever] believe. The ones with whom you made a treaty but then they break their pledge every time, and they do not fear Allah. – Quran 8:55-56

While reading the Qur’an, I made a very sincere effort to see Muhammad’s point. Based on the above passage on the violation of treaties, it seems like he attributes to infidels the inability to be true to their oaths. To be fair, the matter or oath-breaking as tied to faith (because oaths were pronounced by the Gods in antiquity) is also mentioned by Philodemus of Gadara in his scroll on piety. However, we in the West have for centuries lived under secular laws, and we do not treat atheists as any less capable of abiding by their contracts. Is it really fair to say this?:

To those who disbelieve in the hereafter belong all evil qualities. – Qur’an 16:60

… particularly in light of the unimaginable evil that has been carried out throughout history by men of God? Should men of God not be at least humble concerning these kinds of claims, and give non-believers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to contracts and treaties? And what about Nobel prize winners, and members of the academy of the sciences–most of whom have historically been atheists? Can these men and women–who have made very valuable contributions to society–really be said to be evil, or to have “all the evil qualities”? By contrast, only one Muslim has ever been won the Nobel Price for his work in the sciences, and he’s often vilified by the majority of the Muslim community for being an Ahmadiyya–this is a small, missionary sect of Islam that preaches non-violence and accepts Buddha and Krishna as prophets.

One of the contradictions in the Qur’an can be found in 6:160 and 21:47, where rewards and punishments are stipulated for deeds, but then elsewhere (5:5, 14:18 and 24:39) it says that being a non believer makes your good deeds void.

Like with the Pauline epistles, in the Qur’an we find the doctrine that belief in the supernatural, not deeds, determine one’s fate in the hereafter (39:56). In 2:217 and 2:161, in verses that were revealed in the latter part of Muhammad’s mission–when he had amassed political power and was engaged in warfare and recruitment of soldiers–he told his followers that if they died as non-believers, their deeds would become void, and that dying as disbelievers would send them to hell forever.

All of this begs a question on the logic of submission proposed by the Qur’an: is there ever a case when submission (sometimes sublimated as “surrender” by the mystically inclined) to a god or to another person (a prophet, in this case) can make a person good, moral or happy–other than for the avoidance of threats and violence coming from that powerful person or from his followers? This is the other side of the coin: refusing to submit will not necessarily make us unhappy, evil or immoral, but also submitting does not necessarily make us moral or happy. I sense great moral confusion among the religious in this.

There are many problems with both the Pauline and the Islamic versions of the replacement of justice with credulity–a matter that was also addressed by Diogenes. Let’s therefore always keep in mind the wise conclusion of chapter 14 of A Few Days in Athens:

We shall both be amply repaid … if this truth remain with you — that an opinion, right or wrong, can never constitute a moral offense, nor be in itself a moral obligation. It may be mistaken; it may involve an absurdity, or a contradiction. It is a truth; or it is an error: it can never be a crime or a virtue.

Further Reading:

Diogenes on Righteousness Versus Credulity

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The Satanic Verses Event

Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy. – Salman Rushdie

When most people hear of Satanic Verses, they usually think about author Salman Rushdie and the controversy surrounding his novel, which inspired a fatwa against him. He had to fear for his life for years for writing a novel that mocked Muhammad and his wives. But the novel Satanic Verses takes its title from one of the controversial historical events in Muhammad’s prophetic career.

I first read about the Satanic verses in Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim. Answering Islam also has a page on it. Here’s what happened: for some time, Muhammad was attempting to negotiate a truce with the practitioners of Arabia’s aboriginal Pagan religion. In one instance he revealed a verse saying that the three Goddesses Allat, Al-Uzza and Manat were worthy intercessors before Allah, which allowed Pagans to prostrate together with the Muslims. Here was the original revelation:

Have ye thought upon al-Lat and al-Uzza and Manat, the third, the other? These are the exalted intermediaries whose intercession is to be hoped for. – Qur’an 53:19-20

Word began to spread that Pagans were converting to Islam, but then a few days later Muhammad admitted that the revealed verse on the three Goddess had been inspired by Satan (hence the name “Satanic Verses” for this unfortunate episode), and that God had now “revealed” these verses to replace them:

Have ye thought upon al-Lat and al-Uzza and Manat, the third, the other? Are you to have the males, and He the females? What a bizarre distribution. These are nothing but names, which you have devised, you and your ancestors, for which God sent down no authority. They follow nothing but assumptions, and what the ego desires, even though guidance has come to them from their Lord. – Qur’an 53:19-23

Allat (=Goddess) is the feminine form of the name Allah (=God) and Uzza of Azziz (Strong One), which are recognized names of Allah. Now, the Qur’an says that “to God belong all the most beautiful names“–but apparently this is only true as long as they’re not female names. Muslim theologians may deny this, but Allah is gendered and male–even if only because in the Arabic language all words must have one of two genders, which creates gendered restrictions in Arabic thought.

The “Are you to have the males, and He the females?” portion is meant to reproach Arabs for wanting sons, while attributing daughters to God. Muhammad himself had only daughters (his sons died in infancy), and took issue with the devaluation of female offspring.

Naturally, this event has cast doubt into the supposed divinely revealed nature–and infallibility–of the entire Qur’an to this day. If the prophet can be swayed to reveal verses by Satan himself, this contradicts his own doctrine that Satan does not have power over the faithful (38:82-83, and 17:65), and this other revelation where God speaks in the plural:

Had he (Muhammad) falsely attributed some statements to Us, We would have seized him by the right arm, then slashed his lifeline. And none of you could have restrained Us from him. – Qur’an 69:44-47

Presumably this means that Allah would have killed Muhammad if he had made up verses. But the Satanic Verses episode proves that Muhammad DID produce verses that weren’t “from God” and wasn’t killed by Allah, so this other verse is also in question. (I’d hate to attribute these verses to the devil, when Muhammad clearly saw the advantages of praying with Pagans and allowing them to convert to Islam). So this is the Qur’an’s version of Jeremiah 8:8–the Bible verse that curiously admits that the Bible has been falsified.

We must add to the Satanic Verses scandal, the belief expressed in the Qur’an that the messages of all the previous prophets had been corrupted by Satan (who–remember!–is not supposed to have power over God’s devotees as per 38:82-83 and 17:65), which explains the sectarian divisions in Christianity and other faiths, and even in Islam immediately after the prophet’s death so that, in the end–if we are to believe that Satan is more than a convenient scapegoat–Satan supposedly gains mastery over everyone.

By God, We sent messengers to communities before you, but Satan made their deeds appear alluring to them. He is their master today, and they will have a painful punishment. – Qur’an 16:63

And so there’s a lesson here on the importance and the maturity of assuming ownership for one’s own mistakes, thoughts, and ideas–rather than blaming a scapegoat or imagining that a God is pulling the strings. This process of revelation, while promising “clear guidance” from the onset in the very first surah of the Qur’an, confesses its own imperfections and even its own inability to self-correct, or to admit error. If Muhammad had been willing to admit he had been mistaken, rather than blaming Satan or some other agency, he would have been pliable to reform or moral development. But the nature of what he was claiming–that it was Allah who spoke–was such that it impeded a frank conversation about what inspired his verses (perhaps the mutual advantage he perceived in converting the Pagans?, perhaps the semi-divine quality he still conceded to the three Goddesses?, etc.)

Muhammad’s Satan Versus Anatole France’s Satan

I took an interest in the literary figure of Satan while reading Revolt of the Angels, which is considered canon by The Satanic Temple. So when I found Muhammad speaking for Satan in the Qur’an, my expectations were high and, unfortunately, unmet. Here is what Muhammad’s Satan says:

And Satan will say, when the issue is settled, “God has promised you the promise of truth, and I promised you, but I failed you. I had no authority over you, except that I called you, and you answered me. So do not blame me, but blame yourselves. I cannot come to your aid, nor can you come to my aid. I reject your associating with me in the past. The wrongdoers will have a torment most painful.” – Qur’an 14:22

Very out of character for the romanticized arch-rebel. Let’s compare this brief speech to the one at the end of Revolt of the Angels, which beautifully illustrates the anarchic and libertarian spirit of freedom he embodies. After dreaming the he had successfully gained victory over Ialdabaoth (the God of the Bible) and assuming his throne in heaven, and dreaming that he had become all the things that he had originally rebelled against–a pitiless, unconcerned, unearthly, bland God with no curiosity, while the God he had replaced was now an earthly hero who embodied freedom–he awakened and said:

“Comrades,” said the great archangel, “no—we will not conquer the heavens. Enough to have the power. War engenders war, and victory defeat.

“God, conquered, will become Satan; Satan, conquering, will become God. May the fates spare me this terrible lot; I love the Hell which formed my genius. I love the Earth where I have done some good, if it be possible to do any good in this fearful world where beings live but by rapine. Now, thanks to us, the god of old is dispossessed of his terrestrial empire, and every thinking being on this globe disdains him or knows him not. But what matter that men should be no longer submissive to Ialdabaoth if the spirit of Ialdabaoth is still in them; if they, like him, are jealous, violent, quarrelsome, and greedy, and the foes of the arts and of beauty? What matter that they have rejected the ferocious Demiurge, if they do not hearken to the friendly demons who teach all truths; to Dionysus, Apollo, and the Muses? As to ourselves, celestial spirits, sublime demons, we have destroyed Ialdabaoth, our Tyrant, if in ourselves we have destroyed Ignorance and Fear.”

And Satan, turning to the gardener, said:

“Nectaire, you fought with me before the birth of the world. We were conquered because we failed to understand that Victory is a Spirit, and that it is in ourselves and in ourselves alone that we must attack and destroy Ialdabaoth.”

Further Reading:

Review of Revolt of the Angels

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Islamic Banking

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and economics, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Epicurean Saying 41

One of the soundest aspects of Islam is the banking system, which creates checks and balances against many of the speculative behaviors that led to the 2008 crisis in the West, and for which Wall Street earned the title of “America’s financial Gomorrah” during the Occupy Movement. Unfortunately, most of the intellectuals that America has produced who have had anything to say about financial regulations (Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman) have advised against financial regulations. Few intellectuals with true moral authority (outside of Keynes) have credibly given guidance that might have avoided the 2008 crisis and the other hiccups that the financial industry experiences from time to time, as well as the smaller, less visible injustices that everyday people suffer at the mercy of the powerful banking cartel, and the billionaire dynasties. According to an American Prospect piece titled What Taxing the Rich Could Yield: America’s 15 wealthiest families are worth a combined $618 billion:

A 1 percent flat tax on just the top 0.1 percent—on the assets of those worth more than $20 million—would result in $1.899 trillion in revenue in a single decade. That’s an amount that could yield significant investments in debt-free college, affordable housing, health care—and the list goes on. 

Alms

Muhammad established one of the first welfare states in history. Zakat is considered one of the five pillars, or obligations, of Islam. In 5:12, the Qur’an calls it “loaning Allah a goodly loan“.

Zakat expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect zakat, and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the stranded traveler. – Qur’an 9:60

If we take out the portion meant to evangelize and the portion meant for Islamic warfare (here the euphemism “the cause of Allah” is used), you will find that most modern secular societies have applied a comparable, compassionate safety net system in order to secure a society without extreme poverty and destitution. And so, thanks to progressive taxation, we have grown past the need for religious alms or tithing.

Interest

They say, “Trade is just like interest.” But Allah has permitted trade and has forbidden interest. – Qur’an 2:275

The Qur’an encourages debt forgiveness or deferral. Since lending for interest is forbidden in the Qur’an, Islamic banking promotes things like partnership and joint stock ownership, so that investors become owners of means of production and of assets. This is actually in line with Philodemus’ guidelines in his scroll On Property Management, our main source on the doctrines concerning autarchy (self-sufficiency).

Muhammad the Business Man

Give full measure and do not be of those who cause loss. And weigh with an even balance. And do not deprive people of their due and do not commit abuse on earth, spreading corruption. – Qur’an 26:181-183

Muhammad was a merchant, and so it was in his self-interest to secure a wholesome environment for conducting business. He wove rules concerning fairness in trade into the Qur’an.

He frequently had to seal deals with people while on journeys, and understood the difficulties of doing business while traveling. He stipulated the use of debt collateral, or security deposit (Qur’an 2:283) in cases where witnesses and scribes could not be found to testify concerning contracts. Unfortunately, Muhammad’s degrading view of women made its way into his scripture: debt contracts require two witnesses, and the witness of a woman is worth half of a man’s.

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Violence and Killing in the Qur’an

This blog, published on the anniversary of their deaths, is in memory of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It also coincides with news about a Saudi woman who was allowed to stay in Thailand after she revealed that she was fleeing her own family, who she feared would try to kill her.

One of the most shocking and vulgar elements of Islam that has been made evident in  recent years–with ISIS, 9/11, and the many terrorist acts in which Muslims have offered thousands of human sacrifices to Allah–is the very real problem of Islamic violence. While reading the Qur’an, I wanted to see a clearer picture of the earliest examples of this violence, and to see to what extent Muhammad was a warlord–and to what extent he was a just one or a cruel one. Only by understanding the context of the wars, can this be done.

Law of Talion

(The servants of the Merciful are those who …) do not kill the soul which God has made sacred—except in the pursuit of justice… – Qur’an 25:68

Whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. – Qur’an 5:32

The first instance where killing is just is in the case of retaliation. Verse 17:33 repeats that it is unjust to kill, except for heirs who exert justice by legal means–for instance, if someone kills my father unjustly, as an heir I have a right to his killer’s head. It is not clear to me what “corruption on earth” means in verse 5:32. If it can be construed to mean atheism or freethinking, then this is clearly an abhorrent teaching. Verse 18:80-81 tells an anecdote of a “wise” man of God who killed a Pagan boy “justly” because “his parents were believers, and we feared he would overwhelm them with oppression and disbelief.” This verse could easily be used to justify theocratic oppression, rather than avoid secular oppression. Here, the lack of clarity and specificity is problematic.

But if this is merely the codification of the code of honor that exists in many traditional societies, which gives family members the right to decide the fate of whoever killed one of theirs, then this is fair enough.

If you were to retaliate, retaliate to the same degree as the injury done to you. But if you resort to patience—it is better for the patient. – Qur’an 16:126

Verse 17:31 says “don’t kill your children for fear of poverty“, and 2:178 provides the details for the law of retaliation for murder: a freeman for a freeman, a slave for a slave, a female for a female. It appears that the family members who were wronged decide who dies, rather than have the guilty punished. If this is the case, it is unjust and contradicts the Qur’an elsewhere, where it claims that each person will only carry guilt for his or her own crimes.

Rules of Warfare

Islamic warfare has its origins in the expulsion / exile of Muslims from Mecca in order to avoid problems with the local polytheists. This started a migration to the city of Medina, which then became the first Islamic city. There are Quranic verses where it seems that Muhammad was actively encouraging people to migrate at this time.

But as Islam spread, the hostilities persisted, and it seems that many Muslims had been campaigning for jihad and asking Muhammad for permission to fight in self-defense. Finally, in Qur’an 22:39-40, Muhammad relented and gave permission to fight back in self defense. Apparently some Muslims had been kicked out of their homes because of their faith.

Permission is given to those who are fought against, and God is Able to give them victory. Those who were unjustly evicted from their homes, merely for saying, “Our Lord is God.” Were it not that God repels people by means of others: monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques—where the name of God is mentioned much—would have been demolished. 

It is here that we can insert the rules for warfare in 2:190-194 that say: “kill them wherever you find them“. This is immediately followed by “expel them from where they had expelled you“, meaning that this was authorized in the context of Muslims regaining lost property after being expelled from their homes. Thus contextualized, let’s read this verse:

And fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not commit aggression; God does not love the aggressors. And kill them wherever you overtake them, and expel them from where they had expelled you. Oppression is more serious than murder.

But do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque, unless they fight you there. If they fight you, then kill them. Such is the retribution of the disbelievers. But if they cease, then God is Forgiving and Merciful.

And fight them until there is no oppression, and worship becomes devoted to God alone. But if they cease, then let there be no hostility except against the oppressors.

The sacred month for the sacred month; and sacrilege calls for retaliation. Whoever commits aggression against you, retaliate against him in the same measure as he has committed against you. And be conscious of God, and know that God is with the righteous.

Muhammad even produced verses (4:102-3) concerning prayer duty while at war and armed, so that this idea of pious warfare was entrenched in the Muslim mind from the onset.

I wanted to verify whether it really says “persecution/oppression is worse than killing“–as many English translations say–, because elsewhere (in texts cited by Atheists to demonstrate that Islam is inherently violent), this verse is translated as “non-belief is worse than killing“, which would render this a false and evil teaching.

The word used in the original is fitna, and most Islamic scholars teach that this implies non-belief (which explains the verse “fight until worship … is for God alone“). But the word originally had other meanings, and I wonder if this is a case where a belligerent clergy co-opted an unclear passage (as Christians have so often done) to advance an unwholesome agenda.

And so here we see that warfare is legitimized in the context of retaliation–the same “law of talion” that applies when an individual commits murder or theft, also applies when one community commits mass murder or mass theft of the properties of others. This is fair enough–and Epicurean doctrine is actually in accordance with this: security, including the safety and comfort of a home, is a natural and necessary good. Also, see Principal Doctrine 39. Krishna also recited the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu Gospel) of the battlefield at Kurukshetra, ordering Arjuna to fight for righteousness.

In fairness, I sought to find context for the war-mongering verses in the Qur’an, and also sought to find verses that lacked context and could be misused. I found that, in 2:216, “fighting is obligatory“, without reference to a particular instance of oppression, and it occurred to me: “even in times of peace?”

But the verse that I found the least contextualized was 9:123, which orders Muslims to fight the disbelievers firmly. I can see how these verses can be used to recruit warriors for unnecessary causes.

O you who have believed, fight those adjacent to you of the disbelievers and let them find in you harshness. And know that Allah is with the righteous.

Within the context of these rules, Muhammad massacred the Jewish tribe of Qurayza for treason. Apparently some tribe members had sided with the Meccans against the Muslims during a battle, and Muhammad gave away the women and children of the tribe as slaves, and had the men decapitated. It would be very difficult today to evaluate the arguments of all the sides of the conflict, and impossible to hear the Qurayza version of these events, so I will refrain from doing so and invite each reader who takes an interest in this to come to his or her own conclusions.

Are Suicide Bombers Good Muslims?

Suicide is forbidden in 4:29. The verse does not provide for exceptions, for instance, if one is involved in warfare or as a war tactic–which would mean that warriors would be required to develop a battle strategy so as to not end up in a suicide mission.

And so it seems that this modern practice of suicide bombers is not supported in the Qur’an, and is the result of manipulative forces that encourage “martyrdom” with doctrinal enticements that I also didn’t find in the Qur’an (like the “72 virgins in heaven”), plus an existential crisis within the souls of terrorists themselves–many of whom I suspect have suicidal tendencies that find an outlet and justification in a certain, unwholesome interpretation of Islam.

Taking Hostages in the Qur’an

When you encounter those who disbelieve, strike at their necks. Then, when you have routed them, bind them firmly. Then, either release them by grace, or by ransom, until war lays down its burdens. Had God willed, He could have defeated them Himself, but He thus tests some of you by means of others. – Qur’an 47:4

On the other hand, the tradition of taking hostages and asking for ransom starts with Muhammad and is legitimized in the Qur’an as a war tactic. No clear context is given, but this raises the problem of war profiteering.

The Spoils of War

Those who lagged behind say when you depart to collect the gains, “Let us follow you.” – Qur’an 48:15

In 59:7-8, we see that Muhammad acted as the distributor of the spoils of war, and that he both profiteered from war, and also used it to brand himself as a Robin Hood who circulated wealth among the poor and the orphans.

Naturally, this invited the greed of many of his followers, who wanted to also enjoy the spoils of war, and attracted insincere fighters to jihad–common thugs pretending to believe in God for the sake of the spoils of war. In verse 4:94, we see the prohibition against fighting others who offer peace, in order to gain spoils–which is an indication that this was happening. Ironically, while preaching against the spread of corruption on the land, Muhammad created huge ideological and societal entanglements by which his religion spread corruption on the land–because there will always be greedy and evil souls who may be willing or unwilling to fight, but eager to profit from their own conflicts and the conflicts of others. By the time he saw this coming, Muhammad was too entangled in his religious-military project.

Another way to benefit from warfare is by enjoying a higher rank: in 4:95, we see that soldiers out-rank inactive believers.

Then there are the unnatural incentives: Muhammad claims that “martyrs are alive” in paradise (2:154); in 48:16 he promises heaven to those who fight and hell to those who don’t; in 4:74-77 he advises giving up this life in war for sake of next life, where there will be “victory”; in 9:63 we see that “whoever opposes God and His Messenger will have the Fire of Hell, abiding in it forever“; and in 3:140-142 and 3:156-157 he justifies jihad for the sake of heaven. And so, while suicide missions are not justified in the Qur’an, the temptation of sacrificing this life for the sake of an afterlife does exist in the Qur’an and, to this day, has produced great amounts of unnecessary waste of earthly life and pleasures.

In chapter 9, we see a message of full rejection of this world for the sake of jihad, with the claim that God will torment you for not fighting, although the verse says God doesn’t actually need you and suffers no harm from your lack of fighting. Imagine the confusion this may create in a sincere Muslim believer who wants to go to heaven, but has no reason to actually engage in a fight happening elsewhere that has nothing to do with him–particularly is he is young, chooses unwholesome association and is under peer-pressure to fight.

O you who believe! What is the matter with you, when it is said to you, “Mobilize in the cause of God,” you cling heavily to the earth? Do you prefer the present life to the Hereafter? The enjoyment of the present life, compared to the Hereafter, is only a little. Unless you mobilize, He will punish you most painfully, and will replace you with another people, and you will not harm Him at all. God has power over all things. – Qur’an 9:38

I also wish to bring attention to the theological inconsistency in this verse: Allah is said to be self-sufficient and it is asserted that he needs no protector, but Muslims are obligated to constantly fight for him and act as bodyguards to Allah? The two claims are mutually contradictory. A self-sufficient immortal being would have no need of armies, as he or she would not experience threats of any kind.

And so we see in these verses that Islam intensified the war of the Abrahamic religions against this life, this world, and the only pleasures that we have certainty of enjoying. We are reminded of the urgency in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s words: “I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes!“.

The Hypocrites

Muhammad chose a path that involved both politics and warfare, two of the worst paths a man can choose. The constant back-and-forth hostility between Muhammad and the polytheists (they were not infidels, as they showed fidelity or loyalty to their own Gods) was sometimes overt, and sometimes passive/aggressive, where Muhammad would use “revealed” verses and veiled threats in the Qur’an as ammunition against his enemies. This both created and reflected an environment of deep distrust and constant tension.

Indeed disbelievers are your sworn enemies. – Qur’an 4:101

Enmity and hatred has surfaced between us and you, forever, until you believe in God alone. – Qur’an 60:4

It also created an environment where people followed Muhammad out of fear (as is often the case when there’s societal conflict and peer pressure to fight), and he knew many of his followers were hypocrites (9:101 and :77)–which is only natural when one attains power through methods that induce fear. In chapter 9–which is the main war-mongering chapter in the Qur’an, and is appropriately the only one that does not start with “in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful“–Muhammad complains of hypocrites who won’t wage war for him or give him money. In 4:88-91, we see the same logic applied to “the hypocrites” that we saw applied to non-believers in the rules of warfare passage: seize and kill them wherever you find them, but in self-defense only.

Another thing we learn from these passages is that Muhammad had the mindset of a feudal warlord: he was deeply concerned about the loyalties of those around him, and particularly of his followers–which made him concerned about their beliefs and the sincerity with which they were held. It has always been true that strong-armed dictators amass their power in times of warfare and danger, which provide the opportunity for the acquisition of total control. Muhammad required the allegiance of his followers and their absolute obedience–in fact, there is an event in his biography known as the Pledge Under the Tree where all his followers were required to declare their allegiance to him and vowed to avenge a friend.

This Game-of-Thrones-like conception of feudal allegiance involved, among other things, pressure to engage in war (as we saw in 2:216), and the public execution of war criminals with the intent of making of them an example.

The punishment for those who fight God and His Messenger, and strive to spread corruption on earth, is that they be killed, or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides, or be banished from the land. – Qur’an 5:33

Some generous and perhaps well-meaning souls have praised Muhammad for being a smart politician, or even the ideal politician. But Muhammad dealt with dissent violently. While in the eyes of someone with a feudal conception of politics he may be praiseworthy based on criteria like ability to amass power, a person versed in modern politics will likely consider him a threat to human rights and to freedom of conscience. 

Violence Projected Even Against Heaven

Everyone lives in the universe that they are capable of imagining, and because warfare was part of Muhammad’s psyche and reality, he also projected it against what he imagined as the spiritual dimension. He, for instance, hired and employed sacred terror/awe in the service of earthly warfare. These are the verses that originated the word terrorism:

We will throw terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. – Qur’an 3:151

And He brought down from their strongholds those of the People of the Book who backed them, and He threw terror into their hearts. Some of them you killed, and others you took captive. – Qur’an 33:26

We begin to see a very ugly distortion of even the angelic hosts, who–far from the rosy, innocent, winged infants of folklore–become agents of torture and violence.

Your Lord inspired the angels: “I am with you, so support those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. So strike above the necks, and strike off every fingertip of theirs.” – Qur’an 8:12

Theft

One other instance that strikes a modern person as extreme, and falls quite far outside the law of talion, is the law that orders that thieves have their hand cut off. This seems out of proportion with the measure of the crime, and no concession seems to be made for thieves who steal out of poverty and hunger.

To someone living in modern secular societies, there seem to be many more pragmatic and intelligent ways of dealing with theft than this–job creation, job training, and finally incarceration–rather than the cruelty of this law, particularly when perpetrated against someone young and inexperienced who may, if given the chance, have a bright future. Here is one case where the punitive nature of Islam gets in the way of pragmatic solutions to real-world problems.

As for the thief, whether male or female, cut their hands as a penalty for what they have reaped—a deterrent from God. – Qur’an 5:38

Conclusion

I will let each reader come to his or her own conclusions about Muhammad’s character and sense of justice, but must add one final note here on secondary sources, and on why I stick to the Qur’an: the hadiths (traditions of the prophet) are sometimes much more gruesome than the Qur’an on the matter of violence and, at times, rather petty and ludicrous. These traditions were collected over centuries after the events unfolded–which is why the Qur’an-only movement and many others question their validity–, during a time when Islam was expanding and the politics of expansion called for the justification of increased ruthlessness and hatred for non-believers. That many of these hadith still enjoy canonical status is a testament to the character of later Muslims, not necessary against Muhammad himself, except in the cases where–knowing that he enjoyed the unconditional obedience of his followers–he could have spoken more clearly against the excesses of those among his flock that thrived in conflict.

Further Reading:
From Raif Badawi’s Blog, concerning September 11

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