Varieties of Islam

The following is the transcript of a presentation that will be made on Sunday June 16th at !0:30 am to the Unitarian Universalist Society of the Daytona Beach Area, 56 N. Halifax Drive, Ormond Beach, FL 32174.

While the news of the day might have us believe that the most important distinction that exits within the Islamic world is the distinction made between the Shia and the Sunnis, the fact of the matter is that this distinction within Islam has more of a political character to it than a religious or spiritual one. This distinction had its earliest origin in the dynastic struggle that ensued after the death of the Prophet at age 63 from malaria or some such easily curable disease from the standpoint of modern day medicine. In fact what happened after the Prophet’s death was the slaughtering off of his remaining family by those elements of tribal authority in 7th century Arabia who then assume effective control over the levers of political, religious, civil, and military authority.

The most tragic death of all was the wanton massacre of Husein and his small retinue of fellow travelers at Karbala a site in Iraq that is second only to Mecca as the most revered religious site in the Islamic world. This arrogation of power by forces outside the revolution after the revolution seems to be a consistent pattern of human political behavior down through the ages that even has its own particular corollary in the clerical assumption of power in Iran in 1979. Certainly one can observe this same pattern in regard to both the French Revolution that began in 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. This usurpation of power down through the ages seems to be in accord with some sort of less than divine logic at work in the Universe that quite frequently denies the makers of a revolutionary movement the fruits of their labors. There was however a survival of the bloodline of Mohammed through his female heirs. The present day Agha Khan who is the titular spiritual and temporal leaders of a Shia group called the Ismailis is a direct descendent of the Prophet through his surviving female line. The Hashemite Dynasty that presently rules in Jordan can also claim decendency through the line of the Prophet.

Perhaps a more important variation within Islam might be the one that began at an early point in the history of Islam between the practitioners of Sufism and fundamentalism. The interesting thing about Sufism is that it cuts across this what would in the West be called a “confessional” division of faith. Sufism can be said to be more about actual differences in religious forms of practice and the need for anyone interested in pursuing this path to undergo a process of initiation and study of the previous masters. Sufism still plays a quite active role in the world in its own quite way. It is not about the world but rather a quietist retreat and withdrawal from the world so that one can become closer to the Divine. Unitarians themselves have been very much touched by this quietist tradition through the life’s work of Ralph Waldo Emerson whose philosophy of transcendentalism was based upon Sufi principals in regard to the omnipresence of the Divine in all things as well as the sacredness of nature and the natural world that we inhabit.

Diametrically opposed to this quietist spiritual tradition is the logic of fundamentalism that has sought through the centuries not only a justification for its own power seeking but the death and annihilation of any and all legitimate practicing Muslims who refuse to bucked under to their demand and wear their yoke of oppression. There are obviously a number of terrorist groups active in the world today that fall under this heading. Such words as Salafist, Wahabbi, Jihadist, etc. bear testimony to the fact that these groups exist. All of these present day groups however can fall under one overall Sunni definition which is Wahabbism.

The history of Wahabbism began in the small village of Dariyah which was located near the present day Arabian capitol of Riyadh in an agreement of cooperation between a local Bedouin tribe of the Al Sauds and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Today modern day Arabia is governed through the combination of this official “church” and the decedents of the tribe of Al Saud who began their rise to power and prominence in Arabia as dessert caravan raiders as well as mass slaughters of all those good and practicing Muslims who refused to bow to the Wahabbis and wear their yoke of oppression. Much of the history of Wahabbism is about the wanton destruction of some of the most sacred shrines and cultural artifacts within the Islamic world. This was done so that the Wahabbis could redefine the Islamic faith based solely on their narrow and self interested form of confessional belief. Even to this day in places such as Syria where Saudi funded Al-Qaeda terrorists are active, one of their principle objectives is to destroy as many of the world historical sites as possible that exist in present day Syria.

So who is a Muslim? Technically, it’s anyone who makes the affirmation of faith which is that: “God is One and Mohammed was his last prophet.” According to all the various Islamic creeds, cults, and tendencies it is important to realize that according to Islamic tradition the biblical era of prophecy came to an end and culminated in the life of Mohammed. The phrase “Peace be upon him” is usually heard when devout Sunni adherents mention the name of the Prophet but as I will be approaching this entire subject from an agnostic point of view, meaning that I am not about to take sides in the great jurisdictional and theological disputes that have existed for 1400 years; I will not embrace that particular tradition for this discussion.

So there you have it! Islam is about tradition and that according to many of the leading traditionalists in the world today is why Islam refuses to surrender to Western domination and destruction of a civilization and culture that goes back 1400 years. It was stated famously by the French Sufi mystic, philosopher, and metaphysician Rene Guenon that what sets the West apart from all other cultures and civilizations that have ever existed is that the civilization of the West is premised upon anti-traditionalism itself. This unique and special Western exceptionalism has served as a convenient justification for the pillage and destruction of any and all others civilizations that have gotten in the way of Western expansion.

In other words it is safe to say that the civilization of Islam represents the last traditional civilization left on Earth. All the others have been more or less absorbed into the cultural orbit of the West and therefore do not present the kind of existential issues for us that the Islamic world seems to present.

The theory of history put forward by the great British historian Arnold Toynbee was that the only real viable civilization left of Earth is the civilization of the West and that the West is in the process of absorbing all the remaining civilizations into its orbit. It’s important to remember that Toynbee wrote and published his monumental twelve volume A Study of History shortly after the end of WWII when the world looked very different than it does today. I think that it’s safe to say that Toynbee’s theory was both culture bound and time bound in terms of the period of history in which he lived. Nevertheless, I would like to contrast Toynbee’s theory of history with the theory put forward by the great Russian philosopher of the occult P.D. Ouspensky who stated that history as we know it is nothing more than “the history of crime.” I think that the essence of that thought was also summarized by the American author Alex Haley in his popular book Roots when he stated that-“History is written by the winners.”

Aren’t we in fact seeing the reality of that fact put into practice every day now by the West and its wars of aggression in the Arab/Islamic world? I’ll leave that for you to decide and perhaps to think about a little. The purpose of this talk is to give some very brief description of the enormous diversity within the Islamic world and what that means for us today. I personally see diversity as a good thing and according to Islamic thinking it is just another aspect of the Divine that manifests itself through diversity as seemingly opposed to the one, the Divine, the Unity of All Being; but this so called “opposition” is only in our own mind and only when a person begins to understand that Unity in Diversity is what the acclamation of faith is all about will a person begin to see why division and diversity are the essential requirements of life and the evolution of human consciousness.

When we use the word “fundamental” we get to the essence of what we need to talk about because in the Islamic world today that is what the struggle is all about, i.e. the fundamentalists vs. the traditionalists. Who are the fundamentalists and who are the traditionalists? What are some of the terms that we may have heard from time to time that define who’s who?

Let’s start by defining some of our terms by establishing the fact that religious fundamentalism is not a phenomenon confined solely to the Islamic world but rather a present day global phenomenon that has actually been around for quite awhile. I would also hasten to add that in my humble opinion it is a religious phenomenon that is now in decline for the all to obvious reason that the damage that it has wrought in lost lives and suffering are right there for us to see everyday in the latest news reports from all over the world. We live in the most powerful Western democracy that pretty much has ceased to be a democracy and has been taken captive by the ideological position of far right “Christian” fundamentalists” who take great joy in thinking that we are all living in the “end times” whatever that might mean. The curious thing is that Islamic fundamentalists believe the same thing although they are waiting not for the new Jesus but rather the Mahdi who will establish his world wide kingdom right here on Earth in pretty much the same manner as the new Jesus. Of course since Jews are still waiting for their first Messiah can it be possible that all these “people of the book” (an Islamic term meaning all religious children of Abraham) are actually waiting for the same person?

Well I certainly hope so as it would make things a lot simpler. Perhaps this person is a spaceman about to arrive from some other far off galaxy outside of our own Milky Way Galaxy through some wormhole in space that is now in the process of opening up and becoming operational? Yes, I have actually heard of such a theory and as a devout space enthusiast I sure hope that that will happen. What excitement that will be but perhaps that’s the big secret the government and the national security state is actually keeping from us? Who knows? Who cares? Is it really that important in terms of how we live our lives in the here and now?

Let’s get back to trying to define some of our terms starting with fundamentalists vs. traditionalists and who the US power structure has chosen to ally themselves with in the Islamic world. Please be aware of the fact that I refuse to use the term “Arab/Islamic that we hear forever bandied about for the principle reason that the Islamic world is every so much larger that the “Arab/Islamic” world. As a matter of fact the “Arab/Islamic world is just a tiny corner of the larger Islamic world although according to many from both the fundamentalist school and the traditionalist school the most important because that was where God chose to reveal Himself and His teachings through the person of Mohammed and all of His previous prophets of whom Jesus was one. Arabic is the sacred language of Islam in a similar manner to the way that both Latin and Greek were sacred languages within the Christian Church and that Hebrew is for the Jews.

According to one author who I consulted to prepare for this talk it’s a common saying amongst Islamic terrorists groups in Asia that God chose to reveal Himself and His teachings through the Arabs because they are the most evil nation on Earth and therefore most in need of his Devine teachings. I thought that was a pretty original thought when I read it and certainly something that I needed to share with you if only because of the laugh value!

It’s important to remember that our President Barack Obama grew up in the country with the largest Islamic population on Earth which of course is Indonesia a country known for its moderate Islamic culture that has of late been rocked by fundamentalist terror such as the terrible bombing of Bali.

Let’s restate again the famous statement by P.D. Ouspensky that all of human history as we know it and as it is taught is nothing more that-“The history of crime.” That will enable me to kind of somehow explain to you how I made the cosmic jump from the world’s most famous philosopher of the occult to a conscientious and almost obsessional interest in Islam. It’s a long and tortuous intellectual adventure that led from one to the other through the person of one Georges Gurdjieff who was Oupensky’s principle mentor and guru for many years. Many people who knew Gurdjieff considered him to be a fraudster, conman, and phony who manipulated wealthy influential people for his own ends.

I saw Gurdjieff in this same light for many years until certain revelations of a sort that dealt with sound scientific facts and data were bought to my attention by knowledgeable experts who knew nothing about my interest in Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. This had to do with a certain kind of science that Gurdjieff taught and that he claimed was well over 10,000 years old going back to the very first civilization that existed on Earth located in Mesopotamia and protected down through the ages by a secret brotherhood that Gurdjieff called the Sarman Brotherhood. Rumor had it that Gurdjieff who had spent much of his early life traveling throughout the Near East as it was called in that era; a far better and more apt term than the one we use today, i.e. the Middle East because it denotes and East that is near and approachable to us as opposed to something far away. This is an important point to make because metaphysically speaking the Near East or if you prefer the Middle East is our bridge as Westerners to an understanding of the civilizational and cultural perspective of the Far East that is very far away from us not only geographically but in the more important metaphysical sense.

Since both Ouspensky and Gurdjieff were interested in Sufism and had both travel throughout the Far and Near East where Sufism is widely practiced by many semi secret type brotherhoods that do often in fact include women; rumor had it for many years that Gurdjieff had been associated with one of these Central Asian Sufi brotherhoods where he had gotten the so called secret teachings of this mysterious Sarman Brotherhood and made them public through his own cult like following in the intervening years between WWI & WWII. According to some this was the reason for Gurdjieff’s strange and mysterious mental deterioration and eventual death. He had become the target of this secret brotherhoods antagonism because he had made this unwise and unauthorized disclosure of information that could only be given to those properly initiated into the order.

This made for great reading for anyone interested in secret religious cults and such and before you know it I was off to the races at least in the metaphorical and maybe even the metaphysical sense. I never ever saw myself as the kind of person who would have any real interest in Islam as a civilization and/or as a culture. I had never ever been to that part of the world stretching from Africa to Asia along what some authors have dubbed the “tenth parallel”; however, I could not restrain my interest in this subject once I got a taste of something so totally different from what I had expected! Reading and research in to any topic can be a wonderful and transformative experience which is what this adventure was for me. It bought me back to where I had began and for the first time I saw it anew.

That was the real reward of this adventure so that now I can say that for the first time I can see an essential unity of belief that exists amongst all the great monotheistic religions but the one that never gets mentioned and that perhaps needs to be mentioned is the religion of ancient Persia founded by the prophet Zoroaster and referred to as Zoroastrianism. These people were also considered by the Prophet Mohammed to be “people of the book” the same as Christians and Jews. That seemed at first strange to me however the secret meaning of all of this can be found in one of the most remarkable books that I have read in this research adventure entitled: Magi: The Quest For A Secret Tradition” by Adrian G. Gilbert. This book is available through the county library system.

Therefore let us define the fact that Sufism is a kind of mysterious spiritualized variety of Islam based upon the concept of initiation but also upon a very traditional understanding of Islam. As a result of this age old understanding and appreciation of Islamic and Gnostic traditions that also play a big role in the Sufi world view these orders have been under constant attack by the fundamentalists of Al-Qaeda and those groups associated with Al-Qaeda. It is probably one of the most misunderstood facts that somehow the Salafists of Al-Qaeda are respecters of Islamic culture and tradition when exactly the opposite is the case. Al-Qaeda and its associated terrorist outfits constitute an army of cultural vandals that have been funded by those wealthy families closely associated in some manner with the official cult of the Al-Saud dynasty of Arabia. Wahabbism is the particular Islamic fundamentalist cult that has held sway in the Arabia claimed by the Al-Sauds for the last 100 years.

The Bin Laden construction firm is now in the process of remodeling the Grand Mosque of Mecca. This so called “remodeling” process involves tearing down and destroying the oldest and most sacred part of the Grand Mosque that in the very time of the Prophet himself was the precinct of the Mosque that he preached from and lived in. The need to destroy the evidence of what came before and the real history and tradition of each and every one of the great dessert or Abrahamic religions is what religious fundamentalism is all about whether it is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. The trend is the same wherever it is found. It is the need of the few in power or those seeking power to use religion as a political weapon. Such cults of idolatry attempt to redefine who is a true believer based upon the terminology that they counterpoise to tradition.

The challenge that we have today is to not allow other people professing belief in anything to attempt to redefine us and/or our traditions. There is indeed a struggle underway in the world between those who profess religious belief in something and who use terror as a means to achieve their ends and the often complacent millions and billions of innocent bystanders whose only wish is to have their customs and traditions respected so that they can live and function in a world that makes sense to them. As Americans we have an obligation to respect that and to oppose all forms of organized oppression that seeks to dress itself up in religious ideology in an effort to attain power.

Note-This piece was originally posted to Open Salon on 06-17-2013

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About charlesknause

I was born in Camden, N.J. (now the poorest city in America) in 1950 and grew up in a beautiful old Victorian town in South Jersey called Collingswood. I now live in Ormond Beach, FL where the weather suits my spirit. My personal life was impacted at an early point in my life by a psychiatric diagnosis that changed my life and put me on the workers scrap heap. I have refused to accept such a miserable fate and today consider myself a social activist dedicated to changing the way that people who have been diagnosed with a serious psychiatric disability are perceived by society and the people in their community. I have a B.S. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Central Florida and 18 graduate credits in Mental Health Counseling from Stetson University in DeLand, FL as well as 24 graduate credits in an MSW program at UCF. I am a member of the Volusia County Behavioral Health Care Providers Consortium where I function as an advocate. I am a daily reader of the World Socialist Website and an occasional contributor.
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