Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mysticism in the Christian New Testament

The two most fundamental branches of any worldview are its metaphysics and its epistemology. The third branch, ethics, is the payoff branch; it develops a code of behavior telling us how to act. In religious worldviews, the moral code comes from the supernatural world. To get that message and other items from the supernatural world to us requires special, supernatural means: mysticism.

Christianity, with more than two billion followers, is the largest religion. Its holy scripture is the New Testament. What elements of mysticism does it present to readers? The following notes, drawn from a ten-week reading of the N.T. for Study Groups for Objectivists, sketch an answer. As a beginning student of the Bible, I welcome corrections.

GENERAL NATURE OF THE N.T.. Jesus lived on earth c. 4 BCE to c. 30 CE. Christians believe he is the son of God.[1] The N.T. describes mainly the "good news" (gospel) of his model life and the message he brought to man: Believe in God and your soul will be saved after death of the body. The N.T. also records the doctrines, practices, and aspirations of Jesus's followers in the two generations after his execution.[2]

The Catholic version of the N. T. includes twenty-seven "books" written c. 50-110 CE by various authors, some anonymous. In sharp contrast to the actual author of the Qur'an, the N.T. writers generally do not claim that God revealed the content as it is worded; instead, Christians -- as men, but perhaps inspired by God -- wrote about God and about their own worries as leaders of a movement. (For mysticism in the Qur'an, see here first and then here.)

AN ANTHOLOGY, NOT A TREATISE. The N.T., considered as a whole, is an anthology of disparate documents. In some, the authors write as if the documents were eyewitness accounts; others are reports of the testimony of earlier Christians; and still others are letters purportedly written by famous Christians to other Christians. The later organizers of the Bible sorted the books in groups. Examples are: the four gospels together at the beginning of the Bible; fourteen letters written by Paul or writers posing as Paul; and, alone, the unusually sophisticated Letter to the Hebrews from an anonymous, perhaps philosophically trained writer living c. 100 CE.

ORDER. The arrangement of the "books" is very loosely from longest to shortest. However, the last, "The Revelation to John," is half as long (at 16 pages of small, two-column print) as the longest book, the third, "The Gospel According to Luke" (34 pages). The general order makes some sense. Jesus is the focus. So, the N.T. begins with the four gospel writers describing the life of Jesus; each writer provides somewhat different information. Then come a variety of letters by Jesus's followers, those spreading the doctrines of Jesus in a hostile pagan world. Last comes "Revelations," an account of visions that God presented to one man, visions presaging the end of the world and the beginning of the everlasting monarchy of Jesus.

A SOURCE OF POPULAR SAYINGS. Of special interest in evaluating the influence of the N.T. today is the high number of N.T. statements that circulate in our modern culture, even among non-Christians. Examples from Matthew are: "You are the salt of the earth" (Chapter 5, Verse 13), "No one can serve two masters" (6:24), and "[D]o not throw your pearls before swine" (7:6).

CHRISTIANITY'S SUPERNATURALISM. The metaphysical foundation of the Christian worldview is supernaturalism, that is, the belief (-ism) that there are two realms: the natural world we know through our senses, and another, higher (super-) world not knowable through our senses. The gap between the supernatural world, which is man's source of ethics, and the natural world, where man lives, requires mysticism, that is, "knowledge" gained through some form other than reason (which is limited to this world, if anywhere).

Consider the first book of the N.T., the 31-page "Gospel According to Matthew." Here supernaturalism is either quietly stated or assumed. The writer makes no effort to convince his readers (presumably already Christians) of the existence of God, his son Jesus Christ, and the otherwise unidentified Holy Spirit. (See, for example, 1:20.)

The writer simply reports supernatural events, that is, events in the natural world that cannot happen without intervention from the supernatural world. An illustration is the impregnation of the mother of Jesus, Mary, by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20).

The importance of the supernatural world relative to the natural world is clear in passages such as Matthew 5:34-35, where the writer says "heaven ... is the throne of God" and "earth ... is his footstool." A few other examples of supernaturalism are: (1) Almost the whole book of "The Revelation to John," who is a Christian living and writing in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) c. 96 CE, including visions of Heaven's war against evil people on earth, at the end of time; (2) Paul (sometimes called the "second founder of Christianity") exorcizing a spirit from a soothsayer (Acts 16:16); and (3) God as "the builder of all things" (Hebrews 3:4).

OBJECTS TO BE "KNOWN" MYSTICALLY. What sorts of things do Christians learn through the various forms of mysticism identified below? First, Christians learn "facts" through mysticism. Angels who rebelled against God were punished by God by being confined "in the nether gloom until" the final day, the day of Judgment, as Jude reports in Verse 6 of his brief "The Letter of Jude." He does not cite a source. He simply speaks authoritatively. His mentions of faith, both a little earlier in the letter and a little later, set a mystical context.

Through mysticism, Christians also learn values -- evaluations, ethical rules, and so forth. One form is through the words and example of Jesus (the supernatural incarnation of God on earth), reported authoritatively by his chosen apostles. For example, from the Biblical accounts of Jesus using a whip to drive sheep, oxen, and moneychangers from the Jews' temple in Jerusalem (in "The Gospel According to John," 2:14-15), Christians learn the superiority of the religious over the mundane.

Sometimes mysticism conveys specific instructions to a single Christian, as when, at Acts, 10:1-9, an "angel of God" appears before Cornelius, a Roman centurion and Christian, to tell him to fetch the apostle Peter from the nearby town of Joppa. At other times, mysticism -- in the form of words from the God incarnate in Jesus -- conveys the defining ethical principles of Christianity, as at "The Gospel According to Luke," 6:27, "Love your enemies."

(1) FAITH. The New Testament is not a collection of philosophical essays. It is an anthology of articles whose authors either describe the divine actions and sayings of Jesus or give their own advice, as an application of divine (that is, mystically known) principles to particular situations.

Faith is one of the forms of mysticism displayed in the Bible. The anonymous author of "The Letter to the Hebrews," writing c. 90 CE, defines faith succinctly. In Hebrews, 11:1, he says that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Faith is based on emotion (wishful thinking); and it is a belief in objects not evident to the senses. "By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear" (Hebrews, 11:3).

The key point is that faith is an acceptance of ideas without or even contrary to proof based logically on the evidence of the senses. Ideas are motivators; they cause human actions. Faith in God means accepting two ideas as a starting point: God exists and his words are reliable guides to action.

Much of the N.T. is less sophisticated than "Letter to the Hebrews." Most of the various writers merely beseech their readers to "believe" or "have faith." As at Acts, 5:14, followers of the way of life that Jesus had advocated a generation earlier are called "believers." Paul, writing, in part ironically, in "The First Letter to the [Christian] Corinthians," 1:21, reminds his readers that "it pleases God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe." Belief (faith) is required for eternal salvation of one's soul, which is the main point of being a Christian.

(2) REVELATION. Compared to the Qur'an, which is almost wholly a series of revelations passed directly to the reader by the person who said he received them, Muhammad, the N.T. contains little direct revelation from God to man. Two major exceptions in the N.T. are passages quoting Jesus in the four gospels (at the beginning of the N.T.) and "The Revelation to John" (at the end of the Bible).

The gospel accounts were written by men living a generation or two after Jesus. Jesus's statements are thus, to these writers, an indirect or traditional ("handed down") form of revelation. An example is the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew quotes Jesus throughout Chapters 5-7.

"The Revelation to John" begins with a note from an anonymous writer, c. 95 CE. The note tells readers that God gave a message to Jesus (who has been dead for sixty years and presumably resides in Heaven), and Jesus, in turn, has sent "his angel" (in Greek, angelos means "messenger") to carry the message to John of Patmos (Revelation, 1:1). John himself then writes a greeting "to the seven churches that are in Asia" (Turkey, today). The remainder of the letter from John is a statement of what he heard one day while living on the Mediterranean island of Patmos, to which he had been exiled for preaching Christianity (Revelation, 1:9, and Perkins, p. 8). John of Patmos writes:

I was in the Spirit of the Lord's day and heard behind me a loud voice saying, "Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches ...." Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven gold lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands [I saw] one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe ..." (Revelation, 1:10-13).

John continues reporting the actions and words of Jesus and other figures John sees in his serial vision of mankind's fate at the end of the world. The peculiarity of this account, the most mystical in the N.T., is that the author and narrator is human, but quoting Jesus or describing visions which God has sent directly to this writer. "The Revelation to John" is thus a human account of a divine revelation to one man.

(3) SIGNS. The N.T. speaks of signs. An example is the star of Bethlehem. In Matthew, 2:9-10, "wise men from the East" follow a star -- first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem -- to see and adore the newborn Christ. The message of this form of mysticism -- "Follow me to the child you seek" -- is implied, that is, not stated in words in the text. The wise men somehow "just know" the star that moves above them is a guide. Perhaps, as usual, this passage of holy scripture was accompanied by an oral tradition that further described the star if any doubter asked questions.

John, 2:1-11, relates the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a marriage festival. This miracle -- that is, a supernatural intervention into the natural world -- is a "sign" of the power of Jesus.

"The Acts of the Apostles" (at 2:43, 4:16, and 5:1-12) speaks of the apostles as performing "signs and wonders." (The Apostles were individuals Jesus had named, during his life on earth, to be evangelists of his message after his death.) One example was an act of the Apostle Peter. He, through his words, struck dead a married couple who, apparently in preparation for Christian communal living, had sold their property but had given only part of the proceeds to the Christians. Their deaths were signs of the power of God.

(4-7) HEARTS, INSPIRATIONS, VISIONS, AND DREAMS. In the N.T., Christian writers mention a variety of other forms of mysticism, again without elaboration or argumentation.

THE HEART. Some of the N.T. writers speak of the heart as a source of ideas that guide our actions. "For man believes with his heart ...," says Apostle Paul, at "Letter to the Romans," 10:10.

INSPIRATION. In one scene, the Spirit of God in the form of a dove alights on Jesus and "a voice from heaven" speaks, says Matthew, 3:16. Matthew does not further describe this spirit. However, in the "First Letter to the Corinthians," 2:10-14, the apostle Paul says:

... what God has prepared for those who love him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. ... So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. ... The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

Thus, Paul seems to be saying that a Spirit of God is separate from God, perhaps in the same mysterious manner that Jesus is the son of God. Paul further notes that mystical knowledge -- at least in the form of knowing God's thoughts as delivered by the Holy Spirit -- is available only to the spiritual man.

VISIONS. Another way in which God communicates from the supernatural to the natural realm is through visions. The most vivid and large-scale are the visions John the exile saw and then describes in "Revelations." For example:

Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. (Revelations, 11:19)

Such a vision conveys "knowledge" in that it confirms through sight the existence of items in the supernatural realm, such as the ark of the covenant described in the Old Testament.

DREAMS. After they have adored the Christ child in Bethlehem, a dream warns the wise men from the East not to return to King Herod in Jerusalem as the king had ordered. They obey the dream and depart back to the East (Matthew, 2:12). Likewise, a dream orders Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to take his family to Egypt as a refuge from the wrath of King Herod in Israel; and when King Herod dies, another dream informs Joseph, living in Egypt, that he should return to Israel (Matthew, 2:19). Dreams seem to generally convey specific knowledge to particular individuals, not broad principles that would be applicable to all men, at all times, and everywhere.

CONCLUSIONS. Like the Qur'an, the N.T. is saturated with mysticism. Despite the variety of types of text included in this anthology seemingly selected by a committee, the N.T. beats a steady cadence of mentions of mysticism: praise for "believers"; directions for travelers via dreams or moving stars; a voice from heaven; and foremost the sermons or aphorisms of a prophet who is the Son of God in human form, a prophet who delivers a divine message to sinful man.

Also like the Qur'an, the N.T. offers no intellectualizing -- no explicit, principled identification of the nature of mysticism in any of its forms, no argued defense of mysticism, and no advocacy of mysticism. Those tasks would go to theologians, religious philosophers, and religious intellectuals in the following generations.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at

[1] For this post, which is only a collection of notes, my guide to the N.T. is: Pheme Perkins, Reading the New Testament: An Introduction, sec. ed., New York, Paulist Press, 1988 (a revision of the original, 1978 ed.). I chose Perkins, a Catholic scholar, as my guide because I wanted a source that many Christians would support. Secular scholars may offer different details. Many particulars and interpretations of particulars in the Bible are controversial, even among Christians. Perkins's work is sufficient for my initial study.

[2] The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, New York, Penguin Books, 1962.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mysticism in the Qur'an

This post is the second summarizing my notes taken in the Koran Reading Group organized by Amy Peikoff. See the first post, for a bibliography.

GENERAL NATURE OF THE QUR'AN. The Qur'an is an anthology of sermons which, Muslims believe, God revealed to Muhammad c. 610-632. Muhammad recited them to his followers and others in Mecca and Medina. The Qur'an covers subjects ranging from the nature of God to rules of inheritance. Sprinkled throughout the Qur'an are elements of every branch of Islam's crude philosophy -- its metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics.

God is the cause of everything (2:29, 117). Principles of God's nature -- particularly His omnipotence (2:20), omnipresence (7:7), and omniscience (2:29, 32) -- comprise the metaphysics of Islam. Further, this all-knowing God is wise (24:18); He is clear in his revelations (27:1); He wants men to understand (23:80); He says belief is crucial for attaining Paradise (23:10-11; 29:56-58); and He sends Truth (23:90). The Qur'an is thus intently concerned with human cognition.

ISLAM'S NEED FOR MYSTICISM. The Qur'an assumes ideas motivate human actions, but God's perfect ideas are in a supernatural realm (16:2, 25:6) beyond man's grasp. To convey those ideas to severely limited human minds here in the natural realm, God relies on mysticism. That is the only way to bridge the gap between God and man.

Islam's theory of man is a second factor requiring mysticism. Man has a corrupt nature (16:61), a nature that hinders his ability to understand (especially the "Unseen," as implied at 13:9). Man has a "soul ... prone to evil" (12:53). Man has arisen from a "fluid despicable" (77:20). Though created by God with great potential, man becomes the lowest of the low (95:4-5). Man sees himself as self-sufficient, but he is not (96:6-7). Man is easily manipulated by Satan (12:42, 12:100). In the final judgment, "Man will be evidence against himself" (75:14)."If God were to punish men according to what they deserve, He would not leave on the back of the (earth) a single living creature," Muhammad says (35:45).

In summary, the problem for man is that "God knows, and ye know not" (24:19). The solution is a mystical relationship between God and man. God tells Muhammad (who will speak to other men): "The Qur'an was sent down by Him Who knows the Mystery that is in the heavens and the earth" (25:6). The supernatural requires the mystical.

OBJECTS TO BE "KNOWN" MYSTICALLY. For Islam, as presented in the Qur'an, what sort of ideas must mysticism convey to man? Man must have as guides at least three ideas: God exists; God's apostle is Muhammad; and the Light which God has sent down through Muhammad to man is trustworthy (64:8). Once man has mystically acquired those fundamental ideas, beyond doubt, man needs only to look to the Qur'an and traditional descriptions of Muhammad's life for guidance.

FAITH AS ACCEPTING IDEAS. The Qur'an does not explicitly define faith. Inference from numerous uses of the term leads to the conclusion that the term/concept "faith" in the Qur'an (at least in Ali's translation) matches the usual meaning elsewhere: Holding an idea without evidence or even contrary to the evidence of the senses. In his footnote 983 to verse 6:158, translator and commentator Ali confirms that meaning. He defines faith as "the belief in things which you do not see with your eyes but you understand with your spiritual sense." This meaning is partly confirmed in passages such as 13:9, in which God "knoweth the Unseen." Man is limited to his senses, so God can know other things that He can either keep to himself or reveal mystically. Man must either reject them or accept them on faith.

As in Christian literature, Ali's English translation of the Qur'an uses the word "faith" in two meanings: (1) the act of accepting an idea without evidence; and (2) the set of ideas to be accepted. An example of the latter appears in 59:9 ("adopted the Faith").

The last point is that faith, as acceptance of ideas without evidence, is not the same thing as the source of the ideas. God, of course, is the ultimate source of all things, including ideas. What are the intermediate sources through which God conveys ideas to man?

REVELATION AS A SOURCE. God has several ways to mystically convey Truth to man. Revelation is the main one. The Qur'an itself is a collection of God's revelations to Muhammad. The messenger who brought those revelations to Muhammad was the angel Gabriel (also called "The Spirit of Faith and Truth," 26:192-194). Muhammad, in turn, recited each revelation to an appropriate audience in Medina or Mecca. (The Arabic word al-qur'aan means "the recitations".) Some audiences were "Believers" (5:99, 104-105). Other audiences were Jews (4:153-161), Christians (2:138-140), or pagans such as the Quraish (54:43-46), Muhammad's own tribe of origin.

The Qur'an itself tells readers (3:7) that some of its revealed verses are "fundamental" (to be taken literally) and others are allegorical. The allegorical passages have hidden meanings known only to God. "Men of understanding" will nevertheless grasp the meaning. The Qur'an does not tell readers how they will come to understand. In the Qur'an, "understanding" is a synonym for "mystical insight," the methodless method of coming to know something.

SIGNS AS A SOURCE. The God of the Qur'an presents "Signs" as a source of ideas in the form of indirect communication from God to man. An example comes from 2:164: "Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the Night and the Day; in the sailing of the ships through the Ocean for the profit of mankind ... -- (here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise." (Sometimes the term "Signs" refers to verses in the Qur'an, as at 8:31.)

In Sura 6, God identifies three levels of cognition, each for a different audience. God says, "We detail Our Signs for people who know [6:97] ... people who understand [6:98] ... [and] people who believe [6:99]." According to translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali (n. 928, p. 318), God is making a distinction: Knowing is for people who merely look at the Signs in the world around them, which is nature; understanding is a higher form of cognition, one required to grasp mysteries; and believing is the highest form of cognition, faith, which brings us closer to God. All three levels of Signs are mystical; they are not functions of reason.

HEARTS, INSPIRATIONS, VISIONS, AND DREAMS AS SOURCES. The Qur'an mentions other intermediate sources of ideas. One is the heart. When God penalizes some individuals, He "set[s] a seal on their hearts," blocks their hearing, and veils their eyes (2.7). The exact meaning of "heart" here is not clear. In Muhammad's time was it synonymous with soul? Was it thus a conflation of emotion, thought, and the "voice" of the subconscious -- as it was among some prephilosophical Greeks? (For the latter, see E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational.)

Second, God sometimes uses "inspiration" -- sending a "spirit" into someone -- as a way to download information into an individual's mind. Inspiration is thus a form of revelation (as at 41:6). God chooses to send inspiration (of His "Command") to only a few individuals; He then directs them to warn others.

Third, the Qur'an also notes a use of interpretation of daytime visions (12:43) and nighttime dreams (12:44). Perhaps these are holdovers from Muhammad's pagan culture.

RELATED PHENOMENA. Islam includes several supernaturalist phenomena related to cognition, but Muslims have no choice about these.

1. GOD DOWNLOADS STATES OF MIND. God sometimes downloads a state of mind into a particular individual. "It is He Who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the Believers, that they may add Faith to their Faith, " says Muhammad at 48:4; and, at 58:22, the Qur'an says, "For such [individuals] He has written Faith in their hearts, and strengthened them with a spirit from Himself."

2. GOD MANIPULATES THE SENSES. At the Battle of Badr, early Muslims faced pagan enemies. God distorted the pagans' sense-perception and therefore their assessment of the strength of the Muslim army (3:13, 8:43-44), causing the pagans to miscalculate and lose the battle.
(Before the battle, God also made the Muslims more confident than the sense-perceptible facts would have justified.) Combining this interference in sense-perception with God's omnipresence and His inscrutable (arbitrary) decision-making explains why Islam has an epistemology of philosophical skepticism (the notion that we cannot know anything using sense-perception and reason). In the Islamic worldview, faith -- especially in fundamental ideas -- is not merely desirable but required.

accuses nonbelievers (some of whom refuse to abandon sense-perception in favor of 
faith) of lacking the power of hearing and seeing -- for example, at 11:20, 24, and 28. At 12: 108, God tells Muhammad to say that the evidence for the existence and power of God is as "clear as the seeing with
one's eyes" (12:108).

CONCLUSIONS. The Qur'an shows God sending philosophical and other messages to man through a variety of sources: God's revelations in the verses of the Qur'an itself; Signs of various kinds; the human heart; visions; dreams; and inspiration.

God expects Believers to accept on faith all the ideas that come from those sources. Further, by implication but never explicitly, God undercuts man's reason. God does so by manipulating man's senses (the basis of reason); by insisting on man's moral corruption as an implied corruption of man's ability to think for himself; by controlling states of mind; and by reminding man ceaselessly that God knows all, both the seen and the unseen, a task impossible for man.

Islam, as presented in the Qur'an, is saturated with mysticism. An iron chain connects the metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics of Islam. God is the first link. Mysticism is the second link; it connects God to Islam's altruism and statism. Mysticism is thus indispensable to the religion of Islam.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Qur'an: Notes from a First Reading

Acknowledgment. I am grateful to Amy Peikoff, JD, PhD (, for organizing the Koran Reading Group (KRG). It ran from May to September, 2011; it met, for a nominal fee, weekly for an hour on audio through Webinar and in emails through Google Groups; and it achieved its goals: to do a slow, scheduled reading of the Qur'an and Robert Spencer's commentary on it, especially noting passages used by jihadists today to justify their attacks on non-Muslims. KRG also fulfilled my individual purposes: to become acquainted with the Qur'an as a whole and to learn Islam's view of reason and mysticism, as stated or implied in the Qur'an.

Definition. The Qur'an is the holy scripture of Islam, which is the religion of submission to the one, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God whose final apostle was Muhammad. Muslims believe that God revealed every word of the Qur'an to Muhammad, who then recited the revelations to his followers, who in turn recorded them in their memory and in individual writings.

The Early History of the Qur'an. Following are the major milestones in the development of the Qur'an. Unless specified otherwise, all items come from "Muhammad," Glasse, CEI. (See Bibliography at the end.)

570 -- Birth of M. in Mecca, near w. coast of Arabia. (p. 279)

590? -- In Syria, on a caravan trading expedition, M. meets a Christian monk who tells M. that M. is a prophet. (p. 280)

605? -- M. has visions. (p. 280)

610 -- M. receives his first revelation, in a cave near Mecca. (p. 280)

632, March -- M. receives his last revelation, three months before his death. (p. 284)

632-656 -- Under the direction of the first three caliphs (Abuu Bakr, 'Umar, and 'Uthmaan), Muslims (such as M's secretary, Zayd ibn Thaabit) collect and sort written copies of M's recitations of individual revelations. ("Koran," CEI, p. 230) The edited collection, an artifact of human action, is the Qur'an, developed, Muslims believe, by God at the beginning of time.

The Organization of the Qur'an. The Qur'an consists of 114 primary divisions, the suras (chapters). The compilers of the Qur'an generally arranged the suras by length, with the longest suras first. Each sura, in turn, is divided into verses of one or more lines. For example, Sura 110 ("Help") has three verses. As usual, after the first line, God speaks to Muhammad:

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

1. When comes the Help of God, and Victory,

2. And thou dost see the People enter God's Religion in crowds,

3. Celebrate the Praises of thy Lord, and pray for His Forgiveness: For He is Oft-Returning (in Grace and Mercy).

The italicized line at the start is one of the standard invocations. In the last line, the translator and commentator, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, inserted the words in parentheses to make explicit the meaning he thinks is implicit in the Arabic text.

The Style of the Qur'an. The Qur'an is poetic, but the lines have variable lengths and meters. The text is sometimes austere and emotive, but often repetitive, bombastic, and authoritarian.

The Muslim View of the Qur'an. Muslims believe the Qur'an is perfect theologically, doctrinally, historically, and poetically. No one, Muslims believe, can evaluate it by an external standard; the Qur'an is the standard of judgment, says Muslim scholar Cyril Glasse, "Koran," CEI, p. 228.

The Philosophy of the Qur'an. A philosophy, even in implicit form, is a set of fundamental principles about: the nature of reality (metaphysics), how we can know that reality (epistemology), what we should do (ethics), and how we should relate to each other in society (politics). Philosophical detection reveals the philosophy of Islam as presented in the Qur'an.

In the Qur'an, the metaphysics of Islam is supernaturalist, positing the existence of (1) an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, most merciful, most gracious, and vengeful being, who is otherwise ineffable, who has knowledge not available to man through man's limited faculties, and who created man knowing ahead what each individual will do, yet holding the individual -- not his Creator -- responsible for failure; and (2) two worlds, this natural world, which manifests God, and the other world, the world of heaven and hell, which is the world of the hereafter, that is, the world in which the souls of dead men continue after life on earth.

In the Qur'an, the epistemology of Islam is mystical. The Qur'an rarely acknowledges the existence of reason, and, even then, only by implication and in truncated form. The Qur'an implies that reason is impotent to develop an ethics that will guide man not only for this life but for man's efforts to secure a happy life in the supernatural realm. Man needs mysticism to gain knowledge of what to do. The forms of mysticism appearing in the Qur'an are many: faith in God; revelation from God to man; reading "signs" of God in nature or in miracles; and others. (Quranic mysticism will be the subject of the second post in this series).

In the Qur'an, the ethics of Islam is altruist, that is, focused on The Other not oneself as the primary beneficiary of one's actions. In the Islam of the Qur'an, in the supernatural realm, The Other is God; in the natural realm, this world, The Other means society, especially family, but also the ummah, the Muslim community, including the needy.

In the Qur'an, the politics of Islam is theocratic, that is, supporting a government that implements God's ethics. The Islamic political system, shown in the Qur'an in incipient form under Muhammad's reign, is a direct inference from the central Islamic principle, the doctrine of unicity: one God, one message, one set of rules for living for all individuals, everywhere, and at all times.

Sura 1, the first chapter of the Qur'an, is unusual in being a short chapter at the beginning of the Qur'an and in being spoken by God's worshippers not by Muhammad or God speaking through Muhammad. Sura 1 suggests the first three elements of the philosophy of Islam.

1. In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

2. Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;

3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;

4. Master of the Day of Judgment.

5. Thee do we worship and thine aid we seek.

6. Show us the straight way,

7. The way of those on whom thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Supernaturalism is shown by the invocation of God. He has created this world on earth and another realm of heaven and hell. God did more than create this world back in time; readers of the Qur'an learn later, that God also sustains the world from moment to moment and can change it at any time. Mysticism is suggested here, by implication, in that praising God requires faith in God's existence and nature, and explicitly in that God's followers must have faith in His Word, worship Him, and seek His aid for humans in this world. Altruism is implied in the focus on God, who will tell us how to live ("the straight way"), which includes our duties to others, as Muhammad explains in later suras.

Conclusions. From reading the Qur'an, I have reached two conclusions. First, Islam's holy scripture, which is essentially a collection of ad hoc sermons, is written in such a way that it makes Islam one of the "cafeteria" religions. (Two other examples are Christianity and Judaism.) A reader can easily pick elements to fit his already formed approach to life, and ignore or downplay contradictory elements. This is why some Muslims can be personally pacifistic and others can be at war with the infidel world around them.

Second, Islam is definitely a religion, which is a mystical worldview consisting of a metaphysics, an epistemology, an ethics, and a politics -- all meant to apply universally, that is, to everyone, everywhere, and at all times. Islam is not an ideology, which is an application of a universalist worldview (religion or philosophy) to a particular milieu for the purpose of developing a strategy suitable to changing current society. It is also true, however, that Islam's holy scripture, the Qur'an, shows Islam's model man, Muhammad, engaged in political action in the form of warfare, negotiation, deception, enslavement, and execution of opponents. Those and other elements shape the various Islamic ideologies active today.

As presented in the Qur'an, Islam is a rotting log from which various ideological mushrooms grow. All are poisonous, some more quickly than others.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at


Ali, Abdullah Yusuf, editor, translator, and commentator,The Qur'an: Text, Translation and Commentary, 3rd ed., Elmhurst (New York), Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., 1938 (1934, 1st ed.), 1862 pages. Muslims I met at Portland State University, Oregon, in 2000, recommended this translation and commentary. Robert Spencer also recommends it as an acceptable translation and mainstream commentary. Approximately one-third of each page is Arabic text, one-third is English translation, and (in small type) one-third is footnotes that explain the meaning of items such as place names; provide background information; and interpret the often terse and confusing verses.

Glasse, Cyril, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, New York, HarperCollins, 1989, 472 pages. (Later editions are called The New Encyclopedia of Islam). The entries vary from a single paragraph to several pages; they include cultural, theological, and historical terms. Aids to readers include photographs and maps. The author is an articulate Muslim familiar with Western criticisms of Islam.

"Revelation Order of the Qur'an," (in the address, "revealation" is the site creator's misspelling). This Muslim site presents the most widely accepted Muslim view of the proper traditional order of the chapters and verses. The site then lists the 114 suras in chronological order, the sequence, Muslims say, in which Allah sent the suras down to Muhammad.

Spencer, Robert, "Qur'an Commentary," Spencer is a Christian activist and opponent of jihadist Islam. He summarizes the Qur'an, sometimes verse by verse, explains implications of some of the texts (for example, on jihad), and helps the reader integrate the disorganized elements of Islam in this holy text. In this commentary, Spencer generally describes rather than evaluates. He does not critique any element of Islam that also appears in Judaism and Christianity -- for example, supernaturalism, mysticism, and altruism.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Koran Reading Group" begins May 10

Amy Peikoff, JD and PhD, has formed an online "Koran Reading Group." It begins weekly online meetings on Tuesday, May 10, 5-6 pm, Pacific Time (USA) and continues until September 6.[1]

REQUIREMENTS. Her weblog, Don't Let It Go, in an April 11, 2011 post, identifies the cost ($20), reading materials (a Qur'an and R. Spencer's online commentary), and procedures for participating (written comments or phone).[2, 3]

Caution: Do not rely on my description of the reading group arrangements; verify everything at Don't Let It Go.

MY PURPOSE. My personal purpose in participating in the reading group is to systematically read one of the most "inspiring" supernaturalist texts of our time and note its uses of and calls for mysticism. In my experience, the Qur'an (Koran) is the text that Muslims most often cite for the ideas that motivate them.

MY MATERIALS. I plan to use the following materials, for my own purposes:

- The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation and Commentary, editor Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 3rd edition, Elmhurst (NY), Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., 1987 (U. S. edition). When I was a post-bac student at Portland State University (Oregon), ten years ago, Muslims there recommended this bilingual text. They said the English text is an accurate translation, and the editor's commentary is informative. (My knowledge of Arabic is at the kindergarten level, if that.) Note that Amy Peikoff is using another translation.

- Robert Spencer, "Qur'anic Commentary," on his website, Jihad Watch. Spencer has many insights to offer, but I am wary. He is a monotheist. I doubt that he will criticize any Islamic practice or principle found also in Judaism or Christianity. We will see.

- Cyril Glassé, Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, NY, HarperCollins, 1989. (I highly recommend this volume or its later version, The New Encyclopedia of Islam, 3rd edition, 2003.[4] It is a rich source of cross-referenced, clearly written, fully explained descriptions of the concepts and persons who appear in discussions of Islam. The photographs show the sense of grandeur Muslims seek in their architecture.

- A chronological listing of the surahs (chapters).[5] Traditional Qur'ans show the surahs in order by length of each surah, with the longest given first. By contrast, the chronological listing shows the order in which to read the surahs if you want to follow the historical line of events. The historical order makes clearer, my sources say, that Muhammad changed his behavior once he acquired political power. Islam, a religion drawn from both periods, is thus a "cafeteria religion," offering a seeming jumble of gentle models (the earlier Muhammad) and rapacious models (the later Muhammad) of Muslim behavior.

CONCLUSION. The "Koran Reading Group," in my view, offers great value for some individuals -- especially certain activists -- but at the price of a long and deep commitment. The readings and interpretations (of both the Qur'an and monotheist Spencer's possibly biased commentary) are not light or easy reading. I am looking forward to the challenge.

Burgess Laughlin, author,, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Sunday, January 2, 2011

BkRev: The Book of Enlightened Masters

Andew Rawlinson, The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions, Chicago, Open Court, 1997, 650 pp.

The Book of Enlightened Masters is not a book for general readers. However, it might interest a variety of specialists. One example is a scholar (or activist) who wants to identify the fundamental nature of Western culture today, particularly the state of Western culture in the USA. Another example is a pro-reason activist who wants to predict the culture's trajectory partly by identifying past trends on fundamental issues. A third example is anyone who wants a case study in the timing and mechanics of cultural change, answering in particular this question: When a culture changes because new ideas enter it, what are the stages of introducing and embedding those new ideas?

Andrew Rawlinson's subject in The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions is the very broad movement that has brought ancient Asian worldviews into Europe and the USA beginning around 1875. (For the meaning of "movement," see the July 5, 2008 post on Making Progress.)[1] Those worldviews -- all characterized by a metaphysics of supernaturalism, an epistemology of mysticism, and an ethics of altruism -- include Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism. (For the Islamic version of Sufism, see the Nov. 3, 2010 post, "Imam Rauf and Sufism," here on The Main Event).

Rawlinson, formerly a lecturer on Buddhism and other religions at both the University of Lancaster and the University of California, writes in a clear, flowing style. Equally important, Rawlinson brings enthusiasm to his subject. The book is a fulfillment of Rawlinson's ambition, begun at age ten, to someday write a one-volume encyclopedia. (p. xiii) That enthusiasm enlivens a subject that would, for many advocates of reason, be a dreary investigation.

Rawlinson knows that individuals as well as books carry ideas from one culture to another. Rawlinson's approach accordingly is two-fold. He notes the avant-garde role played by European translators and other writers in the 1700s and 1800s in bringing Asian sacred texts to Western culture. His main focus, however, is on the role of teachers who traveled from Europe and America to Asia and North Africa, studied religious worldviews there and then returned to the West to teach.

Part I of this two-part book explains "How to Understand Spiritual Teachers." The first chapter, "The Phenomenon: What Westerners are Doing in all the Eastern Traditions and Independently," describes the main sub-movements appearing in the West: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and "independents," that is, movements started by individuals who detached themselves from the rigid traditions of Asia and began teaching their own versions of mysticism. This chapter is the taxonomy of Eastern mysticism in the West. It describes the wide variety of types, subtypes, and mixtures appearing in the West.

The main themes of the book emerge throughout Part I. First, the many sub-movements of the East-to-West flow of mysticism all exist side-by-side as they continue to seep into Western culture. Second, a uniquely Western, generalized movement -- which Rawlinson calls "spiritual psychology" -- is still forming as it quietly permeates the Western world. (p. 136)

Chapter 2, "The Story: How Westerners Have Become Spiritual Teachers," is the history of the movement, mainly in four stages: "Sowing the Seed: 1875-1916"; "First Growth: 1917-1945"; "Propagation: 1946-1962"; and "Full Bloom: 1963 Onwards" (to the mid-1990s). These stages apply to the whole movement of Westerners bringing Eastern mysticism to the West. Within that very broad movement, there have been many smaller movements; some have remained isolated from the others, and others have intermixed. The results are a complex diffusion of a variety of forms of mysticism into Western culture.

In Chapter 3, "The Issues: The Meaning and Significance of Western Teachers," Rawlinson identifies four characteristics shared by almost all teachers in the movement to bring Asian mysticism to the West. That set of four characteristics is "spiritual psychology." The four characteristics are these four beliefs: (1) understanding humans means understanding their consciousness and how they can modify it; (2) the way to modify consciousness is through "spiritual practice"; (3) gurus (or "masters" or "teachers") have learned spiritual practice; and (4) gurus can teach it to others who want to modify their own consciousness. (p. xvii) Rawlinson's insight here is that "spiritual psychology" as a generalized phenomenon has appeared only in the open society of the West, but did not arise and could not have arisen in the nationalistic and narrowly tradition-bound cultures of the East (for instance, Japan, Tibet, India, and China). Thus, Eastern mysticism has been partly transformed into a unique Western form of mysticism.

Chapter 3 also describes, in great detail, Rawlinson's classification of the types of sub-movements. He uses labels such as "structured, unstructured" and "cool, hot." (I skimmed over this area as being outside my area of interest.)

A more valuable section, for advocates of reason, is "Part II: A Directory of Spiritual Teachers." This part is a catalogue in form but nevertheless readable and sometimes amusing as well; it includes nearly 500 pages (in large format) of descriptions (with some photos and diagrams showing lines of influence) of the many major and minor individuals who have led the various sub-movements. They appear in alphabetical order. (In some cases, Rawlinson describes groups as groups, such as the Sufis and the Hare Krishna gurus.)

Alyce Zeoli, featured on pp. 152-155, is an example of a teacher. From the age of 19, she had dreams that taught her to meditate. She gave spiritual "readings" to individuals she met. A group gathered around her; they called it "The Center for Discovery and New Life." Residing in Washington, D. C., Zeoli met a traveling Tibetan Buddhist monk who was seeking funds for a group in Tibet. Alyce Zeoli officially became Jetsunma Akhon Norbu Lamho, a reincarnated Buddhist teacher who had lived in Tibet in the 1600s. The Center then bought a large house in Poolesville, Maryland and erected Buddhist statues and buildings on the property. One building was a school open not only to the children of local Buddhists but to other local children as well. Meanwhile, Alyce Zeoli taught Buddhism directly to adults. This is only one of many thin streams of Asian mysticism diffusing into US culture.

Again and again in the mini-biographies that Rawlinson presents, the alert reader of this large book sees Eastern mysticism making inroads into what remains of Western Civilization -- with almost no resistance. Each inroad is narrow. Collectively they cover a lot of area.

The persistent pro-reason reader of Rawlinson's biographical profiles of Buddhists, Hindus, Sufis, and new "independent" sub-movements is akin to a biologist standing on a coastland watching an incoming tide slowly filling first all the creek beds, marshes, and other low spots, and then gradually covering everything. There is no tsunami here, only a shallow but gradually rising pool of mysticism that is joining the historically deeper pools of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity that are already part of the culture.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at