Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Allah's Quality Control 1.5: Opposition

A significant portion of the Qur'an is devoted to narrations of Muhammad's arguments with his opponents. But if his message was peace and love, why did he even have opponents? The long answer to this question begins with a brief overview of the cultural and historical context to which Muhammad introduced the Qur'an.

You may know of Mecca, the Holy City of Islam, in western Saudi Arabia. You may know of the Ka'aba, that large, black structure in Mecca that looks like the Borg from Star Trek. It is a shrine to Yahweh, the Muslim god, the god also worshiped by Jews and Christians. You may know of the pilgrimage and circumambulatory ritual performed by countless Muslims every year at the Ka'aba. The Ka'aba, the pilgrimage, and the ritual were all there long before Muhammad.

The pagan Arabs respected Yahweh, and even acknowledged him in their prayers as the Supreme Being of All Things. But they were modest about their place in the cosmos: not wanting to bother the Big Guy with their mundane problems, they turned instead to idols, lesser deities who served as intercessors with Yahweh. In Muhammad's day, although it was nominally devoted to Yahweh, the Ka'aba hosted several hundred idols that received quite a bit of the pilgrims' attention.

While the men of Muhammad's culture spent a lot of time at war with each other over matters of family honor, they usually respected the tradition that violence was never allowed anywhere near Mecca. This paid off--not only for pilgrims, who could focus more on worship and less on their personal safety, but also for Mecca's cash-flow. By Muhammad's time, some of the families of Mecca had grown wealthy, to some degree due to the periodic influx of hungry, thirsty pilgrims.

By custom, certain tasks relating to pilgrim hospitality and guardianship of the Ka'aba were managed by two officers from the leading tribe of Mecca. Great prestige was associated with these positions. One indicator of the importance of family honor is that the various clans of this tribe were willing to march themselves outside the no-fighting zone to slaughter each other for the privilege of fielding these officers.

Now, let's recall our question: why did Muhammad have opponents? It certainly was not because of his message of peace and love; that is not what the Qur'an is about. If you've been following this series, you've heard my summary of the Qur'an's message. Muhammad's version goes like this: Yahweh is the only god; the idols are inanimate objects, not gods. Yahweh is furious that people talk, or rather, think they're talking, to any god other than himself, so furious that no matter how much good you ever do in the world, if you don't repent of your engagements with other gods, you will go to hell.

Muhammad wanted to destroy the idols. Needless to say, this would be a blow to the pilgrimage industry, and Muhammad tried to make it seem that the greed and arrogance of the wealthy were behind much of the opposition. But it wasn't just the wealthy who would have been affected. The loss of the pilgrims would have shaken all of Mecca's economy. Muhammad conveniently overlooked this point.

Further, the naysayers were far more genuine than he gave them credit for, and it is truly poetic justice that his own descriptions of their arguments give the lie to his insinuations. Their fear of economic downturn was minor compared to their fear of each other. If the tribes of Mecca were to let Muhammad have his way, their rivals outside Mecca would invade the city and drive them off their land for allowing the Ka'aba and the idols to be desecrated.

Surprisingly, these material concerns were only a small part of the pagans' complaints against Muhammad. Most of the their comments reflect more of a gut-level reaction, which leads us finally to the short--and obvious--answer. Why did Muhammad have opponents? His listeners were simply offended by his derogatory pronouncements, which amounted to: you're a bad person. God has chosen me specially to tell you so. Your cherished family traditions are repugnant. And if you don't do what I say, you're all going to hell, along with your esteemed forebears who gave you those traditions.

Why did Muhammad have opponents? Because he went around insulting people, their customs, their families, their ancestors. And yet, he now has followers who will kill you for drawing his likeness.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Allah's QC 1.4: Insecurity

The Qur'an would be a lot shorter if Muhammad and God had agreed not to repeat the same themes, the same stories, the same phrases over and over. But there is a reason for all the repetition: the Qur'an is poetry. In Muhammad's day, men who could compose good poetry and deliver compelling recitations were the rock stars of the culture. Lucky for Muhammad he had an excellent voice, and even luckier, he found a way to make beautiful poetry out of God's non-stop wailing over our failure to adequately stroke his ego.

I said earlier that the primary message of the Qur'an is that Muhammad is God's homie. But that's only the earthly part of the message, the part that applies to Muhammad. The heavenly part is that God, the infinite Yahweh, is infinitely fragile. God had to send Muhammad because Abraham, Moses, and all the other prophets could not entirely convey God's distress over the pagan Arabs worshiping other gods. And it was never good enough that even before Muhammad, the pagans readily acknowledged God's supremacy. They actually tried to work with God when he complained about their idol worship, which he referred to as "ascribing partners" to him. One of their prayers went along these lines: God, you don't have any partners, and if you did, they would be your slaves. Sadly, infinite vanity makes no allowance for such compromise. If you worship other gods, even if you also worship Yahweh, you'll go to hell.

It's not only the pagans who are in trouble. Christians are also doomed. Although I've never studied heavenly genetics, it's my understanding that being a son of God makes Jesus a god himself. But the universe just isn't big enough for more than one god. The early Christians worried a lot about celestial biology and its troublesome implications concerning Jesus. They attempted to solve the problem by inventing the doctrine of the Trinity, which makes Jesus a member of a mysterious hive-mind that functions as a single god. Muhammad rejects this notion vehemently. If you worship Jesus, even if you also worship Yahweh, you'll go to hell.

In his frequent exhortations to us to treat each other well, Muhammad seems to suggest that God can think of something beyond his insecurities. But this is an illusion. Consider: what should be the driving force behind acts of good will between humans? There's only one that makes any sense: compassion, a concern for suffering. Does God agree? No, compassion is irrelevant. For Muhammad, our fundamental motivation for everything we do, is the reward of heaven (or the punishment of hell). Even our attempts at compassion are tainted by God's vanity. Muhammad says when we do something good for the needy, we must tell them our charity is about God, and has nothing to do with them. God didn't create us to be compassionate to each other; he says so, in Sura 51 verse 56: "I created humankind only that they might worship me."

Without compassion as a foundation, virtue is entirely arbitrary. Underpinned by God's narcissism, it turns grotesque. Muhammad says we can get into heaven by dying--or killing--for the cause of Islam. And to be clear, we're talking about killing non-believers. Murdering a Muslim is a guaranteed ticket to hell. Why would God care if you kill someone who doesn't spend all day fawning over him? The bottom line in God's self-serving moral framework is this: no matter how compassionate you are, no matter how much good you do in the world, if you don't worship Yahweh, you'll go to hell.

The Qur'an is said to be exceptionally beautiful poetry. Perhaps this is true, if you don't know the language, if all you hear is a lyrical chant of unknown syllables. But in any language you understand, it's really just the story of God's embarrassing lack of self-esteem.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Allah's QC 1.3: Women

What does the Qur'an say about the value of a woman? And what does it say about her place in society? Although Muhammad makes a few pronouncements that are almost encouraging, it is hard to know what to make of them, given his otherwise degenerate view of women.

As I mentioned before, Muhammad appropriates the books of Moses as part of his religious heritage. He refers often to various well known stories, such as Adam and Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah. These two stories in particular tell us quite a bit about a woman's worth. In the Garden, Eve is created expressly to be Adam's mate, his helper, not a person in her own right. In Sodom, Lot offers his daughters to the raping mob. While God finds this obscenity perfectly acceptable, he executes Lot's wife for the crime of looking back at the destruction of her home. Muhammad provides commentary, dismissing Lot's wife as an old woman who stayed behind and was condemned to hell.

Muhammad adds a few more words to the message of the Old Testament, to make sure you, women, know how much you're worth. In some cases relating to contracts and inheritance, your value as a human being could rise to half that of a man. But it's only while you're capable of breeding that you have your few rare chances to reach that height. God's feelings about girls are hardly better than his feelings about old women. The pagan Arabs believed that God has daughters. God finds this idea enormously offensive. But there is something that angers him further: these same pagans are stricken with grief at the birth of a girl. So they are knowingly dumping their garbage, that is, you, on God. Although your reproductive organs give you some value as a commodity, your vagina in particular works against you. You are dirty. Having sex with you makes your man dirty. He's not even allowed to pray until he cleans up. And during your period, you are diseased, practically contagious.

So much for your self-esteem. Where do you fit in society? In the ancient play called Lysistrata, the women of Greece find a measure of political power by refusing to have sex with their men. Under Muhammad, this is not an option. Your man doesn't need you for sex. He is allowed three other wives beside you. And it's no good forming an alliance with them, as he can always have sex with his slaves. And he is the one who gets to refuse you: he can divorce you by simply refraining from having sex with you for a few months, and then you are out on the street, along with your children.

It is your responsibility to avoid inflaming the lusts of men. To attract as little attention as possible, you must cover your hair, your neck, cleavage, ankles, and don't make eye contact. In fact, just stay in the house unless there's a good reason to go out. When you do go out, walk softly. Only trashy women stamp their feet (to draw attention to the bracelets on their hidden ankles). But don't speak softly; your soft voice--men just can't be held responsible.

Does the Qur'an really give men permission to hit you? Yes, within reason. Only your husband is allowed to do it, and only if you are misbehaving. It is to be a last resort, after he has tried other prescribed measures to get you under control, such as refusing to have sex with you--that is, threatening to divorce you, and leave you destitute. And when your man finally decides you need a beating, he can't make it severe or violent. But even if "non-violent beating" weren't a moron's oxymoron, we have to ask: how severely would a man have to beat you to make you his bitch? At the very least, he'll have to hit you hard enough that you won't hit him back.

In heaven, God gives men virgins. If your man is the pig that Muhammad has encouraged him to be, you will surely be relieved to see him run off with all those bimbos. But what is your reward for putting up with him? A harem of your own? Maybe a bunch of hot guys who let you finish your sentences? No. Maybe just one guy who knows how to operate a toilet seat? No. Remember, you exist for men; you're not a person.

What are these "almost encouraging" pronouncements I mentioned at the beginning? Muhammad drops a few hints to men that killing your infant daughters is not a great idea. He gives you a couple of nods for the difficulties of pregnancy and the ordeal of childbirth. And the transfer of wealth that accompanies marriage is not a purchase: your husband pays it directly to you and it's your own property. But these are anomalies; they clearly don't fit his overall framework. And let's not forget: we're looking only at the Qur'an at this point, only one of the pillars of Islamic doctrine. Stay tuned for the Hadith.

Muhammad's philosophy of women follows the same pattern as his philosophy of compassion. It is a steaming pile of outrageously bad ideas, adorned with a handful of accidentally less-bad ideas.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Allah's QC 1.2: Heaven (And Virgins?)

Muhammad's vision of hell highlights not only his psychopathic tendencies, but also his lack of creativity. Although his vile celebrations may seem visionary, we know that they are borrowed from centuries of tradition built up by Christian theologians. As for his heaven, we already know it rests on a foundation of barbarism; living there would be its own kind of hell. Can Muhammad, with his limited imagination, conjure anything to attract us to heaven, other than the fact that we won't be on fire? Let's have a look.

Heaven is a land of enormous gardens, often overlooking rivers. There are flowering meadows, springs, fountains, vineyards, and big trees that cast plenty of shade.

If you have thoroughly kissed God's ass, or died--or killed--for the cause of defending his infinitely fragile ego, you will live here eternally in bliss, serenity, social harmony, peace. If we hadn't already learned about hell and the savagery it embodies, we might wonder how those who go around torturing and murdering their fellow human beings could enjoy such a place. But we have seen, and will see again, that they are attracted to Yahweh for a reason.

Although the weather is always nice, God has provided shelter. You will live in a mansion with lofty halls. You will sit on a throne, wearing the finest green silk, embroidered with gold. Jewelry made of gold, silver, and pearls will always be in fashion.

When you're hungry, you will stroll to your meals on carpets and recline with your fellow believers on luxurious couches. For an appetizer, there is delicious fruit, still on the tree, that you can reach from your comfortable seat. Anything you can't easily reach will be brought to you on golden trays by beautiful, eternally youthful servants. But guys, don't get excited just yet. Even if they are human, which is not at all clear, Muhammad refers to them as manservants. Your silver goblet will always be full. On the beverages menu are exotic, magical wines that cause neither hangover nor alcoholism. If magic wine is not to your taste, there are rivers of magic milk, magic honey, and of course, boring old magic water. For your main course, you will have meat, and...meat. And meat.

What forms of entertainment will you find? Only one amusement for the general population is advertised: Muhammad invites you to add to the agony of those who are suffering unspeakable torment in hell. Although everyone will join in the delight of pouring boiling water on the faces of the damned, surely the most grateful recipients of this reward are God's murderers and torturers, who would otherwise not enjoy heaven.

As for that other, more exclusive form of entertainment: you'll be happy to learn that the Qur'an never says you get 72 virgins. Happy, because there is never a hint of there being a limit to the number of virgins you can avail yourself of. You can even marry them, although we must wonder what the point of marriage would be, as your virgins will be heavily guarded, presumably against communal use. Given the absurdly pornographic overtones of Muhammad's hell, we might expect his virgin stories to be at least a little kinky. Unfortunately, generations of prudish Christian theologians are of no inspirational value on this front. For all Muhammad's poetic imagery, his accommodating virgins are basically pretty girls with big tits.

Maybe you like stormy weather, vegetables, beer. Maybe your sex fantasies have evolved since adolescence. And just maybe, you have the slightest concern for the lives and the suffering of your fellow human beings. Insipid, yet ghastly, Muhammad's heaven won't be your kind of place. Except, of course, you won't be on fire.

That's 1.2. Thanks for watching.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Allah's QC 1.1: Hell

Does the Qur'an promote peace?

Detractors usually refer to its explicit endorsements of violence. However, recent centuries have seen astonishing advances in techniques of interpretation, enabling the superstitious to explain away many of the embarrassments in their superstitions. But a definitive answer, one that won't boil away in the interpretive crock pot, requires that we ask a deeper question.

Does the Qur'an encourage us to respect the lives of our fellow human beings? No. As Muhammad points out quite often, eternity makes human life here on Earth irrelevant. But this is only a partial answer. We must focus the question further and ask whether the Qur'an promotes a respect for suffering; that is, does it promote compassion?

It is said that Muhammad is a model to be emulated by all virtuous people. So if Muhammad himself has no regard for suffering, or worse, lecherously celebrates it, then hateful fanatics can justify any sort of brutality, even without overt encouragement. Our revised question can easily be answered with a quick tour of Muhammad's hell.

Hell is a raging fire that spares nothing, a roaring, crackling, boiling place of scorching wind, scalding water, shadow and smoke. A place of wailing and abandonment. A gated dungeon guarded by angels.

You, infidels, will be driven to hell in hordes, goaded by iron rods with hooks. Chained together, in collars, manacles, fetters, clothed in burning tar. As you arrive, the people already there will blame you for their plight and call on God to double your punishment, but God has already decided that everyone in hell will receive double punishment.

Of course, fire is the primary source of your torment: an awning of fire above and a floor of fire below; a bed, a covering, a tent of fire that encloses you on all sides. Your skin will be burned away, but God will forever make more skin for you, to maintain your agony. You will never get any relief, and of course, you'll never die.

You'll be forced to eat fire, as well as a kind of fruit called Zaqqum, which will choke you, then turn to molten brass in your stomach. As a bonus, these torments will serve to remind you of your terrible hunger. As for your terrible thirst, you'll be forced to drink from a boiling spring, festering water that will tear your bowels.

You'll be relentlessly mocked by unknown voices, relentlessly mocked by God himself. If you try to escape, you will be dragged back into the fire and mocked again.

God especially dislikes your face. You'll be thrown into fire, face-first. You'll be dragged on your face through boiling water, punched in the face by angels. Your face will be blackened, scorched, burned, covered with fire.

This is God's attitude toward suffering. But perhaps the people of God understand basic decency; perhaps they are better than God. Perhaps they will recoil, horrified, and beg God to release you. No, they will join God in mocking you while you suffer unspeakably. Whatever you do, don't cry out to them for help, unless you want them to pour boiling water on...you guessed it--your face.

The Qur'an really does say every word of this, and actually much more, over and over, in 80 of the 114 suras. You might think Muhammad was exceptionally ill, coming up with such lurid fantasies. But he was merely adding a new layer to an already towering edifice, six centuries of tradition built up by Christian theologians such as Ignatius, Tertullian, and Augustine. Clearly, Yahweh is a magnet for psychos.

To endorse a god that will preside over such obscenities, one must harbor a deep-seated, viciously aggressive hatred for one's fellow humans. In a religion that actively encourages this hatred, there is no particular need for explicit calls to violence.

That's 1.1. Thanks for watching.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Allah's QC 1.0: Je Suis Charlie

When fanatics of any faith engage in hateful activities in the name of their religion, observers everywhere foolishly assert that the fanatics are misinterpreting their holy books. There is an obvious fact that goes unnoticed: these are books of holy savagery; to get a moderate, liberal message from them, it is absolutely essential to discard the simple face value of the words in the books. In this series I will talk about the words in the Qur'an. We will see where it lies on the continuum between the foundation for a religion of peace, and a tool to be used by hateful people to justify their hatefulness. In this video, a brief introduction to Muhammad and the Qur'an.

Muhammad was born in the latter half of the sixth century, that is, about 500 years after the Christian Gospels were written. He was orphaned while still a kid, and was raised by a relative. When he was about 40 years old, he started claiming that the angel Gabriel was delivering messages from God, which Muhammad was commanded to recite to his fellows. In Muhammad's mind, this is the same god as is worshiped by Jews and Christians--referred to as Allah, but Allah is a title, similar to the English word God, not an actual name. Muhammad appropriates the books of Moses, the Jewish prophets, and the Gospels as part of his religious heritage, liberally embellishing them with the mythology of his own culture.

Muhammad never learned to read or write, so the holy books of Islam were written by his followers.
His sayings have been divided into two categories. The first category includes all the sayings that were delivered by the angel, God's words recited verbatim. These make up the Qur'an. The second category includes both Muhammad's inspired paraphrases of God's message, and his other sayings that weren't inspired but were still considered edifying. This second category is the basis for the writings known as the Hadith. I'll address the Hadith in a future series.

The Qur'an is organized into 114 chapters, called suras. Some of these are lengthy stories; others are short poems. Strangely, the suras are not in chronological order, but instead are ordered from the longest to the shortest. Or perhaps not so strangely: the Christian New Testament is also not in chronological order. From a doctrinal standpoint, the order of the New Testament is irrelevant. The order of the Qur'an is very important: in sura #2, the 87th sura to come down from heaven, God introduces the idea of abrogation, which basically means that he reserves the right to change his mind. So doctrine set down in later sayings overrides any contradictory doctrine in earlier sayings.

There is very little in the Qur'an to provide instruction on how we should live our lives. To Muhammad's credit, he mentions charity quite often, and it's no surprise that his God has a soft spot for orphans. The primary message of the Qur'an is that Muhammad is God's mouthpiece, and by the way, you should obey God (which is almost always equated with obeying Muhammad). If you don't believe that Muhammad's message comes from God, you will go to hell. Muhammad's constant whining about people who won't believe that he's tight with God is a dominant theme.

When I first read the Qur'an, I was struck by how human Muhammad seems as compared to Jesus. Jesus is just a psycho with almost no personality, exactly the kind of character one would expect from a bunch of different oral traditions being mashed together. Muhammad is a psycho, but he is also recognizably a human being: hedonistic, hypocritical, shortsighted and small-minded, laughably thin-skinned and petty, a goofy Homer Simpson type whose renown serves as a reminder that in the world of humans, personal charisma counts for far more than substance. Now he is revered by many, just as Jesus is revered: either by people who have never read the material, or who ignore its face value in favor of interpretations more palatable to modern sensibilities.

Or bigots seeking justification for their hatred.

That's 1.0. Thanks for watching.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

God's QC 10.10: Jesus And The One Percent

Here I continue my thoughts on the question whether Jesus can be regarded as a compassionate figure with respect to his attitude toward the needy. To prepare for my previous video and this one, I combed the Gospels for verses that I have come to call money verses, in which Jesus says anything that can be related to the topic of socioeconomic status. I said I had found 250 such verses, but I made a bad mistake in my spreadsheet. The actual count is about 370. Fortunately, the mistake doesn't invalidate anything in the previous video, but I do apologize for the error. The number of money verses is important for this video as well. Jesus gives us about 370. Everything he ever says in favor of the poor or as a warning to the rich comprises only about 60 of these. What can we learn about the mind of Jesus from the remaining 300 or so verses? Let's have a look:

Jesus loves rich people. He exerts literally ten times as much effort telling stories about them as he spends giving lip service to charity. There is only one beggar in all of his parables. We see a handful blue-collar types with homes to live in, food to spare, and easy access to officials in the local law courts. The remainder of his characters own livestock, fishing boats, gardens, farms, vineyards. Some are merchants; others, moneylenders. Some Jesus describes simply as rich, but most he describes in detail. They throw big parties and invite rich friends, or travel long distances to attend their friends' parties. Some develop their lands and use them for commercial purposes. Some have wealth that Jesus presents simply as treasures, while others have cold, hard cash.

Many of his stories are about people with servants. It is interesting to note that Jesus has a few of these "servants" being beaten, some severely. These aren't employees; they're property. We saw him botch his chance to comment on poverty; now we see him botch another big chance, telling stories about slaves without addressing slavery. Without even noticing it.

Revisiting one of the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" stories, we again meet the gangster who goes on a long journey after instructing his servants to invest some of his extra cash. He entrusts them with over $3M. When he returns, they have grown his investment to over $6M. Have a look at the video description if you're interested in how I arrived at these figures. In a different version of this particular story, the protagonist assigns less money to be invested, but this time he is a king who rewards his servants with lordship over entire cities. And not just one or two: he gives his two best performers authority over a total of 15 cities.

Jesus turns positively baroque spinning yarns about vineyards and wineries. In one story, a landowner finds himself in an entrepreneurial mood. He plants a vineyard, builds a wall around it, and constructs a winepress and a watchtower. But he doesn't build a home there, as this is strictly an investment property. He rents it out and moves away--why live near the rabble if you can afford not to? When the rent comes due, the tenants refuse to pay. But no matter, the man has an enormous supply of servants--or slaves--whom he can send to their deaths in futile attempts to collect. If it were anyone other than Jesus telling the story, I would take it as depicting an immensely profitable winery; otherwise, the owner would not have sacrificed so much other property just to collect the rent. But it is more likely that Jesus simply has no head for business, as also shown in the stories where he imagines that a shepherd would risk 99 sheep just to save one that has been lost.

Although Jesus does mutter a few words about greed, materialism, and smugness, he is clearly interested only in the sentiments of the rich, and oblivious to the more practical concern of how they treat the less fortunate. In one of his vineyard stories, the operation is thriving so well that the owner desperately visits the marketplace five times in one day to get enough laborers to work his land. There is so much work to be done that he is willing to hire people at the very end of the day. He can afford to pay even these a full days' wages after they have worked only one hour. When those who have worked all day complain about being paid the same as the latecomers, Jesus defends the rich man's right to treat the workers unfairly. Worse: the rich man's right to behave this way is the entire point of the story.

With a little creativity, any of Jesus' moral teachings could have been imparted with stories about the needy. He clearly has quite an imagination; I can only conclude that the needy simply weren't on his mind.

That's 10.10. Thanks for watching.