Islam, my mother and e-bay

If we started from the same point, how did we grow so apart?




My mother, a traditional woman of the Mediterranean Greece, tried to raise me to be a good Christian, however somewhere along the way her efforts failed. See, as I was growing up, it felt liberating to reject what seemed to me as narrow-minded, ‘all-donts’ rules of an unproved (or even unprovable) concept. No wonder I was far from excited when, while studying for a class, I came across a text by Roger Arnaldez describing the history of religions in the Mediterranean.  ‘Oh this b/s again’. I began reluctantly browsing the pages. Damn, it got interesting.


In an all too simplified and known sequence: first came polytheism, then Judaism, Christianity, Islam – three of world’s most popular religions were born and raised in a small part of the Mediterranean. I was aware that each one built on the previous ones, blending and mixing concepts, dogmas, symbols. However, I was not aware that they relate to one another in the following ways.

# interesting_fact1: Islam’s God is the Christian God, same as the Christian God is the Jewish God. That’s not to mean that the Gods have the same ‘features’, rather that each religion when newly introduced claimed to have a better view of the already ‘existing’ God, and further that the previous religion had failed because of division, moral decline etc. Saint Paul preached that the real Jew is the Christian. In the same manner later on, the Quran would dictate: the real Jew, or the real Christian, is the Muslim.


# interesting_fact2: Islam came about as a religion with radical views on the status quo, same as Christianity is considered to have opposed conventional power institutions and ideologies when first introduced. In fact, when Islam began preaching equality and justice in a simple manner, people turned to it, being largely frustrated with the Christian Byzantine Empire because of its dogmatic quarrels, the continuous fighting of bishops over thrones and all these nice things that come with power.


# interesting_fact3: In order for Islam to continue spreading, it had to incorporate pre-existing religious practices and symbols, much like Christian churches were built on ancient temples’ sites.  In the pre-islamic era, the Kaaba, the building inside Islam’s most sacred mosque and center of the annual pilgrimage in Mecca, was a holy site for the various Bedouin tribes in the area. Once every lunar year, the Bedouin tribes would make a pilgrimage to Mecca and worship their pagan gods in the Kaaba.


Why my attention was focused on the Islam/Christianity relation? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps because I was born in a Christian region. Since Christianity was a reform of Judaism, many things of their interface are familiar to me. More probably though, there is something else: the value in exploring things that connect the now politically divided world into terrorist and non-terrorist countries. The Islamic Middle-East region of the world is almost solely represented in the Western media through photos of victims after a bomb attack, videos of men holding up guns and yelling ‘allahu akbar’, caged women in burqa and bad dictators. Does that affect our view of this region and its people and how? Many acknowledge that religion is used nowadays, same as in the past, as a pretext in the political and economic power arena. Yet, even having this awareness, the lesser we know someone, the more susceptible we are to adopt any opinion about them which is already formed and given to us: there is nothing else there to contradict it.


# hopeful_fact1andonly: In Baghdad, The House of Wisdom was a major intellectual center during the Islamic Golden Age, bringing together many well-known scholars to share information, ideas, and culture. Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers met there to translate the Greek texts. According to Abu Hayan al  Tawhidi, during their night meetings the most distinguished intellectuals would discuss about the big problems, without faith discrimination and on equal terms. While contemplating on God, they were led to describe experiences and define life values with many common points, despite their dogmatic differences.

If we could only order a House of Wisdom on e-bay..

On intellectual sympathy – or a blog’s raison d’être

Mina Mimbu. New Zealand.

Intellectual sympathy is one – among many – of Henri Bergson’s attempts to explain what he meant by the methodological approach of intuition (not to be confused with the common meaning of intuition). For Bergson, there are two ways of knowing: the relative, partial knowledge and the absolute, complete knowledge. When we follow the method of analysis, we approach the object in question from outside, we move around it, and observe it from specific position(s). We are bound therefore to see only a part of it, and degrade the object to the aspects accessible to us. Intuition, on the contrary, is ‘entering’ the object itself, participating in it, sympathizing with all its aspects, without separating them, but in their unity. The analysis gives us only relative knowledge, while intuition provides us with absolute knowledge of the object in question:

It follows that an absolute can only be given in an intuition, while all the rest has to do with analysis. We call intuition here the sympathy by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible in it. Analysis, on the  contrary,  is  the  operation  which  reduces  the  object  to  elements already known, that is, common to that object and to others. [H. Bergson, The Creative Mind: An introduction to metaphysics]

It is not within my intentions (and competence) to provide an accurate description of Mr. Bergson’s philosophy. Nor to defend it as the source of absolute truth – although I have to admit my positive predisposition. Rather, it serves me, in a quite remarkable coincidence with its content, as a point of unity. For I see in this notion an intersection of my wanderings, interests and questionings that have troubled my mind – severely – during the last years. Let me give you a brief idea on these wanderings.

First, there is anthropology. Anthropology is the one mostly to be blamed for the birth of this blog. I came across it by chance, while, unsatisfied by the natural sciences, I was looking for answers elsewhere, and fell in love. For those unfamiliar with it, what differentiates Anthropology from other fields like sociology is the methodological approach of participatory observation. For an anthropologist to study a group of people must, by and large, live with them for a considerable amount of time. He must participate in their lives as one of them, do the things they do, try to see the world as they see it. Not insignificant problems arise when actually trying to accomplish that, but for the moment let’s stick to the intention of ‘entering’ into the insides of the study object. Does that ring a Bergsonian bell?

Now I would like to dig a little deeper on the aforementioned un-satisfaction with the natural sciences. To set the record straight, I need to state this: science is among the greatest achievements of human intellect. Science has given us a valuable way of understanding things.  However, as many before, from the Romanticists to the postmodernists, I have grown a skepticism for the limits of knowledge, especially in relation to the dominant place that science has in our lives.  Is our intellect alone capable of providing the meaning of life? If phenomenologists are right, and there is no meaning a priori to find out there, then isn’t it concluded that science, in the sense of trying to discover the truth, is merely one of many ways to signify our lives? And here come the questions on the limitations of intellect..and again, Bergson*.

Intellectual sympathy, however, in the context of this blog, stands also for sympathy for intellectuals. Not in the elitist sense of an Illuminati class, rather in the struggle of human spirit to understand, and make sense of its existence. With that, with them, I sympathize.

And then, as always, love and death and our internal struggle to understand them, incorporate them, live with them. I find Bergson’s intuition again relative in many ways, but I will just draw on a brief remark by Mr. Derrida on love and the difference between a person as a singularity and its qualities:

Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? Often love starts with some type of seduction. One is attracted because the other is like this or like that. Inversely, love is disappointed and dies when one comes to realize the other person doesn’t merit our love. The other person isn’t like this or that. So at the death of love, it appears that one stops loving another not because of who they are but because they are such and such. That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and what. The question of being, to return to philosophy, because the first question of philosophy is: What is it to be? What is “being”? The question of being is itself always already divided between who and what. Is “Being” someone or something? I speak of it abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone—singularly, irreplaceably—and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the properties, the images that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what. [extract from interview]

So, there you have it. The unity and the part. The intellect and something beyond intellect. If you didn’t find any answers in this introduction, you got it right. If you keep reading this blog, I cannot guarantee you’ll find any answers, but questions, this I can promise.

* Although criticized by Russel and others as irrational and anti-intellectualist, Bergson’s intuition does not necessarily contradict intellect. See a well-presented view on this by Mr. M.D. Bolsover.