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Reading Satan, Remembering the Other

Reading Satan, Remembering the Other

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Published by: Esotericist Magnus on Apr 10, 2014
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© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011 DOI: 10.1163/156852711X562281
Numen 58 (2011) 157–187 
brill.nl/nu
Reading Satan, Remembering the Other
1
 Jean Butler
Independent scholar Copenhagenbutler@city.dk 
 Abstract 
 While the main subject of the present paper is the representation of Satan as the neg-ative Other in the Qur
ʾ
ān, the general objective of the paper is to show the relevance of the concept of cultural memory as a framework for inquiry into the Qur
ʾ
ān and the theologies of othering that it carries. Te cultural memory embedded in the Qur
ʾ
ān not only gives us an idea of how an Islamic identity was invented, established, and can be re-invented during centuries of multicultural co-existence and con󿬂ict. It also re󿬂ects a normative image of religious opponents, minorities, and enemies against which such an Islamic identity is continuously created. Te paper forwards a reading of the main variations of sin, notably
kufr, shirk 
 and
kibr 
, which the Qur
ʾ
anic Satan-narrative articulate, indicating how this Qur
ʾ
anic 󿬁gure provides a way of com-ing to terms with evil as a manifestation of otherness.
Keywords
Satan, the Other, Assmann, Mosaic distinction, cultural memory, sin,
kufr, shirk, kibr 
Introduction
In recent years, cultural memory has appeared as a paradigm within a variety of scholarly disciplines ranging from psychology and sociology (studies of individual versus collective memory, the psychology of group dynamics, and trauma and con󿬂ict research) to cultural history studies, literary studies (processes of oral and textual transmission, processes of canonization, intertextuality as “spaces of memory”
1)
 Te present paper is based on my Ph.D. thesis, “Myth and Memory: Satan and the Other in Islamic radition,” presented to the University of Copenhagen, 5 May 2008.
 
158
 J. Butler / Numen 58 (2011) 157–187 
between texts), and semantics, as well as the history of religion. As such, cultural memory represents an interdisciplinary discourse claim-ing that a certain cultural heritage memorized in the shape of myths, exemplary narratives, rituals, symbols, geographical places, and so forth creates identity. In studies of history, for instance, cultural mem-ory does not address traditional reconstructions of historical facts but rather points to issues pertaining to the mental and cultural produc-tion, or construction, of such facts. Tus, cultural memory does not identify a veri󿬁able reality of the past but rather points to the texts, images, customs and traditions which an individual, a group, or a soci-ety will create in order to establish and maintain a certain collective knowledge about that past. As religions based on revelation, transmission, and hence interpreta-tion of that revelation, monotheistic religions are essentially cultures of memory; their members need to remember in order to continue to belong to the party of the righteous. Monotheistic religions are also religions of salvation; only through memory of the past and the divine pact may the believers win the future. As opposed to purely oral reli-gious traditions, where the gap between a recent past and mythical origins may be somewhat blurred, monotheistic religions are scrip-tural. Interpreting canonized memory — the text — exegesis repre-sents a powerful means of transmitting the meaning of that memory to future generations. As such, scripture-based monotheistic societies are also exceedingly narrative societies, embedded in myths and meta-narratives about origins, sin and salvation. Jan Assmann has recognized these characteristics of monotheism with much intellectual force in his
 Moses the Egyptian: Te Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism
 (1997). Tat study adds a crucial dimen-sion to the concept of cultural memory as a meaningful framework for studying the history of monotheism, namely, the concept of othering. In Moses the Egyptian, Assmann argues that the monotheistic inven-tion of “one true God” automatically involved a radical re-casting of the ancient world into two incompatible worlds. Belief in one God necessarily rejects the legitimacy of more gods, casting of the gods of other peoples into a negative spectrum of “other false gods” (Assmann 1997:1–3). From this distinction between “true” and “false” in religion follow more speci󿬁c distinctions such as “Jews and Gentiles, Chris-tians and pagans, Muslims and unbelievers” (Assmann 1997:1). Te
 
 J. Butler / Numen 58 (2011) 157–187
159
Other is, however, not only distinguished and rejected but must also be remembered, for only through the constellation of opposites — true and false, belief and unbelief, us and them — do constructions such as truth, belief, and “we” make sense. Constructions of self-hood and community identity through differentiation, alienation, and stigmatization of the Other only continue to work if the distinction between self and other is remembered. Assmann identi󿬁es the story of Moses and the Israelites’ Exodus out of Egypt as representing on the narrative level the Mosaic distinction between monotheism and divine transcendence as truth, on the one hand, and paganism and idolatry as false, on the other.Te Islamic tradition carries a similar memory of a formative “grand narrative” of radically distinguishing between true and false in religion, namely, in Muh
  ̣
ammad’s
hijra 
 out of heathen Mecca into Muslim Medina. oday, Muslims celebrate Mecca not only because they believe Muh
  ̣
ammad was born there and the Ka 
ʿ
ba stands there, but also because that city harbours the memory of trauma, con󿬂ict, and victory. Te
hijra 
 remains the key narrative of how an Islamic identity was constructed on the grounds of a rejected
 jāhilī 
 past represented by Mecca. Roughly speaking, before the
hijra 
 there was no such thing as an Islamic identity.Psychologically speaking, recognizing the Other is about distin-guishing between one’s self and other human beings. From a sociolog-ical perspective we de󿬁ne ourselves in the mirror of others, and, as such, the mechanism of otherness is 󿬁rst and foremost a highly social one, acting as a natural and necessary vehicle for human beings estab-lishing selfhood and creating identity and order in a highly complex world. Nevertheless, interacting with others is not only a social neces-sity; it may also spark con󿬂ict and polarization. Te natural desire to distinguish one’s self from that of others may — in times of crisis, imagined or real, but perceived as threatening to an established self, community or order — turn into lesser or greater acts of exclusion and violation of others. As Assmann reminds us “[c]ultural distinc-tions . . . construct a universe that is not only full of meaning, identity and orientation, but also full of con󿬂ict, intolerance and violence” (Assmann 1997:1). In the rather pessimistic phrasing of Ithamar Gru-enwald (1994:7):

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