Notes to Karen Armstrong's A History of God

 

Karen Armstrong's A History of God has become justly famous.  I highly recommend it as an introduction to the three Western monotheistic faiths.  Armstrong's presentation is balanced and informed by a powerful critical perspective.  Her book has clarified and strengthened a position I've long held: namely that the rise of atheism in Western Europe was more than anything a result of certain excesses in Western theology. 

 

Why the European turn to atheism beginning in the 18th century?  Anyone interested in this question--anyone who suspects it is not simply a matter of "disproving" the Bible--should read Armstrong's book.

 

Following are some notes I took to the sections of the book that most interested me.  I reproduce them here as they may be of some use to readers of the book or may encourage new readers to pick up a copy.

 

Check the book at Amazon.com: A History of God

 

Eric Mader-Lin

   

Notes--

 

*Abraham receives YHWH's call some time between 2000 and 1900 BCE.  Leaves Ur and eventually settles in Canaan.  Perhaps one of the wandering chieftans who led their people from Mesopotamia toward the Mediterranean at the end of the third millennium.

 

*Abraham's two sons Ishmael (by Hagar) and Jacob (by Sarah).  The Arabs claim descent from Ishmael; the Jews claim descent from Jacob.

 

*A famine in Canaan drives Jacob and his sons to Egypt.

 

*In about 1200 BCE tribes claiming to be descendants of Abraham arrive in Canaan from Egypt.  They said they'd been liberated from slavery in Egypt by YHWH, the god of their leader Moses.  They allied with the Hebrews in Canaan and became known as the people of Israel.

 

*The earliest written sections of the Bible date from around 800 BCE, thus around four centuries after the exodus from Egypt.  The final text of the Pentateuch (the Bible's first five books) was collated in the fifth century BCE.

 

*By the 8th century the Israelites had divided Canaan into two kingdoms: Judah in the south; Israel in the north.

 

*The "J" writer came from Judah; the "E" writer from Israel.

 

*Departing from previous creation accounts like the Enuma Elish, J's text focuses on ordinary historical time: on man rather than on divine prehistory or creation of the cosmos.

 

*Armstrong suggests that Abraham's god was in fact El, the High God of Canaan.  "The deity introduces himself to Abraham as El Shaddai (El of the Mountain), which was one of El's traditional titles." (Genesis 17:1; Armstrong, 14)

 

*Jacob is renamed Israel: "May God--El--show his strength!"

 

*Jacob renames various places after El: Beth-El ("House of El"); Peni-El ("El's Face).  (Gen. 26; Gen. 32)

 

*The Deuteronomist ("D") wrote during the 7th century BCE.  He develops the theology of election: the Chosen People.  Armstrong: "The myth of a Chosen People and a divine election has often inspired a narrow, tribal theology from the time of the Deuteronomist right up to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism that is unhappily rife in our own day.  Yet the Deuteronomist has also preserved an interpretation of the Exodus myth that has been equally and more positively effective in the history of monotheism, which speaks of a God who is on the side of the impotent and the oppressed." (Armstrong, 20)

 

*If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob called their god El, Moses called his Yahweh.  Yahweh may have been (although the theory is now often discredited) a Midianite warrior or volcano god.  According to Armstrong, the biblical evidence suggests that the leader Moses convinced his people El and Yahweh were one and the same. (21)

 

*The Jewish prophets created the new sin of idolatry: the worship of false gods.  The polemic step of simply identifying the pagan gods with their sculptures.  On the one hand there's an ontological statement--"these gods don't exist"--on the other hand there's an evident dishonesty--"the pagans worship mere statues."

 

*To win the hearts of all Israelites Yahweh had to usurp the efficacy of each of the competing gods.  Thus Hosea tried to show that Yahweh was a better fertility god than Baal.  But how could Yahweh usurp the roles of the goddesses?

 

*The odd Psalm 82 in which Yahweh stands up to the other gods in the Council of El, the Divine Assembly, and predicts they will "die like men."  The other gods have failed to bring justice to the weak, the orphans, the wretched.

 

*7th century B.C.: Manasseh puts up an effigy of Asherah in the Temple.  Some Israelites consider Asherah Yahweh's wife.  King Amon continues this syncretist policy.  Then, under King Josiah, the High Priest Hilkiah discovers the text of Deuteronomy while work is being done in the Temple.  Hearing the text read to him, Josiah tears his garments in horror.

 

*Cyrus conquers Babylon in 539 BCE.  In 538 he issues an edict allowing the deported Jews to return to Judah and rebuild their temple.  42,360 Jews return.

     The writings labeled P were written after this return.

     The era of prophecy ends along with the exile.

 

*The prophets had claimed God allowed Israel to suffer because of its sins.  The text of Job is in part a response by someone who was not satisfied with this theology.

 

*332 BCE: Alexander defeats Darius III.  After which, because of their meeting with Jewish culture, some of the Greeks would come to worship Yahweh as Iao, putting him in their pantheon next to Zeus and Dionysus.

 

*Antiochus Epiphanes tries to introduce the cult of Zeus in the Temple.

 

*The figure of Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs.  Hokmah.

      In the later Wisdom of Solomon, Sophia is "an aspect of the unknowable God" that has been adapted to human understanding.  Armstrong: "She is God-as-he-has-revealed-himself-to-man, the human perception of God, mysteriously distinct from the full reality of God, which would always elude our understanding." (68)

 

*The Rabbis: "God is the place of the world, but the world is not his place." 

      The Rabbis stress on the one hand the Shekinah--the presence of God in distinct places in the world--and on the other the ultimate mystery of God.  To create an official doctrine of God is a sin because it limits the essential mystery of God.

 

*The scholars known as the tannaim (including Rabbi Yohannan, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Ishmael) codified the oral law in the Mishnah.

     Then the scholars known as the amoraim began their commentary on the Mishnah and thus produced the Talmud.  The Babylon Talmud is considered more authoritative than the Jerusalem Talmud.

 

*Some Romans were drawn to the high moral character of Judaism.  The "Godfearers": honorary members of synagogues, reluctant to be circumcised.

 

*66 CE: The zealots raise a revolt against Roman rule.  Hold the Romans at bay for four years.

     In 70 CE the armies of the new emperor Vespasian conquered Jerusalem, burned the Temple to the ground, and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina.

 

*Armstrong: "[W]ith hindsight it seems that the Jews of Palestine, who were often more conservative than the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora, had already prepared themselves for the catastrophe.  Various sects had sprung up in the Holy Land which had in different ways dissociated themselves from the Jerusalem Temple.  The Essenes and the Qumran sect believed that the Temple had become venal and corrupt; they had withdrawn to live in separate communities, such as the monastic-style community beside the Dead Sea.  They believed that they were building a new Temple, not made with hands.  Theirs would be a Temple of the Spirit; instead of the old animal sacrifices, they purified themselves and sought forgiveness of sins by baptismal ceremonies and communal meals.  God would live in a loving brotherhood, not in a stone temple." (71)

 

*Armstrong: "The most progressive of all the Jews of Palestine were the Pharisees, who found the solution of the Essenes too elitist.  In the New Testament, the Pharisees are depicted as whited sepulchers and blatant hypocrites.  This is due to the distortions of first-century polemic.  The Pharisees were passionately spiritual Jews." (72)

 

*Armstrong: "Yahweh had always been a transcendent deity, who directed human beings from above and without.  The Rabbis made him intimately present within mankind and the smallest details of life.  After the loss of the Temple and the harrowing experience of yet another exile, the Jews needed a God in their midst.  The Rabbis did not construct any formal doctrines about God.  Instead, they experienced him as an almost tangible presence.  Their spirituality has been described as a state of 'normal mysticism.' . . .

     "So strong was their sense of presence that any official, objective doctrines would have been quite out of place.  The Rabbis frequently suggested that on Mount Sinai, each one of the Israelites who had been standing at the foot of the mountain had experienced God in a different way.  God had, as it were, adapted himself to each person 'according to the comprehension of each.'  As one Rabbi put it, 'God does not come to man oppressively but commensurately with a man's power of receiving him.' . . .

     Any official doctrine would limit the essential mystery of God.  The Rabbis pointed out that he was utterly incomprehensible. . . .  Jews were even forbidden to pronounce his name, a powerful reminder that any attempt to express him was bound to be inadequate: the divine name was written YHWH and not pronounced in any reading of the scripture. . . .The Rabbis even warned the Israelites against praising God too frequently in their prayers, because their words were bound to be defective." (73-4)

 

*Jesus' early disciples believed he would soon return to inaugurate the Messianic Kingdom of God.

 

*Armstrong: "Mark's gospel, which as the earliest is usually regarded as the most reliable, presents Jesus as a perfectly normal man, with a family that included brothers and sisters." (80)  I wouldn't quite say that Mark's Gospel presents Jesus as a "perfectly normal man"!

 

*Mark's Gospel may have been the earliest, but why is it supposed that it is thus the most reliable?  Matthew is privy to more of Jesus' parables than Mark, so is it not possible that he was also privy to more facts about Jesus' life?  This would seem a valid criticism, unless we assume that Mark didn't include more parables because he supposed his readers would already know them in any case (i.e., not including them was a stylistic choice).  Or unless scholars have reason to believe that 1) Matthew invented his own parables and 2) likewise invented much else in terms of Jesus' discourse and the events of his life.  Granted that Matthew invents much--or at least includes much that is invented--why is it still asserted that a more reliable portrait of Jesus can be gleaned from Mark?

 

*Matthew's Gospel is paradoxically the most Jewish and the most "anti-Semitic."  Armstrong: "In St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is made to utter violent and rather unedifying diatribes against 'the Scribes and Pharisees,' presenting them as worthless hypocrites.  Apart from this being a libelous distortion of the facts and a flagrant breach of the charity that was supposed to characterize his mission, the bitter denunciation of the Pharisees is almost certainly inauthentic." (81)

 

*The rabbinic bat qol ("Daughters of the Voice"), an experience of the voice of God once removed, a form of inspiration that replaced the more direct prophetic revelations.

 

*Jesus' title for himself, "the Son of Man" (Aramaic bar nasba), may have simply stressed the weakness and mortality of the human condition.  (See Vermes on this.)

 

*According to Armstrong, Paul certainly did not believe that Jesus was God incarnated.  The doctrine of the incarnation would only develop later.  (83)

 

*Paul: Christians live "in Christ"; they have been baptized into his death; the Church constitutes his body.

 

*Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE): a Christian version of Stoicism.

 

*Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch 260-272: Jesus was a man in whom the Word and Wisdom of God dwelt as in a temple.

 

*Montanus (Phrygia, 170s) and his two companions Priscilla and Maximilla.  He claims to be a divine avatar.  Preaches celibacy and martyrdom.  Tertullian, the leading theologian of the Latin Church, is taken in.  The heresy spreads to Phrygia, Thrace, Syria, Gaul, and North Africa.  Armstrong explains its popularity in North Africa because of the cult of Baal, which had entailed sacrifice of the firstborn.  Her general (overstated?) dichotomy of East vs. West during these years: "In the East, Clement and Origen preached a peaceful, joyous return to God, but in the Western Church a more frightening God demanded hideous death as a condition of salvation.  At this stage, Christianity was a struggling religion in Western Europe and North Africa, and from the start there was a tendency toward extremism and rigor." (105)  Demands "hideous death"?  Armstrong's polemic is evident here.  What would Mark's Jesus say?

 

*Arius sets his Monarchianism to music.  His arguments about the Father and the Son spread in ditties.

 

*In the time of Arius the Alexandrian Christians have come to believe in creation ex nihilo.  Genesis doesn't really support this doctrine, neither does Platonism.  A Gnostic influence?

 

*The manic division of the universe implied in the creation ex nihilo.  Compare the implications of this dualism with those of the dualism of Mani. (108)

 

*The Logos as created instrument of creation.  Arius and John's Gospel. (109)

 

*In the 4th century the Cappadocian theologians "solve" the problem of Christ's humanity and/or divinity by declaring it a mystery.  A distinction between exoteric teaching (kerygma) and esoteric truths (dogma).  Some spiritual truths are best preserved in a respectful cloud of silence.

 

*The Trinity should not be seen as a literal fact, but as a paradigm that corresponds to actual facts in the hidden life of God.

 

*The Cappadocian formula, borrowed from Arius: "God has a single essence (ousia) which remains incomprehensible to us--but three expressions (hypostases) which make him known."

 

*The argumentative West vs. the contemplative East. (115)

 

*Denys the Areopagite, the Cappadocians, Scotus Erigena, Dostoyevsky.

 

*Discussion of Eastern vs. Western attitudes toward metaphysics.  The break over the filioque clause.  (200-1)

 

*The credo ut intellegam comes from Anselm.  Nonetheless Anselm is a hardline rationalist.  His purely positive road to God characteristic of a Western lack of respect for the mystery of God.  His ontological argument "proves" God's existence, then he sets out to demonstrate the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity.

     Anselm's contemporary Peter Abelard evolved an explanation of the Trinity and developed a "rationale for the mystery of the atonement: Christ had been crucified in order to waken compassion in us and by doing so he became our Savior."

     Bernard of Clairvaux, Cistercian abbot, becomes Abelard's enemy, attacking him because "He sees nothing as an enigma, nothing as in a mirror."

 

*Aquinas.  The great philosopher was not an uncritical champion of reason.  He wrote: "In the last resort all that man knows of God is to know that he does not know him, since he knows that what God is surpasses all that we can understand of him."

     Armstrong: "Aquinas's attempt to set his religious experience in the context of the new philosophy was necessary in order to articulate faith with other reality and not relegate it to an isolated sphere of its own.  Excessive intellectualism is damaging to the faith, but if God is not to become an indulgent endorsement of our own egotism, religious experience must be informed by an accurate assessment of its content." (205)  The warning here, against making God into an endorsement of our egotism, is oft repeated by Armstrong.

 

*Aristotle had said that God was "the unmoved mover," Necessary Being.

     In Exodus, God defines himself to Moses with: "I am What I Am."

     Aquinas fuses these two definitions and calls God Qui est: "He Who Is."  God is not any particular form or kind of being, but rather Being Itself: esse seipsum.

 

*Again the warning against creating a "celestial Super Ego." (206)

 

*Regardless of Aquinas' reminders that we cannot know God, his efforts in the context of "natural philosophy" to prove God's existence have been taken up to talk about God "as if he were simply the Highest Being of all."

 

*Four enter the orchard.  Ben Azzai dies, Ben Zoma goes mad, Aher becomes a heretic.  Only Rabbi Akiva departs in peace.

 

*The orchard is a figure of the mystical ascent of the soul to the hekhalot, the Heavenly Halls of God's palace. Throne Mysticism.  (214)

 

*Merakavah Mysticism, based on study of the chariot in Ezekiel's vison.

 

*The 5th century Sefer Yezirah, the Book of Creation.  God creates the world by means of language, as though he were writing a book. (Armstrong's rather narrow interpretation of the meaning of this, p. 216.)

 

*On ascent: "The symbol of an ascent indicates that worldly perceptions have been left far behind.  The experience of God that is finally attained is utterly indescribable, since normal language no longer applies.  The Jewish mystics describe anything but God!  They tell us about his cloak, his palace, his heavenly court and the veil that shields him from human gaze, which represents the eternal archetypes."  Cf. also Muhammad's Night Journey from Arabia to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Muhammad led by Gabriel up a ladder through the seven heavens.  According to the Koran his final vision was not of God himself but of "some of the most profound of his Sustainer's [God's] symbols."

 

*Muhammad's concern, before his first vision, with the new materialist values of his Qurayshi tribe, who in recent decades had made Mecca the most important settlement in Arabia.

 

*Muruwah: the masculine ideal of the Arabs.

 

*Jahiliyyah ("the time of ignorance"): last phase of the pre-Islamic period.

 

*The four Qurayshi men who were seeing the hanifiyyah: the truth religion of Abraham.

 

*Muhammad's first vision on Mt. Hira during Ramadan in 610.  The angel commands that he "Recite!" but Muhammad replies: "I am not a reciter!"  The suffocating embrace of the angel, followed by the repeated command: "Recite!"  After the third command Muhammad recited his first verses.

     Terrified to think that he had been possessed by a jinni (genie) and was thus becoming a kahin (a kind of fortune teller) Muhammad rushes outside intending to kill himself by leaping off a cliff.  Outside Muhammad sees the angel Gabriel astride the horizon, towering above him.  Muhammad flees back inside to his wife Khadija.  "Cover me!  Cover me!" he cries.

     On Khadija's suggestion they later consult her cousin Waraqa ibn Nawfal, a Christian learned in the scriptures.  Waraqa convinces Muhammad that his revelation came from the God of Moses and the prophets.  Muhammad had been chosen as the divine envoy to the Arabs.

 

*The Koran was revealed to Muhammad bit by bit over a period of twenty-three years.  The revelations were a painful experience for him: "Never once did I receive a revelation without feeling that my soul was being torn away from me," he said in later years.  Sometimes the content and message were clear.  He could see Gabriel and hear what he was saying.  At other times they weren't clear.  "Sometimes it comes unto me like the reverberations of a bell, and that is the hardest upon me; the reverberations abate when I am aware of their message."

 

*Muhammad was illiterate, so his revelations were written down by others.  The first official compilation of the Koran was around twenty years after his death.

 

*Many of the first converts were converted by the sheer beauty of the Arabic.  Thus the tale of Umar ibn al-Kattab, something of an Arab Saul of Tarsus.

 

*The existence of God was not in question to the Arabs of Muhammad's day.  The Koran is in large part a reminder of God's greatness.

 

*The Koran's stress on social justice.  Armstrong: "In practical terms, islam meant that Muslims had a duty to create a just, equitable society where the poor and vulnerable are treated decently.  The early moral message of the Koran is simple: it is wrong to stockpile wealth and to build a private fortune, and good to share the wealth of society fairly by giving a regular portion of one's wealth to the poor." (142-3)  How has Muslim society fulfilled this requirement?  And how have Christian societies fulfilled Jesus' similar requirements?

 

*Forbidding the Meccans to worship the three traditional goddesses (al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat) Muhammed loses most of his followers.  He utters the so-called "Satanic verses," which accord the three goddesses the status of intercessors with al-Lah.  According to the 10th century historian Tabari, Gabriel later told Muhammad to excise the verses, which had been inspired by Satan.  Gabriel gives Muhammad verses to replace them.

     Many consider the whole incident apocryphal.  It is neither in the Koran nor in Ishaq's Sira.

 

*The greatest sin in Islam is shirk: idolatry.

 

*Armstrong: "An early tradition (hadith) has God say to Muhammad: 'I was a hidden treasure; I wanted to be known.  Hence I created the world so that I might be known.'  By contemplating the signs of nature (ayat) and the verses of the Koran, Muslims could glimpse that aspect of divinity which has turned toward the world, which the Koran calls the Face of God (wajh al-Lah).  Like the two older religions, Islam makes it clear that we only see God in his activities, which adapt his ineffable being to our limited understanding." (150)

 

*The first pillar of Islam, the Shahadah: "I bear witness that there is no god but al-Lah and that Muhammad is his Messenger."  Is this translation better?  I've known it as: "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet."

 

*Muhammad's belief that all rightly guided religion must derive from Allah.  So that other peoples had also received revelations from the One God.  The Koran says that before Muhammad God had sent mankind 124,000 prophets.  Armstrong: "a symbolic number suggesting infinitude."

 

*Muhammad and his followers persecuted in Mecca.  Thus in 622 about seventy Muslims and their families set off for Yathrib (Medina): the hijra: migration.

 

*Muhammad had hoped to unite with the Jews in Medina, fellow monotheists.  According to Armstrong, it was for this reason that he brought some of his teachings in line with Jewish law.

 

*In 624, after being rejected by the Medina Jews, Muhammad insisted Muslims pray facing the Kabah, reversing his earlier instructions (?) to pray facing Jerusalem as the Christians and Jews did.  According to the legends of Arabian Jews, Abraham and Ishmael had together built the Kabah as the first temple to the One God.

 

*Armstrong: "During the ten years between the hijra and his death in 632 Muhammad and his first Muslims were engaged in a desperate struggle for survival against his opponents in Medina and the Quraysh of Mecca, all of whom were ready to exterminate the ummah [the Muslim community].  In the West, Muhammad has often been presented as a warlord, who imposed Islam on a reluctant world by force of arms.  The reality was quite different.  Muhammad was fighting for his life, was evolving a theology of the just war in the Koran with which most Christians would agree, and never forced anybody to convert to his religion.  Indeed the Koran is clear that there is to be "no compulsion in religion." (155-6)

 

*The debate on the status of the Koran.  Was the Koran, as some taught, "an eternal reality which, like the Torah or the Logos, was somehow of God himself"? (161)  Some thought of the Koran almost the way later Trinitarian Christians would think of Christ: "begotten of the Father before all worlds."

 

*The 6th century Pope Gregory the Great.  His tortured struggle to attain a vision of God.  The path to God one of tears and exhaustion.

 

*Gregory of Nyssa.  The aim of the contemplative is to go beyond ideas and images, since these are but abstractions.  One must acquire a "sense of presence."  This attribute is called hesychia: "tranquility" or "interior silence."

 

*The Greek distinction between God's ousia (essence) and energeiai (energies; activities).  It is only the latter we can encounter in prayer or in the world.  St. Basil: "It is by his energies that we know our God; we do not assert that we come near to the essence itself, for his energies descend to us but his essence remains unapproachable."

 

*The hesychast Evagrius Pontus: "When you are praying, do not shape within yourself any image of the deity and do not let your mind be shaped by the impress of any form."  Rather one should "approach the Immaterial in an immaterial manner."

 

*Maximus the Confessor: "The whole man should become God, deified by the grace of the God-become-man, becoming whole man, soul and body, by nature and becoming whole god, soul and body, by grace."  Armstrong: "As we have seen, the Greeks saw 'deification' as an enlightenment that was natural to man.  They found inspiration in the transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor. . . .  The Feast of the Transfiguration is very important in the Eastern Orthodox Churches; it is called an 'epiphany,' a manifestation of God. . . .  Greeks [unlike those in the West] had no cult of a dark night of the soul.  The dominant motif was Tabor rather than Gethsemane or Calvary." (222)

 

*In the West medieval art developed as representations of historical events in the lives of Jesus or the saints.  In the East the icons were an attempt not to portray things in this world, but rather the contents of the visions of the mystics.  Thus the Eastern icons intense serenity and innerness.

 

*John of Damascus and Theodore of the monastery of Studius defended icons against the iconoclasts (7th-8th c.).  Armstrong summarizes: "They argued that the iconoclasts were wrong to forbid the depiction of Christ.  Since the Incarnation, the material world and the human body had both been given a divine dimension, and an artist could paint this new type of deified humanity." (223)

 

*A Greek turn away from words?  Armstrong: "In the nineteenth century, Walter Pater would assert that all art aspired to the condition of music; in ninth-century Byzantium, Greek Christians saw theology as aspiring to the condition of iconography.  They found that God was better expressed in a work or art that in rationalistic discourse.  After the intensely wordy Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries, they were evolving a portrait of God that depended upon the imaginative experience of Christians." (223)

 

*Symeon of St. Macras (949-1022), also known as the New Theologian.  Follows the Greek doctrine of the deification of humanity.  God said to him during one of his visions: "Yes, I am God, the one who became man for your sake.  And behold, I have created you, as you see, and I shall make you God."

 

*Sufi: from Arabic SWF, for the kind of coarse wool garment preferred by Muhammad.

 

*Contrary to the growing exclusivity in Islam, the Sufis remained true to the Koranic vision of the unity of all rightly guided religions.  In a kind of provocation they even emended the Shahadah: "There is no God but Allah, and Jesus is his prophet."  Armstrong: "technically correct but intentionally provocative."  The Sufis revered Jesus as the prophet of the interior life.

 

*The "drunken" Sufi seeks 'fana, annihilation.  In the 9th century, Abu Yazid Bistami's mystical melding of identity with Allah: "Then I communed with Him with the tongue of His Face, saying: 'How fares it with me with Thee?'"

 

*The "sober" Sufi seeks 'fana, but then baqa, revival. The 9th century Al-Junayd of Bagdhad "who mapped out the ground plan of all future Islamic mysticism."  Armstrong: "Al-Junayd saw the whole Sufi quest as a return to man's primordial state on the day of creation: he was returning to the ideal humanity that God had intended." (227)

 

*Junayd's pupil al-Hallaj, the Wool-Carder.  Roams Iraq preaching an overthrow of the caliphate.  Arrested and crucified like his hero Jesus.  In his ecstasy, al-Hallaj had cried aloud: "I am the Truth!"  Armstrong: "Al-Hallaj's cry ana al-Haqq: 'I am the Truth!' shows that the God of the mystics is not an objective reality but profoundly subjective.  Later al-Ghazzali argued that he had not been blasphemous but only unwise in proclaiming an esoteric truth that could be misleading to the uninitiated.  Because there is no reality but al-Lah--as the Shahadah maintains--all men are essentially divine.  The Koran taught that God had created Adam in his own image so that he could contemplate himself as in a mirror.  That is why he ordered the angels to bow down and worship the first man." (229)

 

*Ishraqi mysticism.  Suhrawardi, also called the Sheikh al-Ishaq, the Master of Illumination.  Armstrong: "He claimed that all the sages of the ancient world had preached a single doctrine.  Originally it had been revealed to Hermes (whom Suhrawardi identified with the prophet known as Idris in the Koran or Enoch in the Bible); in the Greek world it had been transmitted through Plato and Pythagoras and in the Middle East through the Zoroastrian Magi." (230)  Suhrawardi himself inherited it from al-Bistami and al-Hallaj.

     Suhrawardi believed that the true sage excelled in both philosophy and mysticism.  He believed there was always such a sage in the world: "the true pole (quth) without whose presence the world could not continue to exist."

 

*Ibn al-Arabi, of the generation following Ibn Rushd.  Also called Sheikh al-Akbah, the Great Master.  He converts to Sufism, moves from Spain to the Middle East.  Spends two years meditating and praying at the Kabah.  His vision in 1201 of the girl Nizam, whom he takes for an incarnation of Sophia.  "If you love a being for his beauty, you love none other than God, for he is the Beautiful Being. . . . Thus in all aspects, the object of love is God alone."  And: "God made the creatures like veils.  He who knows them as such is led back to Him, but he who takes them as real is barred from His presence."

     Around eighty years later Dante falls in love with Beatrice in Florence.  In the earthly paradise atop Mount Purgatory, Beatrice upbraids him for seeing her physical being as an end in itself rather than as an avatar or symbol that would point him away from the world toward God.

 

*Armstrong: "Ibn al-Arabi stressed the pathos of God, which was in sharp contrast to the apatheia of the God of the philosophers. . . .  [He] imagined the solitary God sighing with longing, but this sigh (nafas rahmani) was not an expression of maudlin self-pity.  It had an active, creative force which brought the whole of our cosmos into existence; it also exhaled human beings, who became logoi, words that express God to himself.  It follows that each human being is a unique epiphany of the Hidden God, manifesting him in a particular and unrepeatable manner." (237)

 

*Al-Arabi's doctrine of the perfect man in each generation.

 

*Al-Arabi's universalism.  Being that each individual is one of God's words, we may say that the three religions are different genres in which God is revealed.

    

*Armstrong on al-Arabi's thought: "We never see any god but the personal Name that has been revealed and given concrete existence in each one of us. . . .  But the mystic (arif) knows that this 'God' of ours is simply an 'angel' or a particular symbol of the divine, which must never be confused with the Hidden Reality itself.  Consequently he sees all the different religions as valid theophanies.  Where the God of the more dogmatic religions divides humanity into warring camps, the God of the mystics is a unifying force." (239)

 

*Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-73) born in Central Asia, displaced to Turkey before advancing Mongols.  Rumi saw Shams ad-Din as the Perfect Man of his generation.  Shams believed himself to be a reincarnation of the Prophet.  Rumi's disciples dislike their Master's infatuation with Shams.  Shams "killed in a riot," according to Armstrong.

 

*Rumi's poem the Masnawi known as "the Sufi Bible."

 

*The Sufi order founded by Rumi: Mawlawiyyah.  Known in the West as the "whirling dervishes."  Their dance a method of concentration.

 

*The Pietists.  12th-13th century German Jewish mystics from the Kalonymos clan.  Their ideas informed by a Hebrew translation of one of the Faylasufs, Saadia ibn Joseph, and by St. Francis of Assisi.

 

---------

HOME

---------

Email: inthemargins03@hotmail.com

---------

This page is at http://www.necessaryprose.com/