The popular image of Muslims these days is mostly that of raging fanatics who shout “Allahu Akbar!” while crashing trucks into crowds and blowing themselves and others up with suicide vests. I have no doubt that such people exist and that they are fanatical and dangerous. But the Muslims I have met in the West have been educated, reasonable, thoughtful, middle-class-seeming people.1
I’m thinking, in particular, of the husband of one of my supervisors at the biotech company. He was an Egyptian, formerly in diplomatic service, who was well-read and courteous, with a great sense of humor. He had no more interest in punishing unbelievers and throwing bombs than my grandmother. Of course, he was also from a well-to-do background. But in the matter of Islamic fanaticism, a person’s intelligence, breeding, and background are no guarantee of their gentility. Look at Osama bin Laden. Look at the young Saudis who could afford to take piloting lessons in order to fly jetliners into buildings.
In my experience, however, anyone who is well read and liberally educated tends to become more tolerant of other religions, not less. After studying the tenets of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the ancient Greco-Roman pantheon, and the surviving forms of animism and pantheism, it becomes impossible for an enlightened person to insist that “my reading” of the scriptures, “my sacred book” itself, and the belief system “I was taught as a child” represent the one true religion and that all the rest are pernicious poppycock.
But I understand where and how many modern Muslims have acquired their fanaticism. About 1,300 years after Christ, Christianity went through its own antiheretical phase, where unbelievers and schismatics were bullied, tortured, and sometimes burned at the stake. Much of that rock-hard belief was inspired by external pressure from the previous expansions of Islam into Spain, France, and Eastern Europe, and some of it was a response to internal pressures from the early Reformationist impulses, which arose through political manipulations and frankly heretical tendencies.
Now, about that same 1,300 years after Muhammad, Islam is going through a similar phase, where apostates are executed and unbelievers are beheaded. Islam is responding to much the same set of pressures, too: an encroaching spirit of Western culture that started with the Crusades in the Middle Ages but has vastly accelerated with the blossoming of a worldwide political, commercial, and electronic cultural tide. And Islam has always had tension among its various sects—mostly between Sunni and Shi’a—which is now being pushed by political pressure from Iran against the rest of the Middle East.
I can only hope that most Muslims will come out on the other side of this turmoil and adopt the worldview of most of today’s western Christians: “I know the Bible says I must believe this and follow that—such as the injunction about ‘not suffering a witch to live’2—but … you know … I just believe in a loving God who wants the best for all of us.” In time, their Allah may likewise become a polite, country-club gentleman who makes no life-threatening demands and creates no unpleasant waves.
Among the things that a well-read, thoughtful person is likely to dismiss from the sacred scriptures are the fantastic stories, such as that the God of all creation walked in the Garden of Eden and hobnobbed with Adam and Eve, or that He spoke the only absolute truth for all the ages into the ear of Muhammad in his dreams, or that He had a human son with the Virgin Mary in order to sacrifice him to the world. Such a well-read—and doubting—person will tend to discount these stories as literal truth and instead accept them figuratively, as metaphors for God’s loving personal relationship with all men and women, both as individuals and as a group.
When you have read enough of other religions, the best you can hope for in terms of a relationship with the one true God is a kind of Vedantic liberalism, where the godhead—however defined—is simply the ultimate conscious reality, a metaphysical all-soul that encompasses all human thought and perception, and each of us is merely a part of this reality which has broken off, is now spending time in the changing physical cosmos which is comprised of body and matter, and will one day return with newfound insights to rejoin and add to the whole. That’s a bleak and not very comforting view of the situation, but it works as a kind of bedrock reality that would explain the religious impulse in human beings that we don’t find in, say, spiders or great white sharks.
What I am groping towards here is uncertainty. A well-read and thoughtful person cannot believe that every religion—in all its specific and fine-grained details—represents the ultimate truth of the whole world, let alone a universe of a hundred billion galaxies.3 Oh, the details may be true, whole, and perfect in the mind of each believer, no doubt! But is it true for the world, or for every world? Is that one story actually the way the cosmos—and whatever metaphysics lies behind all that spinning star stuff—actually work?
A thoughtful person, having been exposed to different ideas and points of view, will have doubts about the nature of singular truth. Such a person may still hold to the principles of the religion he or she was taught as a child, delight in and believe as “mostly true” the stories in his or her particular sacred book, and try to follow the precepts and guidelines of its particular morality. This is part of any person’s acculturation. But he or she will have a hard time insisting that his or her own personal religion is the one true religion, the only correct interpretation, and that people who believe otherwise are apostates, infidels, wicked, vicious, and worthy of sudden death.
Tribalism seems to be part of our basic human heritage. But to overcome it in our search for something better, truer, more real, and more universal would also seem to be part of human nature.
1. Our condo complex seems to be a landing spot for people emigrating from societies in distress and arriving in this country, because we are located in an attractive Bay Area community with a good school district. During the 1980s and ’90s, we had an influx of people from Iran and Lebanon, as now we have Russians and Chinese. It makes life interesting.
2. Exodus 22:18.
3. In this, I am reminded of the legends of Britain’s early war chieftain, King Arthur. For a legend arising from the fifth century, it has such well-defined and specific details: the passionate attraction between Uther Pendragon and Ygraine of Cornwall, resulting in the illegitimate and orphaned Arthur; the royal sword Excalibur embedded in the stone by the wizard Merlin; the betrayals of the half-fairy Morgana and her illegitimate son Mordred; the search for the Holy Grail by the Knights of the Round Table; and the illicit love affair between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, which sundered the perfect kingdom of Camelot. It’s a rich tale that seems too culturally modern to have come down from barbarian Britain in the early years after Rome’s legions had packed up and left. And of course, it’s a tale that has been adapted and extended in the telling, both in English and French legend, reaching a final form with Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in the fifteenth century, further refined by T. H. White’s The Once and Future King in the twentieth century, adapted again in Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave series, and put on Broadway as Camelot by Lerner and Loewe. This sort of quirky specificity comes from telling and retelling the culture’s favorite story over the ages. I’m sure the same sort of expansion and enrichment happened to Homer’s Iliad and helped shape most of the stories in the Judeo-Christian Bible.