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In Search of Justice
STEPHANIE RIEDERMAN Editor-in-ChiEf JOSEFINA AGUILA Managing Editor LEARNED FOOTE finanCial ManagEr RAY KATZ, SEnior EditorS JODY ZELLMAN art Editor ALLY CONVINO, TAMARA EPELBAUM layout EditorS LEARNED FOOTE, CARLY SILVER Copy EditorS AKIVA BAMBERGER WEbMaStEr
thank you to our SponSor:
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4 6 10 13 15 EDITORIAL NOTE: Finding Common Ground in Social Justice StEphaniE riEdErMan JEW-ISH ariana orvEll I GOT IT FROM MY MAMA CarloS blanCo FOUR SPECIES AND THE OTHER dara MaranS THE SCHOLAR, THE PHILOSOPHER, AND THE SOLDIER: A Story Manal khan 20 UNLIKELY APOLOGISTS: Scientists Rejecting an Objective Study of Religion andrEW haMilton 24 HIS HOLINESS BHAKTI VASUDEVA SWAMI SPEAKS ON RELIGION AND SOCIAL JUSTICE intErviEW by Shruti kylkarni 30 KANYE WEST AND THE ILLUMINATI: From “Jesus Walks” to Devil Worship? nana aMoh 37 JEWISH HETER ISKA AND ISLAMIC BANKING: Adaption or Capitulation to Modernity? raphaEl roSEn 46 RE-WRITING HISTORY: Protestant and Neo-Pagan Agendas in the Study of Mithras? Carly SilvEr
Cover photo courtesy of Steve Taylor; design by Tamara Epelbaum
Finding Common Ground in Social Justice
For many, no matter their level of religious affiliation, the defining message imparted by religion is the imperative to live a just and moral life. If we strip away the differing founding narratives and proscriptions that distinguish religious communities, we are usually left with affirmations of the sanctity of all human beings, instructions to act unselfishly and help others, and utopian visions of peaceful societies that we are obligated to actualize. The Dalai Lama, who has written extensively on pluralistic approaches to achieving peace and justice worldwide, may say it best: “I maintain that every major religion of the world—Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism—has similar ideals of love, the same goal of benefiting humanity through spiritual practice, and the same effect of making their followers into better human beings.”1 Despite historical and contemporary examples of religiously compelled violence, religion has also proved to be a hugely salient impetus for social justice work, and religious charities have bettered the lives of billions of people. Some of the largest international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are religious. World Vision is one prominent example, working with a budget of 1.7 billion dollars to participate in numerous types of aid work.2 Muslim NGOs are on the rise, while World Health Organization studies have estimated that nearly half of all public services in Sub-Saharan Africa are provided by religious NGOs.3 Countless individuals throughout history have been motivated by spiritual concerns to help others, dedicating their lives to aiding the most helpless people in the most forgotten places. Data show that they are still doing so today—and in overwhelming numbers. And yet, it is often not that simple. Religious groups frequently promote particularist social justice agendas aimed solely at helping their own adherents, or at initiating conversions to gain new adherents. Because, by definition, they value tradition, religious groups also tend to use historical criteria to narrowly define what constitutes a social justice issue and fail to adapt easily to arising concerns. For example, though many religious texts have taught followers that our earth is sacred and in our hands to preserve, religious groups have often faced critique for failing to incorporate an environmentalist agenda into their objectives. Though many religious groups have begun to engage in more environmental activism, there are still gaps to be filled. Finally, religiopolitical affiliations can play an important role. Born-again Christian Glenn Beck has famously painted social justice activism by religious communities as socialism in disguise: “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.”4 In this issue, entitled “In Search of Justice,” Sanctum hopes to engage with the tension between the core values of social justice, which are inherent in most religions, and the opposing social, cultural, and inter-religious factors that often force them to be overshadowed. At the same time, our writers have explored varying approaches to social justice in different religious communities and how the imperative to achieve it factors into their traditions and practice. For
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some of us, adhering to religious laws that are structured to support these ideals is the favored pathway to realizing social justice. In his essay “Jewish Heter iska and Islamic Banking,” Raphael Rosen explores how Judaism and Islam have instituted limitations on charging interest in order to support their unique visions of economic justice. Still for others, social justice values learned in a religious context have remained with them even outside of that context. In “I Got it From my Mama,” Carlos Blanco describes how growing up in a family involved in Catholic charity work has informed his commitment to giving, despite his lessened affiliation with Catholicism. Finally, in Shruti Kylkarni’s interview with Bhakti Vasudeva Swami, his holiness explains his understanding of the connection between faith and social justice, how it is expressed in his own community, and how these values are often complicated. The project of teasing through these questions is difficult and complex; nonetheless, Sanctum’s editorial board has learned a tremendous amount while putting this issue together, and we hope it is just as meaningful and informative for all of our readers. These articles are meant to promote dialogue, and we value your participation. In that vein, please feel free to e-mail any letters to the editor to email@example.com. Thanks for reading, Stephanie Riederman Editor-in-Chief Stephanie RiedeRman iS a SenioR in Columbia College majoRing in politiCal SCienCe and middle eaSteRn, South aSian, and afRiCan StudieS.
(Endnotes) 1 Gyatso, Tenzin. “A Human Approach to World Peace.” His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet. The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. <http://www.dalailama. com/messages/world-peace/a-human-approach-to-peace>. 2 Petersen, Marie J. “International Religious NGOs at The United Nations: A Study of a Group of Religious Organizations.” Journal of Humanitarian Assistance |. The Feinstein International Center, 17 Nov. 2010. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. <http://jha.ac/2010/11/17/international-religiousngos-at-the-united-nations-a-study-of-a-group-of-religious-organizations/#_ednref8>. 3 Banda, Marlan, Eva Ombaka, Sophie Logez, and Marthe Everard. “Multi-Country Study of Medicine Supply and Distribution Activities of Faith-Based Organizations in Sub-Saharan African Countires.” The World Health Organization. Web. 3 Dec. 2010. <http://www.who.int/medicines/ areas/access/EN_EPNstudy.pdf ?bcsi_scan_A8AA4F79F19141A2=0&bcsi_scan_filename=EN_ EPNstudy.pdf>. 4 Sessions, David. “Glenn Beck Urges Listeners to Leave Churches That Preach Social Justice.”Politics Daily. AOL News. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. <http://www.politicsdaily. com/2010/03/08/glenn-beck-urges-listeners-to-leave-churches-that-preach-social/>.
photo CourtESy of aMalia rinEhart
Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite sprinkled with Jewish klezmer music, my great Aunt Bertha’s turkey matzo ball soup, the hippie Hebrew school where I sang songs and learned the Israeli national anthem, finding the hidden piece of mazoh, the afikoman, at the end of the Passover seder, lighting the candles on the menorah one night and opening presents under the Christmas tree the next morning… religiosity in my house was never strict, but it was a way to share things together. My mom was raised Catholic, so we celebrated Christmas, despite her rejection of the church. My dad is Jewish and likes Judaism, so we celebrated the holidays, made potato latkes, were sent to Hebrew school, and were taught to appreciate Jewish humor. The duality of my religious upbringing always seemed normal to me. My Jewish friends who didn’t celebrate Christmas were happy to come over and help my family decorate our tree with unconventional ornaments, like tennis players, cats, shoes, and birds. This was all part of growing up with different religious traditions. I liked being Jewish, and my exposure to Jewish traditions and culture far outweighed my limited exposure to Christian traditions. So, when the time came, I chose to have a bat mitzvah, which is the
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coming of age ceremony for Jewish children. I switched Hebrew schools and began attending class two times a week at the conservative synagogue in my neighborhood. Our lessons focused on learning how to read Hebrew and Jewish tenets like tkkun olam, repairing the world. We discussed stories from the Torah, reflecting on the lessons and values they taught, and learned about upcoming holidays. I spent hours learning my Torah portionthe passage of the Hebrew Bible that I would chant before the congregation on my bat mitzvah), and I wrote my d’var Torah, or discussion of the holy text, on what it was like to be a woman when the Torah was written and how that has changed today. As the day of my bat mitzvah approached, I was told that I would have a mikveh, a ceremonial bath to restore spiritual purity, to prepare me for the big day. In actuality, it was to make me really Jewish; I was being converted. In my twelve-year old reality, though, this was not quite grasped. I envisioned the mikveh as something special and drew a mental picture of a beautiful temple, with high arching stone ceilings, intricate carvings, blue tiled floors, and a large stone basin. To my great disappointment, the mikveh looked like a YMCA Jacuzzi. When I came to Columbia, I expected to find lots of Jews, and I did. But these Jews were different from some of my more religious cousins and the Jews with whom I had gone to Hebrew school. Many of them observed Shabbos—the day of rest—not using their computers and not riding the elevators. Many kept kosher and they all seemed to hang out with each other. I had never really known Jews like this. In my liberal neighborhood, the conservative synagogue had a female rabbi and a male rabbi, many members of the congregation only came on the High Holidays, and a quarter of the kids in my Hebrew school class were from mixed religious backgrounds. Was there a sliding scale of Jewishness? During freshman year, in a conversation with a Jewish floor mate, I mentioned that my mom was raised Catholic. He asked me if she had converted, and I answered, “No.” “Oh, you’re not really Jewish, then,” he responded. As far as he was concerned, this was fact. His girlfriend concurred. I defended myself, arguing that I was raised Jewish, that I was bat mitzvah-ed,d, that I considered myself Jewish. They looked at me skeptically; the girlfriend turned, as if I wasn’t there, and said to him, “She’s not really Jewish.” Exasperated and desperately wanting to be acknowledged as part of the club, I blurted out, “I was mikveh-ed!” “Oh!” The boy answered. Then, yeah, you are. Then, turning to his girlfriend, “She is.” She appeared unconvinced. At first I felt relieved; I had proven that I really was Jewish. But, the more I thought about it, the more
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bothered I was: who were they to tell me that I wasn’t what I considered myself to be? And why did the mikveh change their opinion? As far as I was concerned, it was an uncomfortable bath—I didn’t feel differently afterwards, didn’t act differently, didn’t think differently. I decided it came down to belief and tradition. For me, Judaism was about culture: sharing holidays with friends and families, feeling a sense of collective community in synagogue services, watching Woody Allen movies, fighting for social justice and equality, debating and discussing, reading illustrated stories like Hershel and the Hannukah Goblins, and dancing around to ”Hava Nagila” in my living room. Lighting the candles for Hanukukah was special because of the way the light filled the room more and more each day a candle was added, casting beautiful shadows across the table while we ate, and because my dad and I would make potato latkes from scratch: we were continuing ancient traditions and making them our own, as well. I had been taught that Judaism was about coming together, honoring a shared history, upholding traditions, and forming a collective community. I had always understood that there was more than one way to do this, but never considered them mutually exclusive. My conservative synagogue required me to have a mikveh before my bat mitzvah because it was the rule. But I wasn’t any more Jewish after the bath than I was before. To me, it was a technicality, and I’d like to think it was for the rabbi, as well. In hindsight, I resent that it took mentioning the mikveh for my floor-mates to consider me Jewish enough for them. I haven’t used it as a way to legitimize my identity since. Believing in God and devoutly observing religious laws are primary for many Jews. Still, when I think about being Jewish, these standards don’t define me. In a way, the boy on my floor freshman year did make me reevaluate my identity: He affirmed that I am Jewish because Jewish culture, customs, and traditions have informed my sense of self; they color my childhood memories and ascribe meaning to family, to food, to music, to singing, to community, and to life.
ariana orvEll iS a SEnior in ColuMbia CollEgE Majoring in urban StudiES With an ConCEntration in
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photo CourtESy of EMily SElingEr
“I Got It From My Mama”
photo CourtESy of CarloS blanCo
I was pretty young when I realized my family was poor. I think it had something to do with seeing what my family had versus what the American media told us we should have. We didn’t have a second-story house, there was no pool in our backyard, and going out to eat meant a very special occasion. But, while my family saw our share of struggles, every Sunday during mass, my mom would donate twenty dollars to the collection pin. Now, I know twenty dollars is not a hefty amount of cash, but, to a seven-year-old kid, twenty dollars was the world. Thoughts of the things I would have bought—Pokemon cards, toys, and candy—would haunt me as I saw my mom give her weekly tithe. But, more than lamenting the things I missed out on, I never understood why my mother
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gave up her hard-earned money to St. Bernadette’s, and it often angered me. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the hypocrisy: how come the Church needed more money than we did? If God was so powerful, then why should we have to help him? It was all the more perplexing, given how much those donations affected us; most Sundays, my mother would quietly pat my head and tell me we couldn’t even afford to buy donuts on the way home, like the other kids. My mother’s actions only seemed to reinforce some of the doubts I began to have about religion in general. During my first year at Columbia, my financial situation stood out with a new starkness against the backdrop of mostly wealthy students that surrounded me. It reinforced how poor I was, and I have to admit that, once again, I felt ashamed. Back home, the kids in my community tended to reach an understanding: they knew they had to cut corners and find creative ways to be active that didn’t involve spending. I couldn’t say the same about Morningside Heights. My first group of friends at Columbia loved to spend money. I was newly liberated and having a bankcard didn’t hurt, so I tried my best to keep up with them and to leave the limitations of my childhood behind. Inevitably, I couldn’t afford frequent sushi dinners and to see every concert or new movie, as my newfound Manhattanite lifestyle demanded. I felt defeated, and, at the same time, terrified of missing out. I had another very scary realization during my first semester of college as I struggled to fit in: Columbia University breeds classism. We don’t like to say it, but, in reality, these institutions of higher learning exist to replicate the privilege that established them. If you’re poor here, it means you have to invent your social life, not just buy it. Columbia did its best to make sure that, as a student of color, but not as a student of low income, I would have the resources needed to feel empowered. Truthfully, it was a bitter moment when I realized how out of place I felt during my first semester. But, after making some pretty embarrassing admissions to my mother over winter break about my spending, I resolved not to succumb to those social pressures any longer. I had lost sight of the values with which I was raised. Money became solely about satisfying my own exaggerated material “needs” and not about helping to ease the pain, and dire situations of others. It was also the year I realized why my mother—despite our struggles—donates money every week to the church. I had grouped together the Catholic practice of tithing with all the other traditionally Catholic rituals in which my family engaged Many of them seemed thoughtless and repetitive. Many of them I don’t practice on my own when I’m at school. But I understood that it had been a mistake to group my mom’s contributions to charity with the rest of the things with which I grew up, because supporting the poor doesn’t have to depend on religious affiliation.
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My mother donates money because she understands what it’s like to be poor. It’s the same reason why she gives money to people on the street or tips annoyingly well at restaurants: she grew up in small-town Texas in a poor Mexican family. But, just because she’s been able to provide for herself, doesn’t mean she could forget her community. When my mom makes a donation, it doesn’t matter that we’re poor or that we’ve struggled—what matters is that someone will be fed or clothed or given something special. In reality, actually knowing what it’s like to be poor can be one of the most powerful catalysts for charitable activity. As I learned at Columbia, many of the privileged people with whom I was surrounded dedicated a much smaller percentage of their ample time and resources than my mother did back home, despite their advantages. I haven’t always been the devout Catholic I was raised to be, but, despite a few missteps, the values of social justice I learned from my mother have stayed with me. I may not be able to afford the luxuries available in Morningside Heights, but I’m doing significantly better than a lot of people, well enough to contribute my share. My mother gives a damn. And now, so do I. CaRloS blanCo iS a junioR in Columbia College majoRing in Religion and human RightS.
draWing by Maddy kloSS
“Four Species and the Other”
draWing by Maddy kloSS
Alarm sounds, slumber ends, shades open, sunlight drenches the space: the quotidian early morning rhythm of a college dorm. But as this day unfolds, one roommate senses something newly planted in the room. Ensconced in the corner are branches of myrtle, willow, and palm. Perched regally on a desk sits a fragrant yellow citron. Redecorating without consultation? Never. How can I describe the significance of the Four Species on this Jewish holiday, the Feast of the Tabernacles? How will waving my greenery in the air appear to my new friend: Turkish, atheist, and mid-western?
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I could tell her that if even one of the Four Species used in this ritual shaking is missing, the entire act is invalid, symbolizing the essential nature of every type of Jew to the pluralistic personality of Judaism. I could illustrate that these Species depend on water to grow, paralleling our reliance on God as we pray for rainfall during this autumn harvest season. Or I could simply say that the Four Species form an age-old Biblical mandate and that as a practicing Jew my very essence is observing and cherishing such commandments. In Leviticus, it states: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot], the fruit of the beautiful [citron] tree, tightly bound branches of date palms, the branch of the braided [myrtle] tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (23:40). The waving ceremony was once performed all seven days in the Temple, and elsewhere on only one day. But following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai ordered that the Species be waved everywhere as a memorial to the Temple, as I do in my college dormitory on this special day. I see myself in my friend’s eyes. We stand across from one another, each with our own systems of belief, emanating from various traditions. The face-to-face encounter with the other—argued Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th century Jewish French philosopher—is a recognition of difference, and it causes a better self-understanding to develop. As I face my roommate, I reach into the depths of tradition, and access a newfound spiritual understanding. I recite the blessing aloud for my roommate, proudly emphasizing each syllable, lengthening each word as it takes on new meaning. I demonstrate to my friend the ritual act; the systematic, technical shaking all around reminds me of my acceptance of God’s ubiquitous dominion over all space and all time. Our differences are manifest, but this shared moment of ritualistic beauty unites me with my friend. The echoing of Hebrew letters in my ears amplifies their significance and stirs my soul. Front, right, back, left, up, and down: through generations, customs, and peoples, helping to create a connection through our fundamental differences. daRa maRanS iS a fiRSt-yeaR in Columbia College.
The Scholar, the Philosopher, and the Soldier: A Story
photo CourtESy of Manal khan
The story is set sometime in the Golden Age of the Abbasid Caliphate (between the ninth and twelfth centuries), and is a parable for three different approaches to Allah, the Divine Being, in classical Islamic tradition. Three people—a scholar, a philosopher, and a soldier— were journeying together through a desert. When night fell, they pitched camp and set about preparing a meal. The soldier ate little, quickly washed up, and hastened to his Isha1 prayer:“For the night is beautiful, my Lord, and though the toil of the day and the heat of sun distracted me from Your remembrance, I long now to surrender to You in complete peace and oblivion.” The scholar was still in the middle of his meal— traveling always made him hungry—but, when he saw the soldier get up, he guiltily hurried to join him—,for “God is no doubt displeased with me, insolent carnal man that I am, and, if I cannot be constant in even my daily prayers, what else is there to save me from hellfire?” Meanwhile, the philosopher contentedly ate his fill, as well as the scholar’s leftovers, ruminated to himself upon the restorative qualities of good food, and went straight to bed, for “food and sleep are truly bounties of Nature, the great restorers of man, and I would not disclaim
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Nature’s rights over my body, as do these two simple fellows who think a ritual prayer is something they owe to God. I owe God nothing, for God needs nothing, least of all a show of my gratitude, which I nonetheless feel for Him in my heart. Surely that is what He really looks for!” The next day, sometime in the afternoon, the three travelers were overcome by a violent sandstorm. As the winds whipped around them and the skies whirled with gold, the scholar fell on his knees and cried, “Ah, this is indeed the end of us! We are sinners and wicked and perverse, and God has finally decided to mete out His Justice. Pray for salvation!” The philosopher looked amused and remarked, “There’s no need for that, my good man. Do you honestly believe the Almighty is at all concerned with the lives and particulars of little people like you? I daresay He doesn’t even know you exist or that this silly little storm in this obscure little desert is even taking place. So, if you ask me, the most sensible thing to do is nothing!” With that he drained away the last drops of water in his drinking gourd, wrapped his cloak tightly around him, and settled down on the ground. The soldier, meanwhile, closed his eyes and, and spoke softly to himself, “O Lord! If this be the end You have ordained for me, then let it come;I am not afraid, for I trust in Your everlasting mercy and forgiveness. Yet my heart tells me this is not the end, and, just as You brought this storm upon us, so will You see us through it. I trust You.” And he joined the scholar in prayer. Soon enough, the storm passed, the skies cleared, and the three travelers could continue on their journey. Unfortunately, they were lost. The storm had wholly altered the face of the desert, no landmark was familiar, and they had misplaced their only compass. “Well, this is a pretty mess,” the philosopher grumbled. “Which way do you think we ought to go?” The scholar was in agonies. “What does it matter now?” he moaned. “Our fate has been sealed. Curse the day I decided to embark on this insane trip! What am I doing here in this wild, God-forsaken place, when I should be sitting in my study in Baghdad finishing a treatise on Islamic familial law? The sultan expects to see it in a fortnight. What if I perish before that? Humiliation! God, You are cruel!” And he wept bitterly. The scholar was a city-dweller and had never before set foot in the desert. The fact is, he was mortally afraid. It was left to the soldier to decide what they should do. He was accustomed to hardship, after many wars and he loved the desert. “I feel this is a sign,” he said to his companions. “We’ve been diverted from our original path for a purpose. I see in it God’s Will. We shall head in that direction.He gestured east. “For the wind has carried to me the scent of smoke and we may find there a village.” The philosopher shrugged. He didn’t care one way or the other. His mind was too preoccupied with Aristotle. “Really, I find this place rather distasteful,” he said to himself. “And the company! One cannot get a word of sense out of these two. Well, it is a test of my character, of my superior mind, and, of course, I shall endure it. But, al-Farabi2, you would be proud!” They followed the soldier. By sunset, they had reached a small oasis. Their eyes sparkled at the sight of the rich green date palms, the fresh, clear water. It looked like Paradise.
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“Well, if you two don’t mind, I’m going to take a dip in that lovely-looking pool,” the philosopher announced. “I think we deserve some relief after such a dreadfully grueling day!” But his plans were rudely interrupted by three black forms that suddenly descended upon him from the darkness. In a twinkling, the scholar, philosopher and soldier found themselves bound with hands behind their backs. They were confronted by three menacing, bearded faces. “Who are you? What are you doing in our oasis? Who sent you here? Speak!” The philosopher was ready to fall upon the three men, outraged at the foregone dip. The scholar seemed to have fainted. But the soldier replied, in calm, firm tones, “We are travelers and we lost our way in the storm. We come in peace, only to ask of a few provisions for our journey. We shall depart at daybreak.” The three assailants seemed slightly reassured. “Very well then.You look like a man of honor and we take your word. But you must come now to see our Shaykh3, who administers all the affairs of this village. He will decide what is to be done with you.” The Shaykh was an aged man, but his eyes shone with youth and wisdom. “We don’t often get strangers in this village,” he said, looking keenly at the three travelers, “so this is indeed quite an event. However, I will let you go, as soon as you each answer three questions for me.” “First,” the Shaykh began, “what is it, in one word, that you value most in this world?” The scholar, who had just revived from his stupor, replied almost instantly, “Life!” The philosopher, pondering a while and wishing to appear the most intellectual, answered, “Knowledge!” The soldier, warmly, said, “God.” “Second,” said the Shaykh, “what is it, in one word, that you fear most in this world?” “Death,” the scholar shuddered.
photo CourtESy of: Manal ahMad khan
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“Insanity.The philosopher could not conceive of it. “God,”said the soldier in a quiet voice. “And, lastly,” concluded the Shaykh, “if there was one thing you could attain in the world, anything at all, what would it be?” This required some thinking. The scholar, feeling suddenly shameful that he had not mentioned the Almighty in any of his answers, declared, “I would like to be the greatest Islamic scholar in the world and bring glories to my God and my religion through my works.” The philosopher said dreamily, “I would like to discover all those secrets of rationality and reason that even the Ancient Masters were unable to discover, to conclusively prove that there is nothing more powerful in this universe than the human mind!” And the soldier, thoughtfully, and, after a long time, said, “God”. The philosopher and scholar gaped at him incredulously. They were both thinking, This soldier really is mad. What in the world does he mean? How can he fear, love, and desire the same thing? And then the Shaykh finally spoke, addressing each of them in turn. “He considers himself an authority on the Holy Book, an exemplar of the laws and letters of our great faith, yet never in my life have I met somebody as cowardly and ignorant as this scholar.” “He thinks he is above the worldly concerns of other human beings and that that makes him privy with God, yet never in my life, have I met somebody as conceited and covetous as this philosopher.” “And he? He considers himself an ordinary man, a man of faith, but with weaknesses and faults like any other, yet never in my life have I met somebody as strong, brave, and wise as this young soldier.” “For, know this.True faith does not take root in a heart where lies fear or greed or pride or any negative emotion. Only a heart that loves is the believing heart. Only a heart that loves will respect and obey and trust. Only a heart that loves is selfless, is humble, is brave—and is loved, in return, by the Originator of Love, by the Originator of Wisdom, Knowledge, Courage, and Justice— by Almighty God. “You, scholar, are forbidden to leave this desert until such a time as you are purged of your empty book knowledge, learn to listen to the universe, and find inner wisdom.” “You, philosopher, are commanded to a life of asceticism in our village seminary, where you will teach young students and live on bread and water till such a time as your pride allows you to beg for your food. “And you, O soldier, I need not counsel. You are free—you always were. Go.” manal Khan iS a fReelanCe jouRnaliSt fRom paKiStan CuRRently baSed in new yoRK City.
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(Endnotes) 1. Isha is the nighttime prayer, last of the five daily ritual prayers in Islam. 2. Known as “Alpharabius” in the West, al-Farabi was a medieval Muslim philosopher, sociologist, scientist, and Aristotelian logician, recognized in the Muslim world as a “Rationalist,” together with Avicenna and Averroes. 3. Shaykh is an honorific Arabic term for “elder” or “wise man,” used in Sufism for a spiritual teacher and guide.
photo CourtESy of EMily SElingEr
Unlikely Apologists: Scientists Rejecting an Objective Study of Religion
photo CourtESy of andrEW haMilton
Religion is a central component of uman nature and offers a window into the hopes, h fears, and dreams of men and women. We must study it to better understand ourselves. However, many scientists impede this project by conflating it with the equally important one of democratically engaging our fellow citizens in dialogue about their beliefs and ontologies. What exactly are we tostudy? According to William James, study of religion deals with “concrete states of mind” and “religious emotions.”1 Thus we are to investigate experience – people’s beliefs, behaviors, and inner mental lives with respect to the transcendent or the supernatural. However, because any investigation involves an investigator, and experiences exist only in the context of a human being, in this context we will be forced to talk either about personal, first-person inquiry – in which the investigator discusses his or her own experiences – or objective, third-person inquiry directed at others. There is a protectionist tendency among scholars – from James himself to contemporary neuroscientists – to view the latter as incomplete or otherwise suspect.
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Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has made significant contributions to his field in five books and over 100 scholarly articles. In How God Changes Your Brain, after writing about brain imaging and the neural correlates of religious experiences, he argues that even if we could understand religion, we shouldn’t, because it is “arrogant to believe that we fully comprehend what God is…I doubt whether the limitations of the human mind will ever allow us to accurately perceive…the reality of God.”2 This perspective, which would perhaps be par for the course from a theologian, comes from a scientist who, whether religious or not (he doesn’t say), is not speaking from a religious perspective. The distinguished biologist Robert Pollack, in a similar vein, says that we cannot hope to understand others’ experience objectively because the absolute, unqualified objectivity required for the task is, strictly speaking, an impossibility. Moreover, were it not, the project would be ethically suspect: “Because ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are in our experience and not ‘out there’ in nature, it is wrong for an investigator to seek a complete understanding of human religious experience using the language and tools of science. In doing so, he places himself on a pedestal above his fellow humans. Such a withdrawal from human socialization and from shared subjective emotional states is always regrettable and sometimes dangerous.” This rather common view is puzzling coming from scientists who have done so much to advance human knowledge. It is often felt that something about religious experience can or should be understood only by the experient; that “religious revelation comes from an intrinsically unknowable place,”3 as Pollack writes. In the same vein, the historian Mircea Eliade writes: To try to grasp the essence of [religion] by means of physiology, psychology, sociology…or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it — the element of the sacred.”4 A first-person perspective like this often seeks to understand the supernatural and comes with pre-existing epistemic commitments. For example, seminary students, training to become clergy, typically bring their faith to their studies with them. In contrast, a third-person perspective would study religion from outside of any particular religious perspective. How might this work? Let’s start with the view outward, at other people. Modern thirdperson inquiry, of a sort, has been conducted at least since William James through history, sociology, anthropology, and psychology. More recently, there has been a flurry of biological research into the correlates and causes of religious experience. Wayne Proudfoot, Professor of Religion at Columbia University, does not see any problem with flatly objective study. In offering an explanation of religious experience “in terms that are not those of the subject and that might not meet with his approval,”5 the scholar does not abdicate his responsibility. “Just as an art critic can appreciate a painting without being a painter, the devotional experiences of others can be described and studied without sharing those experiences,” says Proudfoot. Neuroscientist Joshua Fost agrees: “To exempt certain domains of life from objective study
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is to fundamentally misunderstand the essence of scientific inquiry. The importance of the scientific method, with its ability to uncover facts, is at its highest precisely when we are most likely to be biased.” In this view, religious claims – just like any other human behavior or experience – are the explanandum, and a scientific explanation can only enrich our understanding. Fost points out that spirituality is erroneously singled out: no one makes similar claims for, say, proprioception, audition, or other areas of human experience. Now, let’s consider the first-person perspective. When you or I examine our personal beliefs, we are grappling with religious subject matter itself – “What is God like?”, “what happens after death?”, and so on. The confusion of perspectives is evident as early as William James: he ends his seminal sociological work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, with a very strange claim: The science of religions would depend for its original material on facts of personal experience, and would have to square itself with personal experience through all its critical reconstructions...it would forever have to confess, as every science confesses, that…there is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught.6 A first-person engagement with people making religious claims is a personal dialogue about the way the world is and how it ought to be investigated, whereas an objective study seeks to understand and explain within a rational, empirical framework. Conflating these two is, in effect, a call for an end to investigation and a self-imposed limitation on a flourishing science of religion. Why is this a limitation? If we convince ourselves that certain areas of investigation are forever beyond our reach, they certainly will be: we may deny ourselves a framework for real understanding by eschewing relevant experiments or choosing not to entertain certain conclusions. This is not to say that third-person investigation is the only acceptable or worthwhile way to engage religion. In fact, quite the opposite is true: personal dialogue is critical, which is why we must avoid conflating it with science. Rather, in its separate sphere, it is a vital component of an open and democratic society. In this kind of dialogue – distinct from the study of religion – we regard others as equally competent investigators in a discussion of shared values and methods for learning about the world. This is an important task because people act on their beliefs, and it is everyone’s duty to move society forward through clear and respectful discourse. We cannot hope to relate to a fellow citizen’s point of view, let alone convince them of anything, by studying them dispassionately. The point? Religion is no different from any other human phenomena we study, and doing so can no more lessen our value as humans than an art critic can diminish a painting’s beauty. We have only a richer understanding of ourselves to gain by an investigation distinct from first-person engagement, and in reality, nothing to lose. andRew hamilton iS a SophomoRe in the SChool of geneRal StudieS majoRing in neuRoSCienCe behavioR.
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1 2 3 4 5 6 James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 28. Newberg, Andrew. How God Changes Your Brain (2009), p. 242 - 243 Pollack, Robert. The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith (2000), p. 14, Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion (1963), as translated by Rosemary Sheed, p. xiii Proudfoot, Wayne. Religious Experience (1987), p. 197 James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (1902), p. 446
photo CourtESy of jody ZEllMan
His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami Speaks on Religion and Social Justice
Interview By Shruti Kylkarni
photo CourtESy of bhakti vaSudEva SWaMi
His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami (Vasudev Das) is a religious leader of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu faith, a doctoral researcher of leadership and organizational change, and a scholar of the social sciences. He was born in Bayelsa State, Nigeria, and commenced his widereaching religious and communal activities there in 1984 with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). His Holiness frequently travels around the world to educate diverse audiences on the values of love, peace, unity in diversity, self-realization, positive change, and community development. His Holiness sat down with Sanctum to discuss how he understands the relationship between religion and social justice. There are a number of varying ideas on what constitutes social justice, some of which conflict with each other. What is true social justice and how is it best achieved? It is a very important issue in social justice. Rudimentarily, social justice refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality,
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justice, and solidarity that understands and values human rights and that recognizes the differences of all. It is easily achieved when we understand our pristine identity—that is, the fact that, despite our differences, in bodily designation like race, gender, age, etc.,we have a common spiritual essence, and, based on that spiritual essence, we can value people instead of trampling their rights. So [social justice] can be achieved very easily, if we recognize, first of all, who we are and who others are— despite the color of their skin and despite their gender and despite their age, etc. That’s why I call social injustice…being rooted in an “identity crisis.” That is ignorance, ignorance of our true identity. Are we naturally inclined toward establishing and maintaining social justice or are we more naturally inclined toward destroying it, due to our inherent or developed qualities? Let me explain it this way: the degree of our inclination to maintain social justice is directly proportional to our social insight and our social insight has to do with our moral reasoning. And, of course, our moral reasoning is, to some degree, rooted in the purification of our consciousness. For example, if someone has a pathological state of consciousness, there is no question of him or her striving for social justice. We need to understand that, in the present era, many people are imbued with so much hypocrisy, quarreling, and agitation that their consciousness is not purified. There is a time-tested and definite methodology of becoming purified in consciousness, and that methodology is given practically in all sastric literatures, or bona fide scriptures. I call it “sonic therapeutic intervention,” or audition and recapitulation of the names of God. Basically, we understand that God has multifarious names—such as Jehovah, Allah, or Krishna—and dedicate time everyday to Him through these repetitions. If we don’t take care to give some quality time to God, we may have good intentions about social justice, but our intentions may be thwarted because, if we don’t have that purified consciousness, it is very difficult to strive for social justice. We’ve seen in the past that many people who champion social causes are very eloquent speakers and very scholarly people, but we can find, even in the history of this country, that they have fallen right in the noose. So we need some purification. We need to purify our consciousness to stand firm in the pursuit of social justice. This practice of chanting the holy names of God as a method of purification of consciousness implies belief in a God and, thus, holds little meaning to the faithless. Is there a way to purify the consciousness without such a theistic or religious practice? Firstly, if we discuss consciousness, we should also understand what essentially consciousness is because, if we don’t understand that, we will be led astray. To answer your question, yes, we can also purify our consciousness by transcendental austerities,by diet therapy, by abstinence from intoxication and lies, and, of course, by sexual restraint. We can also purify our consciousness through spirituality. You may say that spirituality and religion are the same, but there is a difference between spirituality and faith—your faith can change, but your spiritual identity does not change. Research shows that the sustainability of the purification of consciousness is more prominent with the audition and recapitulation of the names of God. What is the ideal connection between faith and social justice? To what extent should faith in general be connected with social justice?
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When you talk about faith, it is a very broad concept. Basically, we have to understand that we are all children of one Creator; therefore, we should uphold human rights with impunity and we should respect and honor everyone, because we are all essentially spiritual beings–parts and parcels of the Supreme Being. You call Him God, Jehovah, Allah, etc; we call Him Krishna. When our eyes become anointed with the salve of love or when our eyes become anointed with transcendental love, we will be able to have a universal vision not based on color, gender, race, age, etc., but based on the fact that everyone is a spark from the Creator. Therefore, in a sense, faith has a very vital role to play in originating social justice or even in the execution of social justice. Faith, in essence, implies that we believe in something and everyone believes in something—in fact, the variable is the object of our belief. And so, the very prosecution of social justice is faith—because, in a literal sense, faith implies conviction or belief and each and everyone has a belief in something. And so, yes, faith has some major ingredient or significance in social justice,based on the concept that we have some conviction and we have to fulfill that conviction.
photo CourtESy of jody ZEllMan
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If someone is really spiritually inclined, they need to be inclined in social justice because the whole concept of social justice is that people should not be dehumanized or people should have equal treatment. If someone claims to be a member of a faith and that someone is not inclined toward social justice, it [is problematic] to me. Because, if we love God, we should love His parts and parcels.We should love the people around us. Social justice should begin with our families because our family is a microcosm of society. We should not abuse our children and our spouses and then go out to champion the cause of social justice. As Your Holiness has clearly explained, there is a strong connection between religion and the establishment and maintenance of social justice. However, despite this connection, in the past, religion has been misused in a number of ways for the obstruction of social justice and the detriment of the well-being of the people. What is the root cause of these problems? The cause is polluted consciousness. When people become swayed by lust, their thinking is clouded, and so they subscribe to all of the dictates of the mind and the impulses of the senses. These very instances are being perpetrated by people with polluted consciousness, not with pure consciousness, and this is due to the fact that they don’t practice any genuine religious or spiritual culture to purify themselves. They may even have good intentions, but, if they are under the impulse of lust, they don’t think properly and so they do the wrong things. People abuse religious institutions just to gratify their senses and people are running away from religion because of these nasty activities and they do not really understand the culture of spirituality and religiosity. It is a very sad development. The concept of religious wars is also very sad and very harmful. The plebeians on the street may carry bombs and try to harm people and this is from a lack of social responsibility and a lack of understanding of philosophical concepts rooted in pure spirituality. The best way to avoid these types of social issues is to train these people to read the scriptures. The people at the top– that is, the top religious scholars—are working together in the same schools; they are peaceful and intelligent people. Why is it that those on the street must be carrying bombs to go and kill people? How does Your Holiness respond to the assertion that,as practitioners of spirituality, we should focus only on the spiritual and reject the material, and, therefore, we should ignore issues related to social injustice because they are on the material platform and focus only on our spiritual practice? If our philosophies do not have a problem-solving orientation, people will not embrace them, because why would they pray to God for help when the people around us,the children of God, are not caring for us? The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, for example, distributes free food at college campuses, at hospitals, at abandoned babies’ homes, and even to the public in general to practically apply social justice principles. We should be caring and not just go after our own liberation while the world is suffering. Rather, if we don’t care—for example, if a religious person sees that someone is being raped and he or she
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just shies away because that crime has nothing to do with his love for God— he or she becomes an accomplice. We should be inclined toward helping people and, at the same time, practicing our faith. We cannot ignore the people around us if we profess to believe in God. One major problem in the realm of social justice is that of discrimination, particularly against women and minority races. Some religious leaders have chosen to remain silent on such issues, whereas others have spoken strongly against them. What view does Your Holiness hold on the subject? To deny people opportunities because of race or sex is terribly barbaric. When we find these types of developments and people don’t respond, it’s absurd. The concept of discrimination is all based on the body and disproportionate focus on the material. People need some higher rationale, including transcendental knowledge and culture, to be able to move past discrimination. We learn in the Vedic literature that the whole planet is under the auspices of a woman, Mother Bhumi. And so, for us to say that some people are unqualified to do something is an inaccurate and unwholesome attitude towards life. Your Holiness is personally involved in the Hare Krishna movement, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON),which is a very large and prominent worldwide organization. What has been its specific role in encouraging the establishment of social justice, in bringing peace and harmony to this world, and in helping the people in general? We’re doing this practically everywhere. To give you a practical example, I have been preaching for many years in Africa - I happen to come from Nigeria,and, in Nigeria, we have been championing these causes. Social justice is leading by example and that is basically what we do. We don’t just profess “peace.” Whatever we have, we share with the people. If someone comes to our temple, he will get a free meal every morning, afternoon, and evening. This is [showing] concern for our brothers and sisters, for everyone, because we see them as parts and parcels of God or parts and parcels of Krishna. We are also working to help with the transmission of transcendental knowledge to all without discrimination and to spread the message of God to every town and village. What are the consequences and repercussions of neglecting social justice from a material, as well as a spiritual, perspective? Of course, materially speaking, if someone doesn’t raise an alarm, he will lend himself a bad name and people will not trust him. If someone is not caring, what is the motive for having a strong relationship with that person? We want our relationships with people who are caring, and so, if someone is not seeing how others can be rectified or how others can be relieved of their suffering, we can’t accept that person. We have to stand firm to be able to help those who are being victimized or those who are being abused. In a sense, just as we experience material effects from neglecting social justice, we
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experience spiritual effects. The [spiritual] consequences are that we are responsible for the injustice and so we carry some karmic reactions, or consequences [derived from the laws of karma,an individual’s reward for good deeds and/or punishment for bad deeds]. Especially, for instance, as the leaders of society—parents, teachers, the educated, etc—if we see others being treated unjustly and we don’t act, we bear the consequences of our negligence. So negligence of duty or an uninterested approach to duty [are] central problem[s] we all must combat in our social justice work. ShRuti KylKaRni iS a fiRSt-yeaR in the SChool of engineeRing and applied SCienCeS.
photo CourtESy of viCky du
Kanye West and the Illuminati: From “Jesus Walks” to Devil Worship?
photo CourtESy of Erin fortang
“I sold my soul to the devil.” The phrase figures prominently in Western culture, cropping up in everything from Faustian legends to Washington Irving folktales. But type it into YouTube and the prominent role it plays in popular culture today immediately surfaces: Up pops a video featuring Kanye West at fellow rapper Kid Cudi’s concert, entitled “Kanye West Admits He Sold His Soul To The Devil During Freestyle LIVE In ATL w/ KID Cu[sic].”1” In the video, West complains about the emotional suffering he has experienced at the hands of music executives and the media; he later raps that he has sold his soul to the devil for wealth. Strangely enough, the audience wildly hollers its approval. “Wow, the crowd applauded after he admitted he sold his soul to the devil,” one commenter on the video writes. “People after the concert probably went looking for a way to sell they’re [sic] souls for fame and money well.2” Another post avows that people are
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intentionally misconstruing the artist’s claims because they are scared of his influence on listeners: “I mean.......Is the world so afraid of West you are willing to take what the guy says in a freestyle seriously....If you don’t like the rap.....DON’T LISTEN!!!!3” For those who have paid even a semblance of attention to West’s career, it should come as no surprise that the rapper, with his penchant for the sensational, has yet again inspired controversy. But whether or no-- in the words of an anonymous YouTube comment—one chooses to “take what the guy says in a freestyle seriously,” the equation of celebrity with devil worship warrants some exploration. Celebrity inevitably involves compromise, forcing stars to relinquish their values for material and pecuniary benefits; West, in particular, has been repeatedly criticized for glamorizing the evils that lie behind finding success in show business. From a religious vantage point, this exchange is arguably amoral—and indeed, some have interpreted Kanye’s notable lyrical and musical transitions over the past couple of years as evidence of a certain crisis of faith, as proof of a religious downfall. But the starkness of Kanye’s evolution from likeable newcomer to controversial pariah under the blinding lights of fame has also attracted its share of quirky conspiracy theorists. The once-devout rapper’s evocation of devil worship, they say, is not to be taken as a mere metaphor; rather, they purport that West’s moral decline results from his literally making the ultimate sacrifice: selling his soul to the devil for fame and fortune. These theories link the rapper to a secret, devil-worshipping society known as the Illuminati, and although they are extreme, they warrant some exploration: Society’s fascination, whether fringe or mainstream, with Kanye’s moral and spiritual status, as well as his own evolving use of religious rhetoric and imagery, sheds powerful light on the ways in which religion and morality figure into pop culture today. The accusations of devil-worship that now light up the blogosphere are not particularly new. Fellow hip-hop artist Jay-Z has also had to bat away rumors that his music and videos carry Satanic messages and Illuminati-related imagery.4 To understand how and why the work of these artists has been linked to a satanic cult, some familiarity with Illuminati history is necessary. Time Magazine’s special issue on secret societies quotes illuminati-news.com, which defines the Illuminati as “Superrich Power Elites with an ambition to create a slave society! [They] [are] the men who really rule the men from behind the scenes…They are connected by bloodlines going back thousands and thousands of years in time” (26)5. Moreover, “[their] main goal is to create a One World Government, with them on top to rule the world [and create] slavery and dictatorship. They say their God is Lucifer, ‘The Light Bearer,’ and by occult practices they manipulate and influence the masses” (26).6 The site’s mission is to inform innocent civilians of these dangerous powers of the self-seeking elite that is steadily plotting to take over the world that apparently lie ominously at bay—. Unsurprisingly, there is no substantial proof for these theories, although the details of the group’s founding have been well-established: the Illuminati initially formed in the eighteenth century as “a self-selected group of intellectuals seeking to free themselves from age-old chains of church and state” (26). 7 The founder, Adam Weishaupt, was a Freemason and professor of canon law at the University of Inholstadt in Germany (26). 8 So, while the group was radical in thinking, they were not absolutist extremists set on world domination. “The Illuminati live in popular culture, a handy magnet for suspicion and rumor, and for conspiracy theorists who view a Bavarian professor’s failed attempt to institute a New World Order as an enterprise that still thrives in the form of a shadowy super-élite” (27). 9 The idea of a wealthy elite intent on gaining power would seem to coincide with the obsessive
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culture surrounding celebrity in our society and with the megalomania that often comes with its power and status. Coupled with explicit references to Lucifer and devil worship, the scramble for status, one that is inherent in our popular culture, makes the work of celebrities powerful fodder for such conspiracy theories. And that’s where Kanye West comes in. West’s transition from a universally lauded newcomer to an arrogant figure who references the devil was prominent enough to catch the attention of Illuminati-wary vigilantes. In 2003, early in his career, critics praised West for his honest and conscious rap lyrics. He commented on the social and political ills of society with a cadence and lyrical wit that made his voice immediately recognizable in every song (cite). His clever plays-on-words and double-entendres allowed him to say a mouthful without being too abrasive or offensive in songs like “All Falls Down,” “We Don‘t Care,” and “Diamonds.” One song in particular, “Jesus Walks,” about the trials and tribulations Christians face while trying to avoid sin in a world where temptation is so widespread, garnered West a lot of attention. It was the first time that a mainstream rapper had recorded a song about praising God. Radio stations played the track non-stop, and West even circulated three different versions of a “Jesus Walks” music video. He was seen not just as an artistic revolutionary, but as one of hip-hop’s rare religious and spiritual figures. But the laudatory image West had created soon began to be called into question. As every single he released became an immediate hit, he developed a reputation as an arrogant, outspoken personality, at one point deeming himself “the voice of this generation.”10 Not only does his extreme hubris seem to undermine any moral integrity he may have had as a celebrity, but the lyrics and imagery of his new work, as well as his sporadic raps about selling his soul to the devil, seem to explicitly subvert the image of the devout, morally, and spiritually conscious public figure that he worked to create at the beginning of his career. The title of West’s latest album, My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy, alone suggests that he is moving in a new direction, both artistically and lyrically. The first single off the album, “Power,” features West chanting, “No one man should have all that power.” Whom he is referencing here is unclear. He could be referring to himself; after all, West has become an incredibly pivotal figure in popular culture. In fact, in a survey done by Rolling Stone Magazine, results showed that he has become even more influential than President Barack Obama. 11 Alternatively, the song could be a reference to God. Or, as the video’s blatantly religious imagery suggests, the answer could be a conflation of these two theories: the video portrays West standing in front of an ethereal background with cherubins and warring angelic figures hovering above his head, lending to the idea that West actually sees himself as some sort of demi-god, which, given his self-laudatory public statements, would make a certain amount of sense. For erstwhile believers—including, most likely, the vigilante founder of illuminati-news. com—the “Power” video serves as irrefutable proof of his involvement in a power-hungry, devil-worshipping secret society. Why else, they ask, would a rapper go from donning a gold chain with Jesus’s face embedded on it to one bearing the face of an Egyptian god? If he weren’t part of a cult intent on world domination, why would he portray himself as a divinity or use Masonic imagery in his videos?12 How does Kanye use Masonic imagery? Other divine imagery
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photo CourtESy of Mara kravitZ
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is referenced above. Even for those who don’t subscribe to the warnings of Illuminati conspiracy theorists, this transition is puzzling. Why would West use his work to purport religious belief awkward phrasing, only to undermine it later by using explicitly subversive religious imagery? Yet West recently dismissed all of these concerns. In an article published by CNN, West claimed that he has never heard of the Illuminati. He later tweeted, “Is Illuminati and devil worshiping like the same thing? [sic]”13 In an interview with Hot 97, a New York-based hip-hop radio station, West officially dispelled these rumors by affirming that he still believes in God: “As far as God, of course I believe in God. Am I a part of some sect or cult? That sounds stupid to me. It’s like ignorant to even say, and umm… I guess that’ll be the last time I address that. It’s ignorant to me.”14 West’s claim, however, that he knows nothing about “sects and cults,” when songs like “Power” strongly suggest otherwise, is oddly coincidental. In this vein, perhaps the use of subversive religious images and ideas in his songs and videos is simply a strategy to garner renewed interest in his work. West has just released a new album and he presumably needs a good marketing gimmick to increase sales. His new music features a more eccentric sound and might be less likely to appeal to the wide audience he has attracted in the past. For this reason, the use of the occult seems a good way to capture people’s interest . Regular listeners and conspiracy theorists alike are replaying West’s songs and re-watching his videos, trying to make sense of his puzzling allusions to religion. Kanye may not be a devilworshipper and he may not actually think that he’s a god—but, as far as marketing ploys go, he’s pretty brilliant. In some ways, the buzz Kanye has managed to create—the intrigue surrounding the evolution of his career, both conspiracy theory-driven and mainstream—is more fascinating than the transition itself. Whether Kanye’s altered use of religion in his work is a bona fide reflection of his beliefs or a conscious strategy focused on garnering interest, it is specifically his use of religious images, rhetoric, and symbolism that has people talking. In a sense, far-fetched conspiracy theories on his involvement with the Illuminati are just extreme versions of the speculation surrounding his moral and religious character—as evidenced by his blanket dismissal of both. However, the question of whether West’s comments on devil worship can be chalked up to marketing techniques alone still lingers. In a cipher he performed at the 2010 BET Awards, West rapped specifically about selling his soul15: “I sold my sold to the devil/That’s a crappy deal/Since it came with a few toys like a happy meal ... This game you could never win/Because they love you, then they hate you/Then love you again/Get away from me loneliness,/Get away from me misery…”16 West speaks about how the profit he has gained from his “deal with the devil,” so to speak, has brought him all the money and recognition for which he wished. Yet he points out that success is not a final end and the troubles that come with it seem to contradict the joy that renown brings. It appears that he is winning, but his spirit is suffering incredibly: “If I didn’t have these ends, I wouldn’t have these imaginary friends.”17 These lyrics suggest that West is experiencing an inner conflict—one that is moral, if not religious, in nature. They seem to indicate that he has been critical of his own evolution, the ways in which his career as a celebrity has informed his moral choices. It is West’s self-awareness that allows us consider the possibility that his use of religion in his work is neither an admission of devil worship in the literal sense nor purely a marketing gimmick. Perhaps West, by intentionally casting himself in a moral and religious light and precipitating the controversy that he often does, is making a larger statement about the inherently moral nature
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of celebrity in our society. If we understand his references to dealings with the devil on a purely metaphorical level, it is hard to ignore the seriousness of his message: that prolonged celebrity inevitably involves moral compromise. Whether an artistic metaphor for his emotional and spiritual suffering, an accidental message picked up by Illuminati conspiracy theorists, or merely a publicity stunt, Kanye West’s subversive use of religious imagery and the resulting public reaction say worlds about the cult of celebrity in our society—the only cult we can be sure of which Kanye is a part. nana amoh iS a SophomoRe in Columbia College majoRing in pSyChology with a ConCentRation in engliSh. (Endnotes) 1 “YouTube - Kanye Wests Admits He Sold His Soul To The Devil During Freestyle LIVE In ATL w/ KID Cudi 12-23-09! .” YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. . N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbmiOBN3U7Y. 2 “YouTube - Kanye Wests Admits He Sold His Soul To The Devil During Freestyle LIVE In ATL w/ KID Cudi 12-23-09! .” YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. . N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbmiOBN3U7Y. 3 “YouTube - Kanye Wests Admits He Sold His Soul To The Devil During Freestyle LIVE In ATL w/ KID Cudi 12-23-09! .” YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. . N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbmiOBN3U7Y. 4 Williams, Houston. “Jay-Z Addresses Devil Worship and Illuminati Rumors on Rick Ross Album.” Allhiphop.com Daily News. 10 July 2009 Web. 28 Nov 2010 5 “The Illuminati: A German professor sought to change the world.” Time Secret Societies (Decoding the Myths and Facts of History’s Most mysterious Organizations) Spring 2010: 26. Print. 6 “The Illuminati: A German professor sought to change the world.” Time Secret Societies (Decoding the Myths and Facts of History’s Most mysterious Organizations) Spring 2010: 26. Print. 7 “The Illuminati: A German professor sought to change the world.” Time Secret Societies (Decoding the Myths and Facts of History’s Most mysterious Organizations) Spring 2010: 26. Print. 8 “The Illuminati: A German professor sought to change the world.” Time Secret Societies (Decoding the Myths and Facts of History’s Most mysterious Organizations) Spring 2010: 26. Print. 9 “The Illuminati: A German professor sought to change the world.” Time Secret Societies (Decoding the Myths and Facts of History’s Most mysterious Organizations) Spring 2010: 27. Print. 10 Dixon, Louise. “Kanye West: I’m The ‘Voice Of This Generation’.” Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2010. <http://www.huffingtonpost. com/2008/11/13/kanye-west-im-the-voice-o_n_143703.html> 11 US Weekly. “Kanye West Voted More Influential Than Obama | Rolling Stone Music.” Rolling Stone | Music News, Reviews, Photos, Videos, Interviews and More. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2010. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/51942/225792>. 12 13 Marino, Mark. “Kanye West: What’s the Illuminati? – The Marquee Blog - CNN.com Blogs.” The Marquee Blog Watch Showbiz Tonight live at 5pm ET and 11pm ET/PT on HLN -
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CNN.com Blogs . N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2010. <http://marquee.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/25/ kanye-west-whats-the-illuminati/?hpt=Sbin>. 14 Marino, Mark. “Kanye West: What’s the Illuminati? – The Marquee Blog - CNN.com Blogs.” The Marquee Blog Watch Showbiz Tonight live at 5pm ET and 11pm ET/PT on HLN - CNN.com Blogs . N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2010. <http://marquee.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/25/ kanye-west-whats-the-illuminati/?hpt=Sbin>. 15 2010 BET Hip Hop Awards Show. BET. 12 Oct. 2010. Television. 16 2010 BET Hip Hop Awards Show. BET. 12 Oct. 2010. Television. 17 2010 BET Hip Hop Awards Show. BET. 12 Oct. 2010. Television.
photo CourtESy of raChEl valinSky
Jewish Heter iska and Islamic Banking: Adaptation or Capitulation to Modernity?
photo CourtESy of raChEl valinSky
One of the most pressing issues confronting Muslims in the modern world is their ability to participate in the modern economy without compromising their religious values. The Qur’an forbids Muslims from engaging in riba (interest) and contrasts them to the usurious Jews who defy their religion and are consumed by greed. The Qur’an itself invites the comparison between the Shari’a’s prohibition against riba and the Halakhic (Jewish law) prohibition against ribbit. Both words derive from the same Semitic root R.B.H. which means “increase.” The parallels between the respective developments of the prohibitions are striking, but there are also stark differences that indicate different underlying rationales behind the two injunctions. The prohibition against ribbit allows Jews to lend to and borrow from nonJews with interest. The moral foundation underlying this proscription, therefore, cannot be a divine condemnation of an interest-based economy in all of its forms. Instead, the motivation is to engender
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charitable feelings and a spirit of mutual aid among Jews in order to rescue downtrodden individuals in the Jewish community from economic collapse. The Islamic tradition, in contrast, makes no reference to a specific focus on the impoverished debtor. Instead, Islam dictates rules that are meant to establish a societal, justice-based system of economics, one consisting of shared risk and shared profit. Riba is an inherently selfish activity in which one party wishes to benefit from a transaction regardless of the success or failure of his partner. In trade, by contrast, two partners stand to gain together and transact in the spirit of cooperation and assistance. This far more ambitious goal of legislating a moral economy indicates the reason that Islam does not distinguish between the interest charged to a Muslim or a non-Muslim; the prohibition against riba is intended for all of society at all times. An analysis of Islamic finance as contrasted to the Jewish practice of heter iska will show that Muslims have been forced to maintain a far more distinct type of economics in order to remain within the strictures of the Shari’a. Jews, on the other hand, have sidestepped the prohibition with relative ease and little moral angst through the use of legal loopholes. While the Jewish legal solutions may appear in some ways more underhanded and less “organic” than the Islamic ones, this is due to the narrower motivation of the prohibition in Judaism. The structure of this essay is as follows: I will first present the classical views on riba and show how they demonstrate a broad, societal ban on interest. Then I will describe the varied types of modern Islamic response to the prohibition, among them Islamic finance. I will provide a background on ribbit and describe the heter iska which is used today to circumvent the Jewish prohibition. I will argue that the somewhat underhanded nature of heter iska is legitimate since it is, in fact, consistent with the classical motivation behind ribbit. In order to appreciate the conundrum facing modern Muslims, some background information on riba is necessary. The most detailed Qur’anic revelation pertaining to usury is from Surah al-Baqarah, verses 275-281: Those who devour interest become like the one whom Satan has bewitched and maddened by his touch. The have been condemned to this condition because they say trade is just like interest, whereas Allah has made trade lawful and interest unlawful. Henceforth, if one abstains from taking interest after receiving this admonition from his lord, no legal action will be taken against him regarding the interest he had devoured before; his case shall ultimately go to Allah. But if one repeats the same crime even after this, he shall go to Hell, where he shall abide forever. O believers, fear Allah and give up that interest which his still due to you if you are true believers; but if you do not do so then you are warned of the declaration of war against you by Allah and His Messenger. If, however, you repent even now, you are entitled to your principal… The Qur’an’s ranking of monetary expenditures is as follows: zakat (alms-giving) is laudatory, trade is permitted and riba is forbidden and condemned. The denunciation of riba is surprisingly harsh, relegating usurers to eternal damnation, an uncommon punishment for sins committed by believers. Al-Tabari, a ninth-century Qur’an exegete, holds that this severe punishment is meant to refer to those who hold that usury is fundamentally permitted, while a believer who knows that usury is wrong but surrenders to his greed is admonished but not with eternal damnation. This comment of Al-Tabari is extremely instructive to understand the hesitancy and reluctance with
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which traditional scholars approach modern Islamic finance. By providing legal means to accomplish the same goals as riba, they essentially are holding that riba is permitted, something more sinful than even riba itself. Several hadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) exhort Muslims about the evils of riba and describe the excruciating punishment awaiting those who violate it. In one report the Prophet counts riba among the seven cardinal sins, including such other sins as murder and polytheism. In another tradition, Muhammad equates even the least severe type of riba with committing adultery thirty-three times and even committing adultery with one’s mother. In another, the Prophet states, “If interest-based dealings become common among a people, they surely start facing drought and shortage of food.” Since they are turning a predatory profit by extorting the poor among them, surely much of the population will perish from hunger. It is likely that when the Prophet describes the economic disaster that will befall a community of usurers, he is not describing an unnaturally severe punishment imposed by Allah, but a direct tangible consequence of their actions. The modern responses of Muslims to economic pressures are varied, but they can be divided into three broad categories: reformists, traditionalists, and pragmatists.1 I will illustrate each category by presenting a paradigmatic example of that form of thought, with a focus on the last type. The reformist approach expects Shari’a scholars to find a way to reinterpret the tradition to meet the challenges of the modern economic climate. Muhammad Afzal, a professor of economics at Gomal University exemplifies this approach. Afzal cites positions of modern scholars that based on the Quranic verse prohibiting “doubling and redoubling,”2 the only type of interest which is forbidden is compound interest, while simple interest is permitted. In addition, he cites the position that only loans for consumption are forbidden since during the times of the Prophet only that type of loan existed. Loans taken for production should be permitted since they are clearly for the elective financial benefit of the debtor and do not stem from economic desperation. While not endorsing any of these minority views, Afzal quotes them as evidence that there are dissenting opinions within the Islamic tradition and that, especially due to the dire need of the Muslim community, a reinterpretation of riba by scholars is darura (absolute necessity). He argues forcefully that even if the reason behind the prohibition is to defend the interests of the borrower, Shari’a has gone too far to the opposite extreme, exposing the lender to risk with no chance of gain. Yet he does not provide an internal mechanism through which he suggests that the scholars reinterpret the Shari’a, other than citing necessity as the ubiquitous reason behind all adaptation. From a traditionalist perspective, these arguments amount to an impassioned cry for the perceived necessity of interest, but not a legal argument as to why and how it should be permitted. The traditionalist approach is to view the prohibition against riba as eternally applicable even in today’s world. Grand Mufti Mohammad Shafi and Mufti Taqi Usmani, two preeminent modern Islamic scholars, embody this approach in their joint work, The Issue of Interest, which calls for a strict interpretation of the Qur’an while deriding the capitalist system of interest as a cancer to society. One of the most important arguments advanced by Usmani and Shafi is to counter the claim that since both the debtor and the creditor agree to the loan beforehand, their consent must render the transaction permissible. Usmani counters that the consent of the debtor is not a true consent. Only
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because of the cutthroat environment created by an interest-driven capitalist society did the debtor ever encounter the situation in which he was desperate to receive a loan. They write: A close look at the business of interest based lending/borrowing and the philosophy behind it would reveal that the final result ought to be [the] impoverished state of a vast majority of the society while filing beyond capacity the coffers of a few capitalists. The economic disparity results in the disaster of the countries and that is why Islam has forbidden this business.3 This is another illustration of how the Islamic approach to finance is one that focuses on the macro-scale and is unwilling to sacrifice the moral fiber of the community by using a corrupting temporary solution that suits two individuals. These scholars cite and dispute many arguments made by reformers. They cite numerous hadith to demonstrate that there were, in fact, commercial loans extant in the times of the Prophet which were included in the interdiction against interest, and note that even if commercial loans did not exist in the time of the Prophet, simply changing the specific circumstances surrounding the prohibition does not permit one to nullify the prohibition. The traditionalists further augment their position by quoting the statement of Umar (the second caliph) that “we have given up ninety percent of all legitimate transactions for the fear that an element of interest might be present in them”. They quote this as precedent that even a hint of usury is sufficient to forbid most types of financial arrangements. In addition, Shafii makes the intriguing argument that even if productive loans with interest are not unfair to the debtor, they are still unfair toward the creditor, since the debtor’s profit is unlimited and the creditor’s gain is fixed. This type of argument only makes sense if the purpose of riba is to ensure equitable finance for all, and not simply to defend a downtrodden debtor. Shafii and Usmani’s inherently conservative position allows for very little acclimatization of Shari’a to the modern context. The third and middle position is that of the pragmatists, whose most commonly used approach is that of Islamic finance. These arrangements are structured by prominent banks with a Shari’a board which must give the stamp of approval to any transactions and perform an audit of the bank’s holdings at the end of every year. The defining characteristic, and the most challenging aspect, of Islamic banking is the avoidance of interest while maintaining profitability for the banks, and its depositors and investments. The risks inherent in Islamic banking far outweigh that in conventional banking, since the bank shares a proprietor’s interest in the investment. It is because both parties bear risk that the transaction is not considered usury. One of the ideal permitted financial arrangements is mudaraba, which is similar to a venture capitalist arrangement. Both the investing partner and the managing partner split the profits by some ratio. The former stands to lose a portion of his investment while the latter could potentially squander his labor on a failed endeavor and receive no profit. This adheres to the integral Islamic principle that the providers and users of capital should share risk and profit equitably. Another Sharia-sanctioned option is murabaha, which is purchase and resale at a markup. Instead of a normal loan in which the bank would provide the funds to the debtor, who would use them to purchase some commodity, in murabaha the bank buys the commodity for the debtor, who will pay the bank back in installments amounting to a sum greater than the bank paid for the good.
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photo CourtESy of raChEl valinSky
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The reason this does not fall under the category of riba is that the bank incurs a certain amount of risk in buying and transporting the product to the client. While the bank suffers less risk than in mudaraba, it still incurs sufficient risk for this to avoid being classified as riba. Islamic finance in its ideal form fuses the positions of the pragmatist and the traditionalist and serves as an alternative model to western banking which is at the same time useful to modern Muslims and authentically authorized by Islam. This does not constitute a legal fiction but rather a fulfillment of the will of Allah in the modern context. These solutions must be contrasted with those of Jews in the modern economic climate. To understand the specifics of their predicament, a brief background of ribbit is in order. The Hebrew Bible first prohibits ribbit in Exodus 22:24, “If thou lend money to any of My people, even to the poor with thee, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor; neither shall ye lay upon him interest.” Already in this verse, God emphasizes that interest is forbidden solely in loans to “My nation,” the Jews. The most explicit verse in this regard is from Deuteronomy 23:20-21: “Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest. Unto a foreigner thou mayest lend upon interest; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon interest.” It is apparent from the verses that they do mean to eradicate interest from the world. Rather, they intend to instill a feeling of unique camaraderie among Jews and to encourage Jews to provide mutual aid for each other. In fact, early jurists debated whether the verse in Deuteronomy actively commanded Jews to lend with interest to non-Jews. Sefer HaChinuch, an anonymous Spanish 13th century legal text, explains that the reason behind this commandment is that Jews should not give equally kind treatment to Jew and to non-Jew in order to demonstrate to the world that the adherence to Torah is
photo CourtESy of jody ZEllMan
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the superior path. It is apparent that both in its legal expression and its theoretical rationale that the intent is to engender good will and charity among Jews and to aid unfortunate brethren by offering them interest-free capital. If the Torah meant to eliminate interest from the world it would not have permitted charging interest to gentiles and certainly (according to some opinions) would not have commanded Jews to do so. The most radical expression of the limited scope of the prohibition against ribbit is found in the works of the the 19th century scholar, Rabbi Yosef Babad, the author of the Minchat Chinuch, a commentary on the Sefer HaChinuch. He writes that it is permissible to lend with interest to a “wicked” Jew who intentionally distances himself from the rest of the nation. This type of ruling would be unimaginable in the Islamic context since in Islam the focus is on the societal elimination of interest, not the specific debtor under our scrutiny. However, this ruling is the logical extension of a prohibition that is limited to the immediate aid of a deserving compatriot. The classical Halakhic authorities were aware of the attempts to circumvent this prohibition and explicitly forbade certain types of loopholes. Rashi, an eleventh-century bible exegete, writes that the verse juxtaposes the phrase “You shall fear your God” to the prohibition against ribbit to imply that even for those things that are technically acceptable, God knows man’s inner thoughts and will punish someone for using a loophole like lending to a Jew through a non-Jewish intermediary to evade formal violation of the interdiction. Furthermore, the Talmud records and rejects the arguments of reformists who try to localize the prohibition against ribbit to the ancient past: R’ Shimon says: those who lend on interest lose more than they gain. And not only that but they regard Moses our teacher as a sage and his Torah as truth [a euphemism for their derision of Moses and the Torah], by saying if Moses our teacher would have known that there is profit in the matter of lending on interest, he would not have written that it is forbidden.4 Despite these conservative precautions in the Halakhic system, economic hardship coerced Jews to struggle to find a way to permit interest even among Jews. To meet this demand, medieval rabbis formulated what is known as heter iska (permissible venture). In the 12th century, persecution, crusades and economic exclusion forced increasing numbers of Jews into the money-lending business. However, a Jew who did not have a starting sum of capital could not enter the field. To gain this startup capital, a Jew would often need to borrow from a successful Jewish moneylender. To make this worthwhile for the successful usurer, there needed to be a way to guarantee that he receive a reasonable return on his investment in the junior moneylender and a guarantee that he would not lose his principal. Even though the past ten centuries of scholars had uniformly forbidden any attempt to remove the creditor’s risk, necessity carried the day. The modern heter iska works as follows: The financier and managing partner agree beforehand about a particular amount of profit that will be guaranteed to the financier. If the venture suffers a loss, theoretically both partners should split the loss. According to the agreement, however, the managing partner is only believed if he adduces two proper halakhic witnesses, such as the rabbi and cantor, as well as complete documentation, which is highly unlikely. In order to avoid the problem of the usury implicit in the managing partner receiving an equal share in the profits despite his efforts in managing the funds, he is paid a nominal fee for his time, say one dollar. While some argue that if the
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heter iska is performed correctly it is not a legal subterfuge, it is clear that it stretches the bounds of what was previously considered a normal partnership. Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, a nineteenthcentury Lithuanian halakhist, formulated an original and powerful justification for these practices based on the verse in Leviticus. He argues that phrase “that your brother may live with you” is the guiding principle of ribbit. In the times of Moses, the Jews profited through agriculture, and moneylending was not the primary source of their income, so providing a free loan to a wretched friend was a fulfillment of the verse to support one’s brethren. However, by the middle ages, the Jews had been long since exiled from Israel and their staple source of income was commerce and usury. It became necessary to allow creditors to charge interest in some way, pursuant to the selfsame verse. Therefore, the medieval sages sought to permit interest in the most Halakhically approved way possible. When comparing heter iska with the various forms of Islamic banking, it is apparent that Islamic banking adheres far more closely to the principle of shared risk than heter iska. However, this is understandable since the focus of the Islamic prohibition was to construct an economy based on equity. Throughout its history, the Islamic tradition has derided and condemned the Jewish leniency toward interest. This position originated in the Qur’an, continued to the hadith and even is quoted by contemporary Muslims. Their derision is misplaced, but understandably so. From the Islamic perspective, the ban against interest is a sweeping and fundamental one that does not take into account the specific circumstances or religions of the creditor or debtor, since it seeks to eliminate interest in all of its forms from every aspect of society. However, from within the Halakhic tradition both the limited nature of the prohibition and the seemingly faithless legal loopholes can be rationalized by appreciating that Halakha approaches the issue of interest through a different and more particular lens. Even if a legal mechanism like heter iska appears like a ruse to permit profit, it was done in a way that is consistent with the purpose behind the original prohibition, namely the aid of desperate Jews. Raphael RoSen iS a SenioR in Columbia College majoRing in Religion. (Endnotes) 1. Qur’an, Surah Al-Nisaa 160-161. 2. Encyclopedia of Islam, 491. 3. Shafi, 71, 78, 82. 4. I have reformulated slightly the classification of Alexandre Caeiro in Caeiro, Alexandre. “The Social Construction of Shari’a: Bank Interest, Home Purchase, and Islamic Norms in the West”. Die Welt des Islams 44,3 2004. 351 5. Surah Aal-e-Imran, 123. 6. Afzal, 62. 7. Shafi, 124.
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8. Shafi, 40. 9. Shafi, 26. 10. Shafi, 39. 11. “Principles of Islamic Banking” Nida’ul Islam November-December, 1995. 12. Sefer Hachinuch, 573. 13. Sefer Hachinuch, 573. 14. Lev. 25:37 and Rashi’s commentary. 15. T.B. Bava Metzia 75b. Talmud Bavli: Tractate Bava Metzia. Trans. Rabbi Mordechai Rabinovitch. New York: Mesorah Publications, 1993. 16. Gamoran, 162-165. 17. Bleich, 55.
Re-writing History: Protestant and Neo-Pagan Agendas in the Study of Mithras
photo CourtESy of thE britiSh MuSEuM
In 2003, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code set the scholarly world aflame with its bold claims about the origins of Christianity. Religion professors and Catholic priests alike scrambled to investigate assertions made by Brown, whose novel claimed that Christ’s identity and narrative in the Bible were based on Mithras, an Iranian-sun-god-turned-Roman-military-deity. In one excerpt, fictional historian Leigh Teabing relays Brown’s central and oft-quoted piece of damning evidence: that, like Jesus, “the pre-Christian god Mithras...was born on December 25…and then resurrected in three days.”1 Allegations that the Christian god was a copy of another were highly controversial, and seemed to undermine the validity of the entire faith. Websites supporting one side or another have sprung up to join the debate surrounding the existence of Mithras; they bear domain names like “Jesus Never Existed,” “Jesus Police,” and “Truth Be Known.” Therefore, after appearing prominently in an international best-seller, the rather obscure academic study of Mithras has
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gained a new level of wide-spread attention and religious significance. Yet, at the same time, many scholars in the Protestant and neo-pagan academic traditions who have written on Mithras exhibit a warped and unsubstantiated take on Mithraism, which stems from the specific religious agendas at play. Dan Brown’s fictional exploration of these debates is ultimately the continuation of a long-term trend. Over the last several centuries, many scholars have embarked on attempts to find the “real” historical Jesus, with varying degrees of success. In so doing, some have stripped away any rituals in modern Catholicism that bear a resemblance to paganism and identified them as “add-ons” from pagan religions. Scholars of Christian history, such as Stanley Porter and Stephen Bedard, go as far as delineating this unfolding “rivalry” as one between Christian and pagan beliefs.2 However, the tendency to delegitimize the character of the Catholic Christ traces back through the centuries to the Protestant Reformation.3 The ritual of Mithraism that has most often been compared to the Christian tradition throughout history is the Mithraic “feast of initiates,” seen to be analogous to Christ’s last supper. Early Christian theologians, prompted by Justin Martyr, have argued that just like Jesus, Mithras conducted “a sacred meal…in the form of consecrated bread and a cup.” 4 Claims have also emphasized that both Mithras and Christ were each born of a virgin on December 25.5 Regardless of the veracity of these statements, it is important to note the fluidity of religion in the Roman Empire during the first few centuries C.E. The similarities between Mithraism and Christianity are likely due to both cults’ emergence at around the same time in the Roman Empire. Ideas moved from one cult to another with impunity. Some gods adopted the titles and rituals of others, while other deities often merged entirely. A new religion might gain credibility by assuming some aspects of another god’s persona. Because both Mithraism and Christianity and their followers would likely have come into contact with one another, it is natural that some ideas were exchanged. However, some scholars have neglected to recognize the syncretism of the Hellenistic era out of which Mithraism and the Christian cult emerged, which likely caused their similarities. Just because one god often took on the characteristics of another deity during the Greco-Roman period does not mean either tradition “copied” from another, but rather that the time period was one of religio-intellectual exchange. Another problem of these trends involves scholars’ delineation of definitions and boundaries with regard to Mithraism. When scholars discuss Mithraism as an influence on Christianity, they impose a unity on the cult that never existed and imply these two movements had consolidated orthodoxies by the first centuries C.E. For example, Porter and Bedard discuss how “the Mithras cult was widespread” throughout the Roman Empire to make arguments about its impact.6 However, each Mithraic cell was different and likely held varying conceptions of the god at that time; there was no single interpretation of Mithras governing a centralized “cult.” These presuppositions about the unity of Mithraism indicate the influences of later Christian thought. While varied Mithraea, or Mithraic places of worship, all had certain elements in common, there is no evidence of a single authority binding these cells together. Though
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scholars once thought there was a “unitary Mithraic system” linking different Mithraic cells to one doctrine, they have revised their opinion.7 In reality, Mithraic cells were far-flung, and there was “no hierarchy at a higher level” to impose uniformity upon different localized forms of worship.8 Each simply took certain central beliefs and added various elements. It is likely that some Mithraic doctrines were imparted during rituals that were exported to local cells, and then taught to the next generation of recruits. Similarly, early Christianity did not have one coherent movement during its few centuries of existence, but instead had many local manifestations. There were “many early Christian groups” with different beliefs about how Jesus lived and the importance of his death; no uniform idea about the significance of his teachings emerged until several centuries later.9 It is easier for scholars such as Donald Sharpes to deal with these two cults as consolidated movements, even if they were not, because these are the generalized terms we use today when discussing modern religions. Academics would rather say “Mithras” as a figure influenced “Christ,” even though there were many local variations of those figures and their significances. For example, Sharpes states that “Mithras ascended into the heavens” after his last supper with his disciples.10 Sharpe adds that Mithraists believed that Mithras ascended to heaven and protected his disciples, and again, imposes one single view of Mithras’s afterlife, one that is not corroborated by written or archaeological evidence from Mithraea. However, he does not state to which Mithraic cell’s iconography he refers. Even if one Mithraist division had similar beliefs to the Christian resurrection, which is far from proven, Sharpes’s generalization of all Mithraic doctrine is unfounded. Catholicism has undoubtedly adopted some pagan rites, but the western and Protestant academic tradition had a vested interest in debunking the ritualistic practices of the Church which it hoped to delegitimize. As scholars discovered more and more about Mithraism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they continued to exaggerate some similarities between Mithras and Christ to bolster their critique of Catholicism. Protestant theologians were one group that jumped at the chance to ride a wave of Mithras-fueled religious criticism during the height of The Da Vinci Code’s popularity. Today, scholars like Porter, Bedard and Sharpes attempt to downplay their desire to “take down” Catholicism, but the impulse remains to believe that the Catholic Jesus is sullied by outside influences. A scholarly tradition with a similar vested interest in Mithras is that of the neopaganists, or modern revivalists of ancient pagan religions. In the 1970s, many sectarian groups began to revive what they saw as accepting and nature-loving polytheistic faiths of ancient history.11 Renewed interest in worshipping old Celtic, Norse, and Welsh faiths came along with renewed scholarly interest in discovering just what these pagan faiths of antiquity entailed. Rather than viewing pagan influences as an outsider force within Christianity, neopagan scholars such as Payam Nabarz and D. Jason Cooper have instead attempted to play up Christ’s pagan background in order to legitimize their modern interpretations of ancient faiths. Yet neo-pagan authors who study Mithraism often distort the facts to depict pagan religions, which they portray as underdogs harmed by Christianity. They also conflate Christian and pagan traditions, in the process glossing over the past of the religions they are
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trying to revive. For example, D. Jason Cooper, author of Mithras: Mysteries and Initiation Rediscovered, is an esotericist who acknowledges the divide between Mithraism and Christianity, but who nevertheless suggests that “there…was one and only one way to see the rituals, myths, and theology of that religion,” in the singular.12 Neo-pagans are more likely to espouse the Mithraic origins of Christianity because they want to portray their faiths as worth reviving; they indeed may be worthy, but surely Mithraism’s downfall did not result in the “early decline and loss of true meaning” in both Mithraism and Christianity.13 According to Payam Nabarz, author of The Mysteries of Mithras: A Pagan Belief That Shaped the Christian World, the “peace-loving message of Christianity” fell out of early Christian movements because it adopted the martial message of the soldiers’ god, Mithras. In reality, there is no evidence to confirm this bold claim. Furthermore, Christ’s message was not entirely “peaceful,” nor was Mithras only a god of war. To assume that either religion can be defined by a single term—“peaceful” or “warlike”—makes unjustified assumptions about the nature of these ancient faiths and demeans their complexity. Indeed, throughout the history of the Roman Empire, Christianity
photo CourtESy of Carly SilvEr
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had many different interpretations and was never a single movement. It is likely that Mithraism fared similarly. The fluctuating religious atmosphere of the Roman Empire, which allowed new cults to form, did allow Christianity and Mithraism to interact. But it still did not allow one to totally dominate another. For example, the modern Mithraist Payam Nabarz claims “the Roman Mithraic practice was one of the greatest rivals to early Christianity,” which is why Mithraism was one of the “first pagan cults” to come under attack when the Roman emperors adopted Christianity.14 Cooper adds that Mithraism “vied with Christianity for dominance” for five hundred years. More likely, however, is that both cults co-existed in the first few centuries of the Roman Empire with different core followings. Mithras was prominent among soldiers all over the empire, while Christ appealed, at first, perhaps to a Messianic Jewish, then gradually gentile, audience. The idea that a rivalry sprang up between these two faiths would imply that the followers of a single “Christianity” were just as prominent in the first few centuries C.E. as Mithraists. Falsely assuming Christianity was a streamlined religion, neo-pagan authors portray it as a dominating thief that stole the customs of others to give their god legitimacy. If one is to regard Christ’s varied followings as “Christianity,” these scholars say it subdued Mithraism when it rose to power. By portraying Mithraism as an underdog religion that was shoved into a corner, modern revivalists can claim that Mithraism was a threat to Christianity, which is why it faded out. Belief in Christ did, indeed, later both subsume and ban other pagan religions, but the idea that it was in strict competition with any one religion, for the sole reason that it destroyed the validity of Christianity, exhibits ample bias. In a world of many faiths, Christianity probably hoped to survive and gain followers just as much as Mithraism did. Yet, by making spurious claims about early Christianity, the neo-pagans portray Mithraism as a contemporary rival that lost out in the battle of religious influence in Rome. The claim that Christianity has a longstanding vendetta against Mithraism, as Nabarz argues, is academically unfounded. There is a long history within religious scholarship of questioning the origins of biblical narratives. Scholars have found similar parallels between the Bible’s account of the flood and a Mesopotamian flood story, for example, as they have between the lives of Jesus and Mithras. These academic debates often arise from the particular theological stances of many religious traditions and secular critics: that religious truth is not something that is shared, or something that develops in the long term from interactions between groups, it must be monopolized by one group or none at all. Furthermore, perhaps because of the oppressive influence that Catholicism, in particular, wielded in later history, modern scholars have stressed its pagan origins in order to devalue its theological claims. Dan Brown’s fictional exploration of these issues has drawn such widespread interest. Protestants and neo-pagans both have much to gain in de-valuing truth claims made by Catholicism. However, varied religious agendas are clearly at work when these scholars distort evidence and claim that Mithras copied Christ or vice-versa. In such instances, their agendas must be considered more closely before drawing any conclusions from their work about the validity of Catholic, Protestant, or neo-pagan traditions. CaRly SilveR iS a junioR in baRnaRd College majoRing in Religion.
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photo CourtESy of thE louvrE
Sanctum — Fall 2009
(Endnotes) 1 Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Anchor, 2003) 305. Online. 2 Stanley E. Porter and Stephen J. Bedard, Unmasking the Pagan Christ (Toronto: Clements, 2006) 96. Online. 3 Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (London: School of African and Oriental Studies, 1990) 22; 65. Online 4 David Ulansey, The Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World (New York: Oxford, 1989) 144-145. Online. 5 Roger Beck, Beck on Mithraism (Wiltshire: Cromwell, 2004) 83. 6 Porter and Bedard 96 7 Roger Beck, Beck on Mithraism (Wiltshire: Cromwell, 2004) 6. 8 Beck, Roger, “Four Men, Two Sticks, and a Whip: Image and Doctrine in a Mithraic Ritual,” Theorizing Religions Past: Archaeology, History, and Cognition, ed. Harvey Whitehouse and Luther Martin( Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira, 2004) 99. Online. 9 Beck (2004) 99. 10 Donald K. Sharpes, Lords of the Scrolls: Literary Traditions in the Bible and Gospels, (New York: Peter Lang, 2005) 245. 11 Sean McCloud, “New and Alternative American Religions: Changes, Issues, and Trends,” Faith in America: Changes, Challenges, New Directions, Vol. 1., ed. Charles H. Lippy (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006) 237. Online. 12 D. Jason Cooper, “Questions,” e-mail to Carly Silver, 25 October 2010. 13 Payam Nabarz. The Mysteries of Mithras: A Pagan Belief That Shaped the Christian World (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2005) 46. 14 Nabarz 12-13.