Of all the attempts to argue that an Islamic Reformation is possible, none have been more robust and deeply rooted than the reform movement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which began in the mid-1990s. The Persian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush was once hailed as “the Martin Luther of Islam.” This declaration – by Western liberals – was not just premature, it was absurdly ignorant. During the course of the brutal crackdown on the seven- or eight month month-long national uprising of 2009–2010, it became clear that the majority of the Persian youth have given up on reform. Despite the Obama Administration’s attempts to shore up the Islamic Republic and use it as a Shi’ite counter-weight to the Islamic State’s Sunni Caliphate, with the hope of yet again drawing a contrast between good and bad Muslims, the true nature of Arab Shi’ism is becoming clear to many in Iran who are ready for a Persian Renaissance that reconnects them with their Aryan cousins in Europe and India.
I have written reams on this subject, but all that presently needs to be demonstrated is that the tradition of erfan, or Gnosis, which is shared by Shi’ites and Sunni Sufis, is utter heresy and blasphemy from the standpoint of the Koran. Sufism began as a crypto-Gnostic reverence for Sophia (Wisdom, or Mazda in ancient Persian) that survived a failed insurgency against the Arab-Islamic Conquest of Iran by donning the cloak of Islam. Even then, properly Mulism authorities consistently and persistently persecuted these Mazdakites – adherents of Mazda – as the false Muslims that they are. Sadly, the terror of persecution was so severe that these esoteric groups eventually began to convince themselves of their own nonsense and to identify with the hostage-taker that their dissimulation was intended to protect them from: Sufi Stockholm syndrome.
According to Shi’ites, Imam Ali was chosen for the role of successor by God, and Muhammad was initially informed of this during his miraj to Heaven by a voice from beneath God’s throne. However, Muhammad feared his companions’ reaction to Ali being appointed as his successor, so he suppressed this divine command, until these verses descended amidst the final revelation: “O Apostle, convey that which was sent down to you from your Lord; for if you do not, you will not have conveyed his message. God will protect you from the people; surely God guides not the rejecters of faith” (5:67). Shi’ites believe that Muhammad heeded this decree by declaring Ali as his successor before a mass of followers at the spring of Ghadir Khumm, on the way back from his final pilgrimage. From the start, there was dissent, and some even plotted to kill the Prophet. After Muhammad’s death this dissension exploded into a schism that has enflamed the Islamic world to this day. But to think that this sectarian schism between, say, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, can be used to promote an Islamic Reformation is dangerously ignorant.
The problem with Shi’ite (and Sufi) esotericism is that there is no credible evidence whatsoever that Muhammad secretly initiated his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abu Talib (the Fourth Caliph) into a Gnostic wisdom that is passed on in a silsila or “chain” from Imam to Imam, or down on to the Sufi masters and the founders of its orders. The only way, if any, that this belief could be verified is if the vast corpus of sermons of Ali testified to his mystical understanding. Quite to the contrary, Ali’s Nahjul Balagha shows just how literally he subscribes to all of the dogmas of the Koran.
In Sermon 1, we see his literal subscription to the creation myth, and in Sermon 82 to the Koran’s depiction of resurrection and judgment at the apocalypse. Hopes of Paradise and fears of Hell are evoked in Sermon 164, along with graphic descriptions of both lots of the soul. Sermons 79 and 152 bear witness to the fact that Ali held a view of women even more degrading than that of the Koran. Women are compared, without exception, to “beasts and carnivores,” and men are never to listen to them on any matter, even if they seem to be right. More importantly, Ali also believes that the Koran is such a perfect and complete guide that any and every bit of “innovation” outside of its sharia is heresy and blasphemy. In Sermon 175 he writes:
…know that this Koran is an adviser who never deceives, a leader who never misleads and a narrator who never speaks a lie… You should also know that no one will need anything after (guidance from) the Koran… Know, O’ creatures of Allah, that a believer should regard lawful this year what he regarded lawful in the previous year and should consider unlawful this year what he considered unlawful in the previous year. Certainly people’s innovation (bid’ah) cannot make lawful for you what has been declared unlawful; rather, lawful is that which Allah has made lawful and unlawful is that which Allah has made unlawful… People are of two categories – the follower of the shari’ah (religious laws), and the follower of the innovations to whom Allah has not given any testimony by way of sunnah or the light of any plea.
Therefore the notion that the Koran was an exoteric message of discipline for the ignorant rabble and that there is an esoteric mystical Islam for a spiritual elite would have been considered completely heretical by Ali himself – never mind the preposterous and totally unsubstantiated claim that he was the first initiate of this mystical tradition. After examining the sermons of Ali, we see that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he was no mystic at all. Not only did he completely endorse the dogma of Muhammad’s Koranic revelation, he also fervently reaffirmed the eternal validity of all its decrees. Thus the silsilat al-Irfan (chain of gnosis) breaks at its very first link, and the tradition of “Islamic Mysticism” is severed from Muhammad and his Koran; in other words, from Islam itself.
To take the Protestant Reformation as a model for the reformation of Islam reflects a profound ignorance of the difference between Christianity and Islam. First of all, the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible or “Old Testament”) is a motley patchwork of the writings of tens of authors over many hundreds of years. Several different versions of key stories, such as the Genesis myth, have been spliced together in ways that riddle the text with contradictions. As for the New Testament, contemporary Biblical scholars such as Elaine Pagels, Marvin Meyer, Bart Ehermann, Burton Mack, and the fellows of the Jesus Seminar, have found that the Gospels were written based on various collections of the sayings of Jesus that originally included no contextual narrative of events surrounding any given saying. Many Gospels that fundamentally contradict each other were written, possibly tens of them, and only four were chosen as “orthodox” at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD – for two main reasons: first, they most suited the political purposes of the Roman Empire; and second, they more or less agreed with each other compared to the many divergences of the other Gospels.
A close reading of the gospels of the New Testament will reveal that even this attempt at orthodoxy, almost three hundred years after the time of Jesus, fails to deliver a coherent picture of the alleged Messiah. We have one Jesus that is a zealous (perhaps Essene) Jewish rabbi whose only concern is for “the children of Israel,” who is taken to be a Jewish King in the royal Davidic line, and who opposes the Pharisees in Jerusalem only because they have departed from the orthodox faith by ingratiating themselves with the pagan Roman occupiers. We have another Jesus who is a reformer of the Jewish religion, a universal Savior and a future enthroned judge of the conscience of all mankind. This second Jesus may have been molded in the wake of Paul’s mission to extend the gospel to the Gentiles and reshape Jesus more along the lines of Jupiter or Mithras.
Finally, we have a third Jesus, the gnostic philosopher – who believes that the Jewish creator-god is the Devil and arch-deceiver, whose doctrine represents a synthesis of pagan mystical philosophies such as Hermeticism and Pythagoreanism, and who is here to abolish organized religion and free the spirits of the elect from the material world of pain and power. This last Jesus was that worshipped by the Gnostics of Alexandria, whose scriptures were consigned to flames after the Council of Nicea and only rediscovered in a cave in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. Despite this initial attempt at suppression, the anti-Jewish, Gnostic Jesus was also worshipped by the Bogomils of Southeastern Europe and the Cathars of southern France – so that the Catholic Church first invented the institution of the Holy Inquisition in order to exterminate them (and only later applied it to Jews, Muslims, and Protestants).
While the historically conditioned incoherence of Judeo-Christianity militates against fundamentalist interpretations of the New Testament, a single careful and honest reading of the Koran shows that the terms “Islamic fundamentalism” and “political Islam” are redundancies. There is an extensive interpretive Islamic legal tradition, with five main schools, but the Koran itself contains a clear body of divinely mandated civil law, established by a single legislator, namely Muhammad, whose reality as a (relatively recent) historical figure is not in question. The Koran was composed in only 22 years (610-632) by a single man. It was written down in fragments, on rocks and on the bones of the shoulder blades of camels during Muhammad’s own lifetime by scribes, and also memorized by professional bards or ha’afiz. The text, as we have it today, was compiled in manuscript form by Muhammad’s own scribe, Zayd bin Thabit, under the direction of the Caliph Uthman, around 650 – a mere 20 years after Muhammad’s death.
All of the schools of Islamic law agree on Koranic laws, and while these laws are not comprehensive in the absence of the Islamic legal tradition, the tradition only elaborates these laws and extrapolates from them. Koranic law as established by Muhammad during his own lifetime is the basis of all subsequent Islamic law as elaborated by the jurists of the five schools. These jurists tried to make Islamic law, or sharia, comprehensive in various ways by inference from which existing Arabian laws Muhammad did not modify or repeal by means of verses from the Koran, during his tenure as governor of Medina.
They also followed the Doctrine of Abrogation, established by Muhammad, according to which later verses of the revelation that stand in tension with earlier ones will supersede them. More violent verses that reflect the situation of Muhammad’s increasingly victorious campaigns and confident rule in Arabia override earlier verses “revealed” when the Muslims were still a persecuted fringe element in their pagan society. This is significant because the latter include the few verses that so-called “moderate Muslims” and their liberal Western apologists point to, such as “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” (2:256) That Allah conveniently changed his tone and strategy at various junctures, in a campaign that began with moralizing recruitment before turning to armed conquest, should come as no surprise, since He claims to be the ultimate schemer or master of stratagems: “They scheme and scheme, but I always out-scheme the schemers. So bear with the unbelievers a little while, I’m giving them a little time.” (86:16-17)
Keep reading: Getting it Right on Islam – Part III
Also read: Getting it Right on Islam – Part I
The Koran (Penguin Classics)
N. J. Dawood’s masterful translation of The Koran in a fully revised edition The Koran is universally accepted by Muslims to be the infallible word of God as first revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel nearly fourteen hundred years ago. Its 114 chapters recount the narratives and rules of conduct central to […]