As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been reading the Quran of late, and that plus the recent furor over the film Innocence of Muslims has me thinking about the subjects of prophecy, blasphemy and heresy.
I still haven’t found anything in the Quran to convince me that Muhammad was a genuine prophet, but let’s enter for a moment the mindset that says he was, and consider the Muslim tradition in regard to prophets, or messengers of God. According to the Quran there have been many such people who were sent by God to bring a message of hope or correction to humanity. Of these, six are recognized as being particularly important: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and of course Muhammad himself.
Of these, only the last is certainly historical and only the last two are even probably historical, but never mind; that’s not the point here. Let’s take the story of each prophet at face value and discuss it briefly.
Adam was the first man, a metaphor for the emergence of our species on the physical plane and the emergence of human consciousness from the depths. Before Adam, there was no such thing as religion. Adam invented the paradoxical relationship between ourselves and God.
Noah brought an unwelcome message to humanity that God was wrathful and intended their destruction if they would not turn from their wicked ways. His message was scorned and disregarded by the religious authorities of the time (and everyone else) and humanity was destroyed except for Noah and his family.
Abraham brought a message similar to Noah’s to Sodom, and he, his family, and his few followers departed from civilization to live in a wilderness and found a new people after Sodom was destroyed.
Moses summoned the descendants of Abraham, enslaved in Egypt, to turn against Egyptian ways, forced the Pharaoh to release the slaves, and found his message met great resistance from the Israelites in the wilderness.
Jesus brought a new interpretation of the Law of Moses to Israel, based on love of God and of one another, and the spirit given precedence over the letter. He was condemned as a blasphemer and executed.
Mohammed brought a message of monotheistic worship and a simple morality to the Arab polytheists and ultimately to the rest of the world, and his message was rejected by many as blasphemous and heretical.
The common thread here is a message that is rejected by those who consider themselves religious authorities — and always on good, solid doctrinal grounds. Each of these prophets (setting aside Adam as a special case) indeed did violate the teachings of the past. That’s what happens when a new message is brought: it conflicts in some way with what is currently believed, or else there would be no need for it.
Every prophet is a heretic. Every prophet is a blasphemer. What’s more, the word of every prophet, if it is accepted by the people, eventually becomes a rigid orthodoxy against which future prophets must struggle and on the basis of which the next prophet is declared heretical and blasphemous. The nineteenth century saw this played out in Iran, as a man appeared whose followers claimed he was a new messenger of God, with a word to fulfill, augment, and replace that of Muhammad. This was Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith, which is now the fourth religion in the Abrahamic lineage (along with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
In many respects the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh do seem like an updated, new and improved version of Muhammad’s. He expanded his spiritual vision beyond the Abrahamic traditions to embrace and designate as prophets great teachers from other religious families, such as the Buddha; he explicitly declared equality between the sexes which Muhammad, although his teachings improved the lot of women from what went before him, did not; and he called for world peace and the unification of all mankind, a teaching that seems prophetic in another sense of that word, given the ongoing cultural globalization and the need for world peace and unity that faces us.
But in doing this, Bahá’u’lláh preached heresy, because in Muslim belief Muhammad was not only a prophet but the seal of the prophets — the last prophet, whose word is the final dispensation of God before the Day of Judgment. His message was widely rejected and condemned, and he was imprisoned for years and died in prison.
The word of Muhammad in its day was a liberation from rigid, intolerant, doctrinaire beliefs, and Muslim society in the Middle Ages was more advanced and more humane and tolerant than Christian society by far. But by the nineteenth century, Islam, far from liberation, became a prison. It held people back both as individuals and as societies. Compared to the secular societies of the modern West, Islamic society had become a backwards, intolerant, ultra-conservative shackle on the collective brain, and when a new visionary came along it persecuted him and his followers and imprisoned him for life. This is the pattern. All prophets are condemned as heretics and blasphemers
Ultimately, I believe there is only one solution: the idea of orthodoxy must be abandoned, and along with it the idea of condemning anyone as a heretic. There is no reason why spirituality should not be like art or science in perpetually seeking new ideas and new metaphors for the divine. In the end, the visions of the prophets cannot be fulfilled unless everyone becomes a prophet, and that will never happen as long as we imprison our minds with rigid conceptions of the truth.
We will never have an entirely irreligious society, because, contrary to the hopes of atheists, the spiritual dimension of life and the fruits of spiritual experience are too real and compelling to permit that. But we can, I believe, have a society that is free of religious rigidity, intolerance, and the prison of dogma. We can have a society that no longer condemns its prophets as blasphemers and heretics, because it no longer recognizes the existence of heresy.
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