Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions
Using history as an example, I left off the last post with a claim that smaller units of autonomy get sucked up into a larger whole—that this process is natural and necessary. And though a little bit sticky when speaking in terms evolutionary, I would venture to say this process progressive. So, here we stand today, former New England colonists (as opposed to a Middle Colony or Southern Colony—at their time there was no conception of a “united states”), become United into a collection of colonies by the Articles of Confederation, until the continued progression pushed us to Unite into 50 states. The sum of all those parts (fuck yeah!): America!!
Of course, America is by far not the only example, just the one most accessible. Why, the phenomenon also exists spiritually. There is a force in the Universe that pushes towards greater level of co-operation, that seeks to Unite and make whole. “God is Love”, many, regardless of denomination sometimes simplify it. This force, I and others would argue, is no less than that: Love.
To see this force operating spiritually, I get inspired by the historical account of the rise of Islam. Now, leaving behind all the arguments for how accurately or inaccurately the religion is perceived today, the mere fact of the birth of Islam always intrigued me. Before I even gained a spiritual perception, it was a hard question for me to satisfactorily answer from purely mechanistic, atheistic assumptions: Just why did this religion boom like it did? When Islam was “founded” in 632 AD, the movement was located to a modest trading region north of Mecca in an otherwise desolate environment. Just 100 years after, a once loose collection of warring tribes were not only united under one God; having unified all of Saudi Arabia, these Muslims (those who submit to God) were now pushing up into northern Africa and Spain, and into present-day Iran and Afghanistan. It didn’t just stop there, and the flourishing culture and its resulting beauty pay homage to that time in the form of beautiful mosques. The Islamic culture was one advancing algebraic sciences at a time our Western forefathers and kings were learning how to spell their names properly. Whether this had anything to do with God or not, the rise of Islam was an unbelievably powerful social force for change.
Of course, I get the feeling that if one asked Muhammad, he would say it had everything to do with God…
The purpose of this blog is to distinguish the spiritual from the religious. So much heavy baggage come with terms such as “God” and “Allah”, so much personal angst or opinion automatically springs to mind with the mere mention of such a term, the symbol it stands for gets obscured. The Jewish people seem to get the spiritual side of it most right when they insist that G-d, can’t really be uttered or signified with a name—It’s too transcendent. The point of this aside: forget your fixed, preconceptions of the term God, and just look at the story of Muhammad, seeing the common elements of most spiritual paths. For, as we shall see, for whatever reason, the spiritual always comes packaged with transformation.
A SHORT HISTORY OF MUHAMMAD
Troubled with the changes he saw in his Mecca society–the unequal distribution of wealth amongst the growing Qua’resh elite—Muhammad took to the hills to reflect. Muhammad knew something of being on the fringe of society: having been an orphan himself in a culture where everything depended on family connections, Muhammad was lucky to have been adopted by his wealthy uncle Abu Talib. Still, once having been an orphan, he must have sympathized with the others not quite as lucky as he, forced to the edges of society. It must have drove him crazy. It must have drove him up the hill.
You see, Muhammad lived in a time of great social upheaval. The forces and dynamics of his nomadic culture were in the process of a shift, and he didn’t like what he saw.
Mecca existed as a place for pilgrimage in the nomadic world of the Saudi Arabian desert. In this city, the religious attraction the Kaaba generated pulled many tribes and cultures. Said to be house 360 gods, the Kaaba of per-Islamic Arabia was a warehouse for polytheism, the chief gods being Hubal, Syrian god of the Moon. The city of Mecca was an important pilgrimage site for many, and the religious toleration extended to all created something unique in their Bedouin world: peace. In the city of Mecca, at least, clan differences and disputes were momentarily left behind. The stability created in this sacred zone was great for trade. And, during the season of pilgrimage, Mecca offered the perfect location to pay homage to your god of choice. Hey, with the peace the sanctity of the site demanded, it was a bustling economic zone.
The stability of predictable pilgrimages and trade made it possible for a few of the tribes to “settle down.” One of these tribes, the Quaresh, gained control of the Kaaba itself, offering entry and protection for a small tribute. So something else was created in the nomadic world: accumulation of wealth. Of course, with the accumulation of wealth, still more new changes revealed themselves in the relatively egalitarian world of the per-Islamic Arabian nomad: social stratification. In Mecca especially, it became clear that there were “haves” and “have nots”.
The Quaresh tribe were, unquestionably, the “haves”. The egalitarian ethic of the tribe no longer ruled in Mecca, individual accumulation of wealth replacing the community spirit of the tribe. At the top of this new social ladder sat the Quaresh, having created a monopoly on pilgrimage by securing all the various idols in the central location of the Kaaba.
And in this tumultuous, growing more in-equal, environment, Muhammad retreated to the hills to get some perspective, both literal and figurative. Retreating to a cave, the history informs us, Muhammad tried to make some sense of it all.
(Muhammad often went to this cave to pray and fast. One could accurately name it meditating. So, while first seeking personal integrity before pushing social change [an example some contemporaries may want to emulate], Muhammad also reveals another characteristic of historical ‘spiritual leaders’–they actually starved themselves, sensually speaking, in order to gain access to the realm of spirit. Most have heard of the aesthetic practices of the Buddha, but it often gets overlooked in the religion of Christianity that Jesus would pray and fast (and likely meditate) for 40 nights in the desert! Jesus’ connection with “the Father” was supported by a serious, spiritual regiment. These introspective practices have often, I feel, been lost in the popular Christianity of today.)
Here’s where the history becomes, to our modern-day rational sensibilities, a bit fantastical, with holy script burning molten on the cave walls. Gabriel commanded that Muhammad read the writing, which as it would turn out, happened to be commandments from God.
To his credit, Muhammad thought he was going insane, and spoke his doubts to his wife and other close confidants. They only egged him on, convinced themselves that this was a Divine voice.
In the early spread of the religion, some people demanded to know Islam’s miracle. The Jews had their miracles, and Jesus walked on water (…for Christ’s sake!), where was this upstart, self-proclaimed prophet’s miracle? In an illiterate society who transfused culture through story-telling and poetry, the beauty of the Koranic verses themselves became the miracle. In a culture that valued verse already highly, no one contested the beauty of the Koranic poetry. Which was a bit strange given the fact that Muhammad was no storyteller…
But what exactly did this Divine Voice command? Well, quite simply: that God was only One God. But, to the Quaresh tribe particularly, this simple idea dramatically threatened the social order. Why, if there was only one God, it would disrupt the entire economics of Mecca (built upon the pilgrimage of a vast array of faithful ‘idolaters’). But Muhammad didn’t just stop there, condemning through the voice of God the inequalities practiced by the elite and preaching for more egalitarian approaches instead.
The next bit of the story is as incredible as it is interesting, but unnecessary to my point here. Suffice it to say that Muhammad made powerful enemies, and through a series of unlikely military victories that leaves one scratching one’s head wondering if, in fact, the only plausible explanation is God himself steering the course of history. Fast forwarding the story to his triumphant conquest of Mecca, re-entering the same city he was once exiled from as the prophet-leader of his caliphate, Muhammad marched towards the Kaaba. It would be a most symbolic act that resonates largely with our time.
I had heard this story three times before I finally realized the parallels it holds with our time. It was so obvious!
If you were paying attention, you’ll remember that the Kaaba used to house the various idols of the numerous gods in that area (it is a typical phenomenon that when a society is nomadic—thereby having no clear, dominant, one in charge—the religion is polytheistic). Well, Muhammad, riding the wave of victory, marched to the city’s religious center to symbolically drive home his message. Dragging the various clay depictions of gods–Hubal, god of the moon, Uzza, Kutba, Enlil, no one was spared—out of their sacred house, he smashed them on the ground.
Humans are a symbolic creature, and this act spoke more subconsciously (and deeper) than I think all the most eloquent sermons Muhammad could have given. Here, loud and equally clear, Muhammad drove home his message: there is no God but God. Symbolically, this moment in time encapsulates a similar one we now stand at.
You see, far from simple clay idols as some would like to narrow-mindedly view them, I’m sure that these ‘gods’ of the various tribes connected them to the Divine. Anything can be an idol, and the mistake comes when the object is worshiped instead of the idea it is supposed to represent. Some Christians love to simplistically attack Hinduism as a crazy bunch of idol-worshiping weirdos, when it only takes a little bit of objectivity to realize that to a foreigner walking into a Christian church, we have the ‘idol’ of the cross people are worshiping. And if you’re already worked up that you don’t worship the cross but for God who it represents, you’ve proved my entire point. To be clear: these idols, I’m sure, represented a real connection to the Sacred for the tribes who held them so. But Muhammad forced them to expand their vision.
The gods were only representations of the larger Allah (or One) behind it All! Literally smashing the limited and confining idea of separate gods, the metaphorical could be shown: the Divine behind all our limited conceptions is the same. “Let’s unite under this One!” Muhammad proclaimed, forcing the conception of God to expand (for, God ever transcends the limits we place on It).
In so doing, the Arabian peninsula was radically altered, and far from the crippling and archaic practices of the Islamic regimes we see holding destitute people down, this social movement was a force of beauty and inspiration, creating culture, art, and beauty. For, God is nothing if not the most grand of creators, nothing if not the highest of inspiration. With God comes not stagnation or conservatism, but great expansion, movement, and beauty. Look no further than the rise of Islam.
Which finally brings me to the edge of what I wanted to say about Agape and Eros love. What Muhammad did was create something new by reaching for a higher vision. This higher vision collected separate entities into a more complex, unified whole.
The same principle works on an atomic level, as we shall see next time.
Let me close, however, with the image of Muhammad flinging the clay idols to the parched, desert earth of Mecca, imploring his fellow men and women (not just competing tribes and factions) to expand their conception of God. We, as a global society, find ourselves at just such a gathering place. The collective Gods of our Christian (Mormon, baptist, Presbyterian), Hindu (lol—33 million gods!!!), Buddhist (Mahayana, Theravada), Muslim (Sunnis and shias), and various other “tribes” could be smashed as well. Not to destroy the God they represent, but to expand that representation.
For, on the spiritual level of “God”, we see It as a force that unites, never divides. No, only religion divides.