Suffocants

They breathe only what can be inhaled
from others. That is their way.

When you had no more air for them,
their memory of you was a bible.
They buried the book and mourned it
as you lay breathless, solitary,
according to their law.

They encircled their book,
emitting weeping sounds,
embalming it with rose water
and saline solution.

I stepped up secretly, discretely
pushed each one into the hole,
back after back, there not being faces.

The tomb was spacious
(The book was large).
The earth weighed heavily on the spade,
but it rested well upon them.

They have come to no harm, do not cry.
They lie there today,
sipping each other’s air.

© 2013–15 Kaweah

 

Interview with the Prophet (Part 2)

Continued. When we left off, Zarathushtra was explaining his reasoning for enforcing morality with Heaven and Hell.


Idol Chatter: Even if the punishment fits the crime and Hell has an end, don’t you think this kind of compensation for good behavior undermines our esteem of virtue itself?

Zarathushtra: There is certainly that danger, but at least virtue has entered the conversation. The hope is that once men believe that they have the ability to choose the Good, then they are on the road to the realization that the Good lies within them.

IC: Fair enough; but still, shouldn’t virtue be considered its own reward?

Z: Ultimately, the word “reward” ought to be dropped. Virtue needs no reward.

IC: Great, but what do you have to offer the person who already recognizes this, who is not motivated by greed?

Z: Nothing! They have no need for my preaching!

IC: But why not try to instill natural good will in people?

Z: Why instill what is natural? My task is only to lead the horse to water. The horse will enjoy the water enough without my goading. To speak of individual virtue at all is to miss the point. Ultimately, virtue is not an individual trait; it is a shared experience.


IC: It is said that you rejected the capricious gods of the Indo-Aryan pantheon and replaced them with a moral God, or was it a moral pantheon?

Z: One god; two gods; three gods; one god with three personas: what’s the difference? So long as the gods serve the Good, it is good religion. Most of the old gods were gods of might, and worship of might, whether of one almighty God or of a pantheon of celestial powers is worship that is misdirected.

IC: How so?

Z: Might is essentially amoral. To whatever extent divine might is revered, divinity becomes that much more a tyranny. God must be a servant to the Good.

IC: And what is “the Good?” Who is to say?

Z: I see the Good as Plato did; the ultimate universal. I see Good as the unification of ethics and metaphysics, the two branches of philosophy. Wisdom—sophia—is intimately tied to the Good.

IC: Lord Wisdom: Ahura Mazda.

Z: Precisely. It is as the poet said: “truth is beauty and beauty is truth,” only I think the poet did not understand that aesthetics is a subspecies of ethics. You and I both know the Good, but we have no blueprint for it. There are no names for it. We only know that it is good. We may often mistake it for evil, but it cannot be anything but good.


IC: It has long been reported, since Plutarch, Herodotus, and perhaps farther back, that the distinctive doctrine of your religion is cosmic dualism, the idea that the world is a battlefield between the forces of Good and Evil, but some modern reformers contest this.

Z: Yes. Some modern Zoroastrians are ashamed of the idea, but I suspect that is because they, like many of their forebears, read the idea too literally.

IC: Let’s look at the idea more closely, then. Would you contend that nothing in existence is morally indifferent?

Z: That is one way to put it, yes.

IC: But surely you would not attribute evil intent to, say, a landslide.

Z: I don’t see it as a matter of intention. The morality of a landslide is not intrinsic; it is a matter of the suffering, or even aesthetic joy, that it brings about. If there were no joy or suffering, there would be no good or evil; and the converse applies as well.

IC: Would you say that good and evil are subjective?

Z: Not strictly. Much of good and evil is a common experience, though we experience joy and suffering as individuals. We have no reason to believe that joy and suffering are not in part objective, or even fundamentally so.

IC: But do you think that existence is fundamentally moral?

Z: I suppose my best answer for that is that all our perceptions are fundamentally moral, and all that we perceive is all that matters. A more contemporary, existentialist way to say this is that all phenomena are value-laden.


IC: I’ve long wondered: is it true that you were killed in a siege of Bactra?

Z: That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it!

IC: If that is the case, how can I be talking to you here and now?

Z: Well I was reborn, of course.

IC: You don’t mean that your soul was reincarnated.

Z: Of course not. Just another avatar, nothing more.

IC: Of course. Say, could you do me one final favor?

Z: I don’t see why not.

IC: Could you sing the opening verse of Fat Bottomed Girls? You know: “I was just a skinny lad …”

Z: Hah! If I could sing, do you think I’d have time for you? [winks]

Interview with the Prophet (Part 1)

I recently crossed paths with the legendary prophet Zarathushtra while hiking in the mountains behind my house, the Diablo Range. He and I swapped cell numbers, and he graciously consented to scheduling an interview.


Idol Chatter: I’d like to begin by saying what a great honor it is to be granted an interview with the prophet of good and evil.

Zoroaster: The honor is all mine! And thanks for the latte by the way.

IC: So tell me: what have you been up to for the last three thousand years?

Z: Seeing the world. Seeing all its beauty. Chatting with people. Gardening. I like to garden.

IC: Yes, you’ve got quite a reputation as a tree planter and a sustainability advocate. But now you’re a traveler too.

Z: Yes. Making the most of my golden years, you see.

IC: I suppose you’ve seen about everything by now.

Z: No, you’d be surprised how much there is to see.


IC: Forgive my impertinence, but aren’t you just the spittin’ image of Freddie Mercury?

Z: Ah yes, well of course we are both Iranians.

IC: He was a Parsi, right?

Z: Yes, though the so-called Parsis, as Khorasanis, are more Parthi than Parsi.

IC: Does it sadden you that so few of your faith remain, and that so few of those who remain reside in the homelands of their faith?

Z: It does, sometimes, but the spirit of a universal idea is no mere matter of cultural heritage. It persists and is reborn like the spirit of a man.

IC: How so?

Z: The soul of a man, that is, his individuality, only lives in the world for a short while, but the spirit of a man will continue to be embodied over and over again as his thoughts are recovered. A religion is like a man in this regard.

IC: So you believe in a metaphorical kind of reincarnation, but not in the immortality of the soul itself?

Z: Just think of it this way: we are reborn when another soul relives our ideas and passions, but they don’t get access to our memories.

IC: But you taught immortality of the soul, right?

Z: I didn’t invent the idea of personal immortality. What I did was propose a change in the goods which men barter with the gods for divine favor. I summoned men to offer sacrifice to the God of Wisdom, who asks only for the sacrifice of good thoughts, words, and actions.

IC: This seems somewhat calculating. You call it a barter. I’m sure you’re familiar with the charge that this is mere “marketplace morality.”

Z: Ah, that devil Nietzsche. He knew me well, but as I said, I did not found the marketplace. Do me a favor and look around: do you see justice in the world?

IC: Not generally.

Z: Neither did I, and I could see that I was not alone.

IC: So you conceived a world of justice, of karma?

Z: Yes: a world of justice, and eventual redemption of this world. I could see this was what men needed.

IC: To make them behave?

Z: Not exactly. Men generally want to live a good life, and to have a good self-image is central to a good life, but to ask most men to live a good life in an unjust world is asking too much.

IC: So again, your objective was to motivate the people.

Z: That was a strategic necessity, a prerequisite, and a selling point when seeking the patronage of the king; but my primary objective was to give men hope so that they may live good lives. Of course this would be quite difficult in a world of anarchy.

IC: Your opinion of this world seems rather dim, yet you have the reputation of a “life-affirming” prophet.

Z: No, I see abundant good in the world, but there is too much bad in the world for men to be left to battle it alone. I taught men to make a single leap of faith: to have faith in the eventual ascendancy of Good.

IC: But you did preach divine punishment.

Z: I promised justice; not vengeance. I preached that all actions have personal consequences, but I also preached that the penalty would fit the crime, and that all suffering would end. The ultimate salvation would be shared: the restoration of the good creation.

To be continued …

Zarathustra the Yes Man.

There is perhaps no message more essential to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra than the whole-hearted affirmation of life as an individual experience.

I am a blesser and a Yea-sayer, … into all abysses I carry my blessing Yea-saying.

—Thus Spoke Zarathustra 3.4, Before Sunrise

This affirmation of life as a whole appears to be the end to which Nietzsche employs the Stoic notion of eternal recurrence, but his affirmation of everything owes much to Heraclitus (who may have inspired the Stoics to think of eternal recurrence in the first place). Fundamentally, it is the Heraclitean vision of the impermanence and intertangledness of everything that causes Nietzsche to take valuation of life “beyond good and evil”. But that is another discussion.

What I wish to point out here is that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a prophet of affirmation, and an iconoclast to the idols of rejection.

To Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the enemy is the teacher of rejection, the “preacher of death”:

There are preachers of death: and the earth is full of those to whom rejection of life must be preached.

—Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.9, On the Preachers of Death

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra has also been called a prophet of “dionysian pantheism” and “amor fati”. This is not exactly the image that most Zoroastrians have of their prophet, but the two Zarathustras are not as dissimilar as one might presume, for Zoroastrianism is notable as a religion that values “this life” most of all, and considers this “physical” or “getig” world to be the full realization and highest state of existence.

The getig existence is better than the previous menog one, for in it Ahura Mazda’s perfect creation received the added good of solid and sentient form.

—Mary Boyce, “Zoroastrians”, page 25

The Avestan origin of the word “getig”, Gaethya, derives from a root gay-, jay-, meaning ‘to live’. The opposite of getig is “menog”, which derives from the root “to think”. Though the mental world is considered the primal world, it is the living world that is the ultimate fulfillment of existence. Zoroastrianism does not look to any world but the present “living” world for its ultimate fulfillment, and in seeking that fulfillment, it endeavors to defend a twofold principle of virtue that is at once Truth and Life against the opposite principle of Lie and Death.

Though Nietzsche may indeed have thought that his Zarathustra was the true prophet of life-affirmation, I sometimes pause to wonder whether the fatalistic sense of his doctrine of eternal recurrence is, as Heidegger thought, actually a rejection of the transient character of life. It may be that the Zoroastrian idea of engagement in a cosmic battle or ethical striving is a better model for a truly life-affirming worldview, even though it does not depict every aspect of existence as equally blessed.

No other religion expresses as clearly as Zoroastrianism the affirmation of life, …

—S.A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, pg. 118

The earthy, irreverent, self-parodying joviality that distinguishes a part of the Parsi character was born of a mixture of influences that included the Zoroastrian life-affirming outlook, …

—Jesse S. Palsetia, The Parsis of India, pg. 186

The Zoroastrian conception of human existence is essentially a joyful and life-affirming one…

—Diané Collinson and Robert Wilkinson, Thirty-Five Oriental Philosophers, page 4

Also Sprach Herakleitos

Nietzsche’s choice of the Iranian (not necessarily Persian) prophet Zarathustra was far from arbitrary, and Nietzsche wanted us to know this.

“I have not been asked, as I should have been asked, what the name of Zarathustra means in precisely my mouth, …” — Ecce Homo

Though taking the title “the first immoralist,” Nietzsche did not suggest that his Zarathustra is the anti-Zarathustra, as one might superficially presume. Nietzsche, rather, believed that the great dualist of old would be the first man to discover “the death of God,” as it were, because of the nature of the Zarathustrian worldview.

“Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things: the translation of morality into the realm of metaphysics, as force, cause, and end-in-itself, in his work.” — Ecce Homo

It was the cosmic dualism of Zarathustra, as Nietzsche knew the prophet, that led Nietzsche to make such use of him. To Nietzsche, as to many others, Zarathustra is the prophet that brought morality and metaphysics together, seeing good and evil as the very metaphysical fabric of reality. This was the first essential aspect of Zarathustra. The second essential aspect is the fundamental distinction between Zarathustra’s good and evil: Truth (Asha) and the Lie (Druj). To Nietzsche, Zarathustra was the most honest prophet, so Nietzsche thought that the honesty of Zarathustra would ultimately prevail over his moralism, taking him “beyond good and evil.”

“Not only has he had longer and greater experience here than any other thinker … what is more truthful than any other thinker. His teaching, and his alone, upholds truthfulness as the supremem virtue. … To tell the truth and to shoot well with arrows: that is Persian virtue. — Have I been understood?” — Ecce Homo

That triumph of honesty over the idols of moralism is a central theme of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

“I count nothing more valuable and rare today than honesty.” — TSZ, Of the Higher Man (4.13.8)

Nietzsche plays with other Zoroastrian themes throughout the book:

  • Mountains: Zarathustra was as much a mountain prophet as any, and Nietzsche loved mountains.
  • He returns repeatedly to purity, even speaking of the need for cleansing after childbirth.
  • He honors cattle, and the ox, more than once.
  • He likens Zarathustra to a rooster, a bird that is treated with reverence by Zoroastrians because of its role as a harbinger of the dawn (3.13.1).
  • Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, like the Zarathustra of tradition, experiences an enlightened moment wherein he doesn’t cast a shadow.

Beyond Good & Evil

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is no nihilist, but rather quite the opposite. The lesson is not that good and evil are irrelevant; they are crucial:

“No greater power has Zarathustra found on earth than good and evil. … without evaluation the nut of existence would be hollow.” — TSZ 1.15: Of the Thousand and One Goals

This is not the only passage where Zarathustra associates good and evil with power.

What Nietzsche’s Zarathustra discovers is that they are not static:

“Allegories are all names of good and evil: they do not express, they merely hint. A fool is he who wants knowledge of them!” — TSZ 1.22.1

“May your virtue be too lofty for the familiarity of names: and if you must talk about her, be not ashamed to stammer about her. So speak and stammer: … I do not will it as the law of a God, …” — TSZ 1.5: On Enjoying and Suffering the Passions

Heraclitus

Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek subject of the Persian Empire who lived circa 500 B.C.E., said something quite similar about the allegorical nature of truth:

The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.

What Zarathustra sees in good and evil is what Heraclitus sees in his Logos: a harmonious war of loving antagonists.

“… the secret of all life! That there is battle and inequality and war for power and predominance even in beauty … How divinely vault and arch here oppose one another in the struggle: how they strive against one another with light and shadow, these divinely-striving things.” — TSZ 2.7: Of The Tarantulas

How closely this observation resembles what Heraclitus sees in the bow and the lyre:

“People do not understand how that which is at variance with itself agrees with itself. There is a harmony in the bending back, as in the cases of the bow and the lyre.”

For Heraclitus, the world is not merely flux, but more: the world is a war of opposites, but it is also a symphony.

We must recognize that war is common and strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity. (DK22B80)

War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen. (DK22B53)

Heraclitus criticizes the poet who said, ‘would that strife might perish from among gods and men’ [Homer Iliad 18.107]’ for there would not be harmony without high and low notes, nor living things without female and male, which are opposites. —Aristotle

Another angle of this unity of opposites is the unity of ascent and descent. Both Heraclitus and Zarathustra have something to say on this particular theme:

“The way up and the way down are one and the same.” — Heraclitus

“Summit and abyss—they are now united in one!” — TSZ 3.1: The Wanderer

This symphony of opposition is the key idea that Zarathustra and Heraclitus have in common. Near the end of the final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the prophet sings:

“All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love; …” — TSZ 4.19.10: The Drunken Song

Likewise, Heraclitus says:

“Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.”

Heraclitus & Zoroaster

This commonality between Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Heraclitus is startling, but what is also startling is that Heraclitus may have also recognized the common ground between his own thought and the Zarathustra of antiquity, for there are some striking similarities between the two:

  • To Heraclitus, the world is a war of opposites; to traditional Zoroastrianism, the world is a war between two opposing forces (Good and Evil).
  • Heraclitus drew a parallel between his Logos and fire, just as the Zoroastrians’ universal principle of Asha is associated with fire. Heraclitus is thought by many to have taught that the world is made of fire, whereas Zoroastrians are thought to worship fire.
  • Heraclitus draws an identity between “the wise” and divinity; the God of Zoroastrianism is named “Lord Wisdom”.
  • Heraclitus lived in the Persian Empire, perhaps 1-7 centuries after Zarathustra.

Seeing all this commonality, it is not hard to see a triad formed by Heraclitus and the two Zarathustras. One might venture to assert that both Heraclitus and Nietzsche strove to take the theme of Zarathustra beyond the dogmatism of Zoroastrianism, though, whereas Nietzsche made a point of making references to Zarathustra, Heraclitus appears to have taken the opposite course, perhaps in an effort to avoid being associated with the Persians among his fellow Greeks, or possibly to discourage any suggestion that his “Logos” is in any way a derivative of any doctrine.

Nietzsche could even be seen to have taken that departure into the poetic, musical style of Thus Spoke Zarathustra specifically to serve the theme. In doing so, Nietzsche conceived of a protagonist that is not unlike our image of Heraclitus: something of a hybrid between poet and philosopher; a cryptic, contrary riddler and hermit; an elitest and yet a prophet for universal affirmation. Even Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence, similar to a Stoic doctrine that was likely inspired by Heraclitus’ notion of a cyclic return of things to fire, teaches a somewhat Heraclitean lesson of world-affirmation. There is much in common between Nietzsche and Heraclitus, and much of what they share can be attributed to the legacy of Zoroastrianism, itself a religion of world-affirmation.

Last of the Starry-Eyed Orientalists

Since Iran deteriorated into Islamic fundamentalism in 1979, and the Ayatollahs resurfaced to rid Iran of unclean things such as infidels, heretics, and homosexuals, we haven’t heard much from the starry-eyed orientalist; that scholar who tires of the daunting empiricism, formal scientific process, excessive prosperity, and agnostic materialism of the West, and turns to the Orient of whirling dervishes and flying carpets for a renovation of romance.

It’s rather like stepping back in time.

I can understand the need, but I cannot bear to conflate a feline curiosity for the exotic with the transparently negative escapism of these naive daydreamers.

The last of these gullible scholastic tourists was perhaps Henry Corbin, who died in his native France in October 1978, while Ruhollah Khomeini was living in exile in the very same land. I recently read Corbin’s book Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (1960), hoping to educate myself further on the thought and culture of ancient Iran.

One of the dominant themes of the book is its continual denigration of the West and its loss of faith. Complementing that theme is the book’s air of absolute certainty with regard to the author’s own gnostic and theosophical doctrines. Fair enough: it would do Corbin no good to appear uncertain or impartial, for it is clearly just that impartiality and “pious agnosticism” of the West that he yearns to forsake.

Corbin’s primary need, next to a general desire to believe and to be a Persian, appears to be to find a foundation for immortality. He finds his beloved eternity in a sort of a world of forms—or images, or more: it’s a world of dimensions, sights, smells, and tastes just like our own—very real. The only difference is that his world of images has no death or deterioration.

Let me guess what you’re thinking: in a world full of unchanging, immortal images, can anything or anyone ever be truly alive?

To each his own. Some people simply cannot see the forest for the trees. They cannot see that a living world exists right before their eyes. All they need do to attain immortality is to loosen their grasp on their idols and let the changes flow. But they refuse to acknowledge the rules of the game, though it be the only game in town.

“Through my meeting with Suhrawardi, my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed.”
—Henry Corbin, Jambet, 1981, pp. 62-3

Corbin, purportedly following the lead of his idol, the Islamic mystic Suhrawardi, made a fundamental misjudgment of the character of Zoroastrian thought. There appears to be a consensus among scholars of Zoroastrianism that it is a life-affirming religion of this world. It is, in fact, quite the opposite of Suhrawardi’s mysticism. Suhrawardi may have revived a form of ancient thought—Manichean thought perhaps, but his efforts only served to increase the distance between Islamic and Zoroastrian Iran.

I would venture to claim that mainstream Shi’ism is closer to Zoroastrianism than the abstract, world-denying asceticism of Suhrawardi (and Sufism in general). This may possibly discredit Zoroastrianism in the eyes of Western admirers of Sufism, but it remains a fact—for better or for worse—that Zoroastrianism is not a mystical, ascetic religion. It is a religion of community and engagement with the world; in no danger of the solipsism and amoral disengagement that Sufi practitioners have always been hazardously near. Not to discredit Sufism: it offers a lot to admire, but it has little in common with the religion of pre-Islamic Iran.

Now’s it’s peculiar, though not surprising, that Corbin has ample indignation reserved for the religion of most Muslims. Attempting to distance his thinking from the suffocating legalism and orthodoxy of the dominant institutions of Islam, Corbin continually refrains the abyss between “legalistic Islam” and what he calls “spiritual Islam.”

“spiritual Islam, to be sure, … is profoundly different from the legalistic Islam, the official religion of the majority.” —page 52

The majority of Muslims, of course, lack the capacity to appreciate spiritual Islam:

“he who does not possess the inner ear cannot be made to hear …” —page 54

This kind of elitist end-run around reason leads one to wonder whether the rest of us ought to simply take his word for all his gnostic, theosophical mumbo jumbo.

One of the first tasks of this “spiritual Islam” is—of course—to recast the Qur‘an as a spiritual book:

“the ta‘wíl is preeminently the hermeneutics of symbols, the ex-egesis, the bringing out of hidden spiritual meaning.” —page 53

Corbin goes on to assert that it was by means of this methodology that Shí‘a mystics transfigured “the meaning of Islam.”

“In the Qur‘an there are verses whose complete meaning cannot be understood except by means of the spiritual hermeneutic, the Shi’ite ta‘wíl. —page 66

I suppose it would charitable of the Shí‘a to let the Sunni use their ta‘wíl, just so they can understand their own scripture? Of course, that will only benefit those with an inner ear, but it’s worth a shot.

Consuming Christmas


Full size (at Flickr)

Originally uploaded by positano

Santa has had to live with a bad rap for as long as I can remember. In spite of the best of intentions and centuries of selfless service, he has been made into a symbol of rampant consumerism.

Nevertheless, those of us who know him know that he has the true meaning of Christmas in his heart.

… or in his belly, at least!

I am God, and so are you.

Agnostic Religion

Only God exists; He is in all things, and all things are in Him.

Sufi pantheism, as defined in a footnote to the Seven Valleys of Baha’u’llah

We have previously considered that Islam’s strength is that it forbids idolatry, that is, associating partners with God, and that Islam’s weakness is that its object of worship, Allah, is unknowable, and that this leads to agnosticism. The Islam of Muhammad is a religion of practices and politics, rather than beliefs or mystical experiences.

Forbidden Yearnings

From fairly early on, Muslims began to seek ways to develop relationships with God, and ideas of gnosis began to develop. Sufism was being born. This was a uniquely Muslim form of mysticism, inasmuch as it was a mystical response to a non-mystical religion.

It ought to surprise no one that a mystical religion in a realm where heretics are murdered would be based upon secret knowledge. Severe penalties for apostasy and heresy may have forced mystics to appear more cryptic than they might otherwise have seemed.

The problem with secret knowledge is that it tends to favor the enlightened over the unenlightened. Such favoritism encourages idolatry, so it is easy to see that Islamic mysticism ran the risk of violating what is perhaps the fundamental principle of Islam. Mysticism must not be exclusive if it is to be true to Islam. It must permit no secrets. Unfortunately, secret knowledge was sometimes necessary for survival.

Unity of Being

“I am Truth.” — al-Hallaj

What if we are God? Pantheism provides a possible solution to the problem of non-idolatrous worship. Each individual knows truth in his or her own context. No hero worship is necessary. Muhammad is only a man, no better than any other. Worship is possible, because God is knowable, but idolatry has no place. Perhaps that is what the Sufis ibn `Arabi, Bayazid Bistami, and al-Hallaj were thinking when they made their contributions to the doctrine cited above, generally referred to as Wahdat-ul-Wujood (“Unity of Being”).

Emanation vs. Existence

A metaphysics of emanation is an alternative to pantheism worth considering, but emanation seems to be a construct derived from an unnecessary, artificial distinction between Creator and Creation. Why must I regard myself as a created object, when I possess an existential sense of a will that is my own? Perhaps that is the Will of God that I feel, but even then: why should I presume that Will is not my own?

Existentially speaking, I am no object. I am no emanation, shadow, or reflection.

I do not think of the world as a mere fact. It does possess will, and it does possess a sense of good and bad. This is why I recognize it as divine. For this very reason, I can be neither a strict atheist nor a theist. Pantheism seems to be the most natural view of the world as we experience it.

Omnipotence and Freedom

In Sufi Islam, the only true reality is God, and that the world is but a shadow of that reality. Generally, Islam regards the world as a deterministic effect of God’s will, which is not too different than a shadow. According to the Qur’an, even the most fundamental decisions are made according to the will of God, insha’Allah. Though it presumes a human capacity to choose, it also asserts that unbelievers only continue in their disbelief because God blinds their eyes. Thus the omnipotence of God trumps human freedom.

When it comes down to it, divine omnipotence and human freedom are incompatible. The only way to reconcile the two is to regard them as one and the same thing. Human will is divine will, and human freedom is divine freedom. Why not embrace such a simple and logical assertion? No gnosis necessary; it is really quite intuitive. Of course it requires a deep, subconscious notion of freedom that runs beneath our self-awareness and is ultimately a single Will, but it still allows for freedom. As God is free, so are we.

The Agnosticism Intrinsic to Monotheism

I recently wrote here about the strict monotheism of Muhammad. It occurred to me that the ultimate logical end of monotheism is free thought and tolerance; something of the sort that one might expect from a Unitarian congregation. In this sense, Islam is essentially a modern religion. Existentially, Islam seems quite primitive and barbaric, but its unitarian foundation may give us hope for it.

On the other hand, there’s a spiritual problem that arises from strict monotheism. It begins with this logic:

He [God] does not reveal Himself to anyone in any way. God reveals only His will.

Isma’il Ragi al Faruqi

Strict monotheism requires that no man can rightly claim knowledge of God’s essence, therefore the rightful perspective toward divinity is agnosticism. Christian Unitarianism has taken a path toward agnosticism. Might Islamic unitarianism do the same? Rationally, this may be a good thing, but I find it spiritually threatening, because it creates an impassible divide between man and God.

This is perhaps the principle reason why I cannot be a Muslim. There are, or course, no lack of particular objections that keep me at a distance from Islam, but this agnosticism, this cold isolation from God, is a fundamental philosophical problem.

Monotheism need not be agnostic, but gnosis comes at a high price: idolatry. So long as a man can gain knowledge of God, he can become a partner of God, which is the unforgivable sin of Islam. It is indeed a sin: but it is a sin unique to soft monotheism.