Muhammad Merrell-Wolff

I recently ordered this book from Amazon called “Pathways Through To Space: An Experiential Journal.” It’s written by Franklin Merrell-Wolff, who was an American mystic and esoteric philosopher. I don’t intend to write a detailed review of the book in this blog-post since I have to read and digest it first. I’ll rather speak about an interesting passage that I came across while reading the book.

Wolff was educated and trained in philosophy and mathematics at Harvard and Stanford. I don’t know what turn of events led him to abandon academia and enter in esotericism. In any case, he ended up dedicating his life to transcendental philosophy and mysticism and sharing his knowledge and experiences with the rest of the world.

pathways-through-to-space

As I started reading his book, I came across a particularly interesting passage that completely resonated with me. Following is the passage:

Today, I find that in a deep sense I understand Walt Whitman, for I, too, have Awakened. But heretofore Whitman was not at all clear to me, and his words have not helped me to the Awakening. In contrast, the writings of Shankara have proved of the highest potency, while among Western writers it is Immanuel Kant who did most to prepare the Way for me. This is clearly a matter related to individual temperament. Whitman’s Recognition is unquestionably genuine, but for me his words did not clarify but served, rather, to obscure the Way. Of Mohammed’s expression this would have been even truer had I tried to make serious use of it. Yet Mohammed did attain some degree of mystical insight. It seems clear that no man can effectively illumine the Way for all men. There is more than one main Road and a great number of sub-roads. On all these, men who can serve as beacons are needed.

It’s very interesting to note his thoughts on Muhammad. In one of my earlier blog posts, I made a similar comment of how I found it difficult to adulate and emulate the life of Prophet Muhammad. He seemed too distant, too alien for me to have some form of affinity. I do, however, believe that Prophet Muhammad experienced something similar to what, perhaps, Shankara, Whitman and even Merrell-Wolff experienced.

I also think that it might not be possible for one human being to define the Sirat-al-Mustaqim for all men, of all times and ages. In this sense, perhaps, Prophet Muhammad was no different than Shankara or Walt Whitman. He was a product of his time and culture. He wanted to correct the wrongs of his society and addressed the ailments through whatever creative insights he got.

Prophet Muhammad was, perhaps, one of the beacons on one of the roads that lead to the “Awakening”. He cannot, however, in my opinion, illumine the Way for all men, as Merrell-Wolff stated. The same can be said about Merrell-Wolff and Shankara. They are all individual beacons serving to the guide the way for seekers on their own individual roads to the Truth, with a capital T.

In the coming days, I hope I can get to write a review of Pathways Through to Space on my blog.

Happy Birthday (Prophet Muhammad)!

Today is the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, according to the Hijri year (Islamic calendar), in my home country: Pakistan. The birthday of Prophet Muhammad is celebrated with great enthusiasm and fervor. The occasion is called Eid Milad-un-Nabi and is a public holiday.

540x450Muhammads-Birthday

The celebrations of Eid-e-Milād-un-Nabī (known as milad for short) are an important part of the Pakistani culture. While growing up, I had attended many such celebrations at my home, school, university, and at the homes of my neighbors, relatives and friends.

In fact, as a child, I remember that I had liked to recite naat (poetry in praise of the Prophet) at such occasions. Even though I liked the festivities (especially the sweets) that were part of the milad celebrations, I always found it hard, in my heart, to adulate Prophet Muhammad in the manner a Muslim is supposed to.

Now that I have openly declared my agnosticism, I further confess my lack of (spiritual) connection with Prophet Muhammad. I have always found it hard to love Prophet Muhammad.

I had, at one point in time, when I really considered myself a Muslim, sincerely tried to love and adore the Prophet. But, somehow, I was never able to develop any feelings for Prophet Muhammad. In retrospect, I think I failed to adore Prophet Muhammad due to a number of reasons:

1) Prophet Muhammad, as a personality, failed to intellectually and emotionally inspire me.

2) Prophet Muhammad had passed away more than 1400 years before my birth and belonged to a culture that was markedly different from the culture I was born and brought up in.

3) Prophet Muhammad made claims about the nature of Reality that I find very hard to believe in.

Honestly speaking, I found Bertrand Russell much more inspirational than Muhammad ibn Abd’Allah. I don’t mean to disrespect the Prophet in any way. It’s just that, to me, loving and admiring Prophet Muhammad doesn’t mean much. It is difficult to openly confess one’s indifference about the personality of Prophet Muhammad especially in Pakistan, where such confessions are likely to be called ‘blasphemous’. However, I think it is important for Muslims, all over the world, to increase their tolerance levels and allow free-thinkers like myself to express their views about Prophet Muhammad. Anyway, happy birthday, Prophet Muhammad! Cheers!

Forgetting the Qur’an

Qur’an is a book greatly esteemed by Muslims and is considered a Divine Revelation, for all of humanity until kingdom come. There is also a belief prevalent amongst Muslims that the Qur’an has been unchanged since the time it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

Sana'a manuscript
Sana’a manuscript

Muslims generally provide a circular argument for this belief saying that the Qur’an has remained unchanged since the time of its revelation because the Qur’an says so itself. This circular argument is primarily derived from the 9th verse of Surat Al-Hijr, which is the 15th chapter of the Qur’an. The following table provides various translations of the verse:

Translator Translation
Sahih International Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian.
Muhsin Khan Verily We: It is We Who have sent down the Dhikr (i.e. the Quran) and surely, We will guard it (from corruption).
Pickthall Lo! We, even We, reveal the Reminder, and lo! We verily are its Guardian.
Yusuf Ali We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption).
Shakir Surely We have revealed the Reminder and We will most surely be its guardian.
Dr. Ghali Surely We, Ever We, have been sending down the Remembrance, and surely We are indeed Preservers of it.

As far as I see, there are two major problems in deciding, with absolute certainty, whether the Qur’an has been preserved in its entirety or not. The first problem pertains to the method of transmission of historical facts. Compared to the 21st Century America, where a plethora of media exists to record and archive events of the past, the 6th Century Arabia was quite different. The method of keeping records, in pre-Islamic Arabia, was largely oral.

No proper institutions such as libraries, museums and the Internet – to name a few – existed in Arabia during the time of Prophet Muhammad, which were responsible for the collection and maintenance of historical events. By modern standards, the process of archiving was extremely primitive. As a consequence, separating the myths and rumors from actual historical facts becomes problematic.

Muslims argue that since pre-Islamic Arabia was a largely oral culture, the Arabs were particularly good at memorization. However, as I will try to demonstrate in this post, humans generally tend to forget and even the Arabs are no exception.

The second problem in validating the Muslim narrative about the completeness and historical authenticity of the Qur’an is the absence of counter-narratives. We only know about the preservation, compilation and standardization of the Qur’an through the lenses of Muslim scholars and scribes, who lived during the initial years of Islam.

To the best of my knowledge, there appear to be no historical records, written and preserved by non-Muslims, who lived in that era about the process of compilation and canonization of the Qur’an. The lack of a counter-narrative raises more questions about the claim that the Qur’an has been preserved in its actual form since the time of its revelation.

There have been certain books, such as Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, which, according to Wikipedia, try to understand the origins of Islam in light of the then-contemporary historical, archaeological and philological data. Hagarism apparently draws not from just Arabic historical documents but also from Armenian, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Syriac sources. I will not go into the detailed analysis of this book for I have not read it and scholars do not seem to accept the conclusions of the book. I will, however, state that although early Islam, as described in works like Hagarism, may not be accurate according to scholars, stringent and skeptical standards along with ‘rich literatures of the Middle East that existed before, during and after the rise of Islam’ are needed in order to have a more accurate understanding about the emergence of the Qur’an.

So, without further ado, let’s start with the Muslim narrative about the compilation of the Qur’an, which can be understood through Hadith. Ahadith (plural of hadith) are the reports of the teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that are not part of the Qur’an. Ahadith also contain the saying and teachings of the companions of Prophet Muhammad. In this post, I will be elaborating my point about the difficulty in determining the completeness of the Qur’an, in light of the following hadith, which is attributed to Zaid bin Thabit Al-Ansari:

Who was one of those who used to write the Divine Revelation: Abu Bakr sent for me after the (heavy) casualties among the warriors (of the battle) of Yamama (where a great number of Qurra’ were killed). ‘Umar was present with Abu Bakr who said, ‘Umar has come to me and said, The people have suffered heavy casualties on the day of (the battle of) Yamama, and I am afraid that there will be more casualties among the Qurra’ (those who know the Qur’an by heart) at other battle-fields, whereby a large part of the Qur’an may be lost, unless you collect it. And I am of the opinion that you should collect the Qur’an.” Abu Bakr added, “I said to ‘Umar, ‘How can I do something which Allah’s Apostle has not done?’ ‘Umar said (to me), ‘By Allah, it is (really) a good thing.’ So ‘Umar kept on pressing, trying to persuade me to accept his proposal, till Allah opened my bosom for it and I had the same opinion as ‘Umar.” (Zaid bin Thabit added:) Umar was sitting with him (Abu Bakr) and was not speaking. me). “You are a wise young man and we do not suspect you (of telling lies or of forgetfulness): and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Apostle. Therefore, look for the Qur’an and collect it (in one manuscript). ” By Allah, if he (Abu Bakr) had ordered me to shift one of the mountains (from its place) it would not have been harder for me than what he had ordered me concerning the collection of the Qur’an. I said to both of them, “How dare you do a thing which the Prophet has not done?” Abu Bakr said, “By Allah, it is (really) a good thing. So I kept on arguing with him about it till Allah opened my bosom for that which He had opened the bosoms of Abu Bakr and Umar. So I started locating Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leaf-stalks of date palms and from the memories of men (who knew it by heart). I found with Khuzaima two Verses of Surat-at-Tauba which I had not found with anybody else, (and they were): “Verily there has come to you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty He (Muhammad) is ardently anxious over you (to be rightly guided)” (9.128) The manuscript on which the Quran was collected, remained with Abu Bakr till Allah took him unto Him, and then with ‘Umar till Allah took him unto Him, and finally it remained with Hafsa, Umar’s daughter.

This is hadith # 201 in Book 60 of the 6th Volume of Sahih al-Bukhari, which is one of the six major hadith collection. A number of points come to my mind after reading this hadith and assuming that the hadith is true.

1) The Qur’an was not compiled during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad.

2) There were no instructions left by Prophet Muhammad on how to compile and order the verses of the Qur’an.

3) There is a possibility that some verses of the Qur’an may have been lost.

The first and second point are more than evident. With regards to the third point, I’d say the following. Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari was the only one who remembered the last two verses of Surat At-Tauba. Now, since Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari, was the only person who remembered these last two verses, how can one be sure that he did not err? I am not questioning the sincerity and honesty of Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari here. I am rather questioning the imperfection of the human mind, which tends to forget with the passage of time and also muddles up events of the past. I don’t think that there can be a definite resolution of this issue.

Given that Verse 128 of Surat At-Tauba is included in the Qur’an, we are only left to speculate whether this verse is indeed part of the Qur’an that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. We also do not know if there were any other verses of Surat At-Tauba or any other Surah that were forgotten.

Moving on, we find another hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari about the process of canonization of the Qur’an. Narrated by Anas bin Malik, it is hadith # 510 in Book 61, Volume 6 and is as follows:

Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were Waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to ‘Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Quran) as Jews and the Christians did before.” So ‘Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to ‘Uthman. ‘Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, ‘Abdullah bin AzZubair, Said bin Al-As and ‘AbdurRahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. ‘Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue.” They did so, and when they had written many copies, ‘Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. ‘Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. Said bin Thabit added, “A Verse from Surat Ahzab was missed by me when we copied the Qur’an and I used to hear Allah’s Apostle reciting it. So we searched for it and found it with Khuzaima bin Thabit Al-Ansari. (That Verse was): ‘Among the Believers are men who have been true in their covenant with Allah.’ (33.23)

As evident from the two ahadith I have shared, the collection and canonization of the Qur’an was an extremely arduous task. This clearly leads to the fundamental problem, as stated on Wikipedia, in determining if the ‘Uthmanic text comprehends the entire body of material that was revealed to Muhammad, or if there has been material that is missing from the Uthmanic text.’

There are Muslim counter-arguments of course. According to Wikipedia:

Al-Khoei brings up in favor of the Qur’an is that by the time ‘Uthman became caliph, Islam had spread to such an extent that it was impossible for him, or even for anyone more powerful than him, to remove anything from the Qur’an. The value and importance the Qur’an during this time protected it from being altered. In the oral culture at this time, people paid great attention to memorizing pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, it is hard to imagine that they did not pay similar attention to the preservation of the Book of the Almighty, especially since they believed they would be rewarded in the hereafter for memorizing it. Uthman could have altered the text, but he would have been unable to remove the Qur’an from the hearts of the Muslims who had memorized it.

I would argue that even though the Arabs may have paid utmost attention to memorizing the verses of the Qur’an, Arabs are, at the end of the day, humans, who tend to forget and make errors. The two ahadith I have shared illustrate the point that only one person remembered certain supposed verses of the Qur’an, which no one else remembered! This does, according my understanding, makes the possibility of completely forgetting some of the verses of Qur’an as extremely real.

Another possible question is: what if these ahadith are not true? In that case, we are still left with the problem of historically determining and subsequently validating on how the Qur’an was compiled during the life and after the death of Prophet Muhammad. If these ahadith are not true, we cannot know whether there were any reliable media, apart from the faulty human memory, to effectively store and transmit the verses of the Qur’an.

Summing up, I would say that the belief that Qur’an has been preserved in its entirety since the time of Prophet Muhammad needs re-examination. It’s about time that Muslims start looking into this matter seriously.

Religion is the opium of the people

Recently, a video clip has sparked controversy amongst the Muslims in general and Pakistani Muslims in particular. Junaid Jamshed (JJ), a pop-star turned televangelist, made a few Islamically inappropriate comments about the Mother of Sunni Muslim Ummah: Aishah bint Abi Bakr, who was one of wives of Prophet Muhammad.

JJ, in my opinion, tried to crack a misogynistic joke by sharing an anecdote about Aisha and Muhammad so as to highlight what, according to him, is an essential attribute of being a woman: attention seeking.

JJ said something on the following lines:

Hazrat Aisha (Hazrat being an honorable Arabic title) often used to seek the attention of Prophet Muhammad. She would often pretend to be sick so that Prophet Muhammad may come and tend to her. Once she wrapped her head, lay down and cried in pain. Prophet Muhammad came and inquired as to what happened. She said my head is splitting in two and I am very sick. Prophet Muhammad said: Oh Aisha, if you die in this condition, the Prophet of Allah will say your funeral prayer. Can you imagine how blessed will you be? She instantaneously got up, unwrapped her head and said: You want to me to die, so that you can go to your other wives! This story is proof of the fact that even in the company of the Prophet, women cannot change. Do not try to change women. Women are created from the most crooked portion of the rib. If you try to straighten it, it will break.

Whereas people in the West, including myself, will find this video offensive for the obvious misogynistic attitude of JJ, Muslims are upset for a completely different reason.

Even though I have grown up in Pakistan in a somewhat religious household, I have always struggled to find the emotional connection with and reverential significance of Prophet Muhammad, his kin and companions. However, for Muslims in Pakistan, it is simply inconceivable to talk about the revered personalities of Islam in such a light-hearted manner.

Islamists like Aamir Liaquat Hussain and Syed Muzaffar have gone absolutely berserk.

I will not translate these two videos in English for there is nothing of substance in these speeches. These speeches are, to quote Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.

Needless to say, these individuals are full of religious fervor. Their diatribes are emotionally charged and, in these two videos, they have gone as far as abusing the mother of JJ.

Aamir Liaquat Hussain and Syed Muzaffar are a classic example of the growing intolerance and bigotry in Pakistan. They believe that their own parochial interpretation of Islam is the true Islam and anyone that does not conform to their interpretation is a kaafir and subject to punishment according to the injunctions of Islam.

In fact, what JJ did is, for all practical purposes, tantamount to blasphemy. It isn’t surprising that an official case of blasphemy has already been registered against JJ in Pakistan.

Blasphemy is a serious issue in Pakistan for which literally thousands of people have been killed in the past couple of years. One of the recent and most tragic incidents was the attack on a Christian couple last month by a mob of more than 1000 Muslims. The couple was burned alive in a brick kiln and the woman was 4 months pregnant.

Thinking about this event sends a chill down my spine and I just don’t have enough words to express how I feel. Even though JJ has publicly released a video, sincerely apologizing for his action, it remains to be seen if the Muftis, Aalims and the general masses in Pakistan forgive him and embrace him once again.

If anything can be said with certainty, it is that the life of JJ and his family is in danger. He is in UK and has no plans to return to Pakistan.

Even a practicing, main-stream, Sunni Muslim like Junaid Jamshed is not safe in Pakistan any more. This is the sorry state of affairs in Pakistan. Religiosity and fanaticism of the highest order have taken hold of the masses and it is difficult to find sane and liberal voices in the din of Islamist slogans. I seriously hope that passionate inquiry into the very fundamentals of Islam (as I am trying to do through my blogs) leads towards more tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness.

End of Revelation. Really?

One important aspect of being Muslim is to believe in the end of Prophethood. Prophet Muhammad is considered to be the final prophet sent to human kind by Allah the Great and no other human being can become a prophet until the end of time.

This does not mean that humans have not had any prophets after the demise of Muhammad. In fact, as can been seen in this article, numerous individuals claimed prophethood after Prophet Muhammad and Muslims, as seen in this article, consider all of those claims as false.

The idea of finality of Prophethood known as “Khatam an-Nabiyyin” is controversial. In the subcontinent, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian made a claim regarding prophethood and his followers are still being persecuted in Pakistan.

As a freethinking agnostic, I find it extremely hard to believe how the words of the Qu’ran can actually be the literal speech of a metaphysical entity that sustains the entire Universe but chose only Prophet Muhammad as a messenger and sealed the possibility of talking to humanity ever again.

I just can’t come to terms with the fact that Allah, who, if exists, and is by definition the Most Beneficent and the Most Merciful, would choose to keep us humans of the 21st Century into such an abysmal darkness regarding His personal existence. Why would Allah abandon us after the demise of Prophet Muhammad?

Revelation (if it can ever be proved scientifically), in my opinion, has to be progressive. The doors to revelation cannot be sealed off for eternity after a specific period in human history (such as the death of Prophet Muhammad).  In this regard, my own views echo with the followers of Bahá’í faith. I recently came across an article on the Wikipedia about the Bahá’í belief “that religious truth is revealed by God progressively and cyclically over time through a series of divine Messengers, and that the teachings are tailored to suit the needs of the time and place of their appearance.

Whereas the veracity of all religious claims need be first established in some empirical form, the idea of progressive revelation is much more intuitively appealing than the concept of “Khatam an-Nabiyyin.”

Allah, if He is out there, needs to reveal Himself to us in ways that a rational mind of the 21st Century can understand and appreciate.