A Westerner Reads the Koran (Second Surah)

Pussin Golden Calf

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665): Adoration of the Golden Calf (1634)

Introduction. The Western layman approaching the Koran for the first time must experience something like befuddlement.  Supposing that the layman possesses a good education, including knowledge of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the core classics of the Greek and Roman worlds, the Koran will strike him as something like the opposite of that with which he enjoys familiarity.  Take the Bible’s Genesis: It deals in straightforward narrative, as do its Near Eastern precursor texts such as the Babylonian Creation or Enuma Elish.  The very opening words of Genesis invoke the concept of a beginning, which implies in advance both an ensuing middle and an end.  The same is true of the Greek poet Hesiod’s account of the generations of the gods – Elemental, Titanic, and Olympian – in his Theogony.  After Hesiod explains his own function as an interpreter of the lore concerning these things, he launches into his genealogical story whose episodes follow one another in comprehensible sequence: Once again, a beginning, a middle, and an end.  In much the same way, the New Testament follows the Old Testament so that, taken together, they constitute a unified tale.  The events in Homer’s Odyssey similarly follow in a comprehensible way the events in Homer’s Iliad.  The essential seriality, as it might be called, of Western narrative and exposition connects itself to their seriousness and to their comprehensibility.  Both the Old Testament and the New generally sort out their chapters so as to keep non-narrative prose separate from narrative prose.  This consideration helps the reader.  To whomsoever compiled the Koran these principles meant nothing; he was entirely unfamiliar with them.  The Koran lards non-narrative exposition into its narratives – promiscuously and confusingly from a readerly point of view.  A properly chronological narrative can, by a difficult labor, be reconstructed from the Koran’s chapters or surahs, which lifts the history of prophecy from the Old Testament, but the naïve Western reader who proceeds from one surah to another will encounter no orderly arrangement of episodes such as he might expect in the Bible or Homer.

The Koran bears some resemblance to a little-known category of quasi-Western literature that appeared in the Greek-speaking parts of the divided Roman Empire in the centuries that historians label as Late Antiquity.  The literature of the Third through the Fifth Centuries was largely religious and it was also competitively religious as sects and heresies of various kinds metastasized and proliferated.  The Bible familiar to modern Westerners had already been codified and enjoyed wide dissemination.  The Greek classics were still known to educated people.  Classical High Culture still existed and by the Fifth Century Nicene Christianity had established itself as the majoritarian religion of the Empire.  The sectarian pamphlets of the time, which constitute the little-known category referred to above, urge the causes of the multitudinous competing faiths, many of which belong to Gnostic religiosity.  (Definition to come)  A great cache of such documents came to light in the late 1940s and goes by the name of the Nag Hammadi Library, after the Egyptian locale where archaeologists discovered it.  One characteristic of the pamphlets in this collection is their parasitic relation to established texts, especially to the canonical Testaments; another is their implacable hostility to the established Scripture and its interpretation.  The word Gnostic describes the common attitude of the sectarian writers, which is one of absolute conviction and certainty, first, that the faith of the established Church is corrupt and false, and second that the writer has been vouchsafed by the Supreme Deity with a type of knowledge concerning these matters that is self-guaranteeing.  Gnosis refers to a type of secret revelation unavailable directly to the mass of people, who must trust the claims of the illuminatus if they want to participate in or benefit by it.

Nag Hammadi Pamphlet

One of the Nag Hammadi Scrolls

Being parasitic and competitive in the extreme, the radical religious pamphleteers of Late Antiquity made use of literary reversal.  In almost any item from the Nag Hammadi collection, the pamphleteer will retell an episode from the Old or the New Testament, but in a way that inverts its salient symbols so as to appropriate that story in a new overarching narrative with a meaning opposite to that of what it appropriates.  A recurrent trope of the Gnostic pamphlets is to retell Genesis in such a way that the Creator-God becomes a malicious secondary-deity who, jealous of the super-deity who created him, creates the physical universe in order that he might appear as the One True God to its inhabitants.  In some of the Gnostic literary reversals, Jesus appears not as the son of the Genesis deity, but of the super-deity, and he comes to abolish the false creation conjured to salve his own pride by the lower-order, jealous deity.  The pamphleteers never retell their borrowed stories straightforwardly, but their writers break them up and reorder the episodes seemingly at random.  They also mix narrative with homiletics and commentary, making neither the story nor the non-narrative component easy to follow.  Scholars remark that being difficult to understand and using a plethora of quasi-philosophical and quasi-theological terms – into the use of which one requires initiation – belonged centrally to the appeal of the Gnostic sects.  Acquiring the neologisms reinforced, as it does today in cultic recruitment, a peculiar us-versus-them, a radical inside-outside, mentality.  The language of the radical sects might be Greek, Coptic, or Syriac, and the pamphlets reflect this, but even the Coptic and Syriac texts borrow Greek terms.

In the paragraphs that follow, I want to undertake a reading of the Koran’s second surah, known as “The Cow,” according to the disciplines of literary exegesis and comparative literature that I studied during my graduate-student tenure in the Program for Comparative Literature at UCLA in the 1980s.  Thanks to the luck of my having attended school and college in the decades before the dumbing-down of American education had established its trend, I enjoy familiarity with a broad range of literature and philosophy from Antiquity through the Medieval Period right down to the Twentieth Century.  I have regularly taught a course in Greek and Latin literature in translation.  I am the author of numerous scholarly articles and an equal number of essays on cultural topics for a lay audienceNormally, I avoid the grammatical first person, but in the present context I want to make known my background because it will be relevant in assessing the plausibility of my comments and the legitimacy of my point of view.  My criteria are, precisely, Western; criticism is a Western practice although in the present day a much diminished one.  A long tradition exists in the West of scrutinizing sacred texts to see whether they can survive the investigation of their coherency and consistency.  Plato criticized Hesiod and Homer; beginning in the Eighteenth Century, writers of the Enlightenment brought the critical apparatus to bear on the Bible.  There is no equivalent in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, to the first sentence of the Koran: “This book is not to be doubted.”


“This book is not to be doubted”

I. That the Koran consists in a patchwork of borrowings and allusions has long been known. Chronologically, the Koran is a post-Classical or early medieval text originating in the tribal milieu of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian lands remained largely outside the influence of Hellenism although the neighboring Syriac lands did participate in the Byzantine chapter of Hellenism.  The Syriac people of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Centuries were Christians, but largely of the Monophysite rather than of the Greek Orthodox persuasion.  Monophysite Christianity established itself in the Arabian Peninsula alongside Arab paganism and Judaism.  It comes as no surprise then that fragments and motifs from the Old and New Testaments, and even from paganism, appear in “The Cow,” the very title of which would appear to entail an allusion, although a somewhat ambivalent one, to the Old Testament, specifically to Numbers.  Some way into “The Cow,” the Koran records a conversation between Allah, Moses, and the Hebrews.  Allah, speaking through the angel Gabriel to Mohammed, and using the first person plural or “We,” reminds Mohammed how he had once reminded Moses of the Abrahamic covenant, demanding that the people honor him with the sacrifice of a cow.  Moses passes the news of this demand to the people.  They mock him and behave with recalcitrance, quibbling about the details: “Make known to us what kind of cow it should be.”  Once they have wheedled all the details out of Moses, and having rounded up a qualifying specimen, “they slaughtered the cow.”  The Penguin edition of the Koran, which is my source, declares in a footnote that, “Numbers 19 refers merely to a sacrificial ‘cow’; it contains none of the verbal exchange in this surah.”  The passage, in other words, is a kind of riff on an obscure reference in one of the lesser known books of the Old Testament.

In the full text of the second surah of the Koran, the episode of the cow – from which that surah takes its name – enjoys only a shaky context.  The reader must search for its motivation.  Among the jumble of themes of the second surah, idolatry, a great anathema in Islam, makes itself prominent.  Under the presence of that theme, any reference to a cow should immediately take on added significance, at least for anyone familiar with the Old Testament.  In Exodus, readers encounter the episode of the Golden Calf.  Moses has climbed the mountain to receive the law from God, leaving Aaron in charge of the people.  The people in their confusion revert to idolatrous customs.  They convince Aaron, who fears the mob, to let them construct an idol in the form of a Golden Calf – to which they then make human and animal sacrifices.  When Moses returns, what he sees appalls him.  He orders the punitive execution of those who fomented the lapse although he spares Aaron.  Given that Islam vehemently condemns idolatry and given that the second surah of its founding book takes the wickedness of idolatry as a major theme, one wonders why “The Cow” makes no direct reference to the Golden Calf, but instead spins out an elaboration on a decontextualized detail from Numbers.  One possible answer has to do with the kinship of the Koran with the religious pamphlets of the Greek and Syriac worlds of Late Antiquity: A stubborn and maniacal insistence on one’s originality and priority.  To take over the Exodus story of the Golden Calf would indebt the Koran too obviously to Hebrew lore, so the reference although it necessitates itself must be made as indirectly as possible.  Islam contends that the Koran is “uncreated.”  The surah called “Ornaments” asserts that, “It is a transcript of the Eternal Book in Our keeping, sublime, and full of wisdom.”  One finds similar claims in the Gnostic booklets: The story of Creation in Genesis is actually, so the claim purports, a later, false account, concocted to bamboozle people and alienate them from the true faith and salvation; but this account is the prior, true account, and this pamphlet restores it to circulation.  In this way what knows itself to be belated and unoriginal attempts to convince an audience that it partakes in primordiality, to its own benefit.

Titles mean something to a Westerner.  The word genesis is Greek for the origin or creation of something.  When a Westerner opens Genesis for the first time and reads in sequence about the ex nihilo creation, the drawing forth of Adam from the clay, and the making of Eve from Adam’s rib, he remarks the correspondence between the title of the tale and the contents of the tale.  The foregoing paragraphs will have made it plain that in the Koran – or at least in “The Cow” – no such correspondence exists.  In the Penguin edition, the reader must deal with five pages of text before he comes to the actual episode of the heifer-sacrifice, which takes up about one page, and which is followed by a discussion of unbelief or infidelity.  It remains unclear how the episode of the heifer-sacrifice correlates with the theme of idolatry.  The heifer is not an idol, but a living creature, put to death; and the offering apparently pleases Allah.  The story therefore validates animal sacrifice and strongly implies the bloodthirsty character of the deity.  Slaughtering animals remains important in Islam.  Muslims slaughter animals ritually for feasts like the Eid during Ramadan.  The Arabian pagans practiced animal sacrifice and so did the Jews during the two eras of the Temple, but only at the Temple and not after the destruction of the second Temple.  Perhaps the point lies in the way that the people at first react to Moses.  Their initial insouciance belongs to unbelief.  The theme of unbelief jockeys with the theme of idolatry to provide the focus of “The Cow.”  But more than unbelief, the real theme would appear to be the absolute difference between believers and unbelievers and the perniciousness of the latter.


Slaughtering a cow for Eid

The first line of “The Cow,” as earlier noted, reads, “This Book is not to be doubted,” a statement on which the recurrent sortition (definition to come) of the Koran founds itself.  The main voice of the Koran hence also of “The Cow,” purports to be God’s own, as mediated by the angel Gabriel; the English translation in the Penguin edition couches that voice in the first person plural or “We,” invariably capitalized.  Sortition refers to the separating out of one category from another.  The god of the Koran hence also of its first surah reveals himself as obsessed with sortition – with separating the faithful from the unfaithful and in vilifying the latter.  The second sentence of “The Cow” reads: “It [the Koran] is a guide for the righteous, who believe in the Unseen and are steadfast in prayer; who give from what We gave them; who believe in what has been revealed to you and what was revealed before you, and have absolute faith in the life to come.”  The fourth and fifth sentences of “The Cow” read: “As for unbelievers, it is the same whether or not you forewarn them; they will not have faith.  God has set a seal upon their hearts and ears; their sight is dimmed and grievous punishment awaits them.”  Several paragraphs ensue that involve the condemnation of people who claim to believe but keep secret reservations in their hearts.  Thus: “There is a sickness in their hearts which God has aggravated…  God will mock them and keep them long in sin, ever straying from the right path.”

Some observations…  A Western reader looks for seriality, coherency, symmetry, logic, beauty in the image, and the presence of a discernible morality.  Just to count by pages, what does the reader stumble across in the first ten pages, say, of “The Cow”?  There are two pages of sortition, some sentences of which the previous paragraph quotes; one page recounting how Allah subordinated the angels to man and how Adam gave names to the things of the world; one page recounting the story of the heifer-sacrifice; three more pages of sortition; and one page discussing the principle of abrogation.  “The Cow” takes up the first thirty-two pages of the Penguin edition of the Koran.  The remaining twenty-two pages show no more apparent organization than the first ten but merely extend its lack of a discernible pattern.  In Western story telling or Western argumentation, the reader expects the beginning to motivate the middle logically, and the middle to motivate the end, also logically.  Logic consists in a description of, or a prescription for, consistent exposition, one part of which concerns the establishment of categories.  Establishing categories requires criteria by which one genus might be distinguished from another.  “The Cow” establishes categories – in the sortition, already mentioned, of those who have submitted and those who reject the creed – but it supplies no criteria for them.  The sortition can therefore only be arbitrary, a matter of who has power over whom in any given moment.  The principle, if that were the word, of abrogation is not merely illogical; it annihilates logic because it annihilates seriality.

More on abrogation… “Any verse We abrogate,” Allah announces, “We will replace by a better one or one similar.”  Most Orthosphere readers will understand the notion of abrogation, but in case anyone did not, a brief explanation would be useful.  Insofar as the Koran as a whole has a principle of construction, that principle, once again using the word loosely, is arrangement by length of the surah, with the longest coming first and the shortest coming last.  This type of plan obscures the chronological order of the surahs, but abrogation refers precisely to chronological order.  Under abrogation any contradiction among the surahs must be resolved in favor of the later surah; a later surah, supposing a difference, invalidates an earlier surah.  As there are numerous discrepancies among the surahs, the Western reader can only conclude that the Koran is a self-contradictory text.  Supposedly “uncreated” and “eternal,” it nevertheless announces that it has altered its own meaning – something that can only happen under the sign of time or historically.  And if the Koran were historical, it could not be eternal.  The ontology, so to speak, of the Koran, as revealed in “The Cow,” corresponds to the cosmic ontology, as envisioned by Islam.  In Western theology, which incorporates a cosmological element, once God has created the cosmos, he is bound by his creation.  Allah, however, being all-powerful, can alter creation at will.  A rational cosmology could arise on the predicates of Genesis, but not on the anti-predicates of the Koran.


The Religion of Peace

II. The relentless sortition in “The Cow” belongs to a clannish, tribal, or radically sectarian mentality in whose purview whatever lies within the collective is absolutely good and immune to criticism and whatever lies without it is toxic and evil. The theme of sortition connects itself by an internal logic, to which the text itself is oblivious, with the dichotomy of the pure and the impure. Sortition functions under such a dichotomy as a form of catharsis.  To remain pure, the in-group must constantly be on watch for the appearance or intrusion of impurity, which it then must ruthlessly expel.  The first surah of the Koran takes its name from an episode of animal sacrifice that pleases Allah.  Expulsion, which can take the form of ejection from the community at one end or of lynch-mob homicide at the other, belongs among the standard gestures of sacrifice.  “The Cow” is replete with calls for the violent treatment of the unbelievers.  That is to say, “The Cow” is replete with calls to murder in order to show respect for Allah and sustain the purity of the in-group.  Of those who stand accused of offering revelatory books of their own that would compete with the Koran, Allah declares, “Woeful shall be their fate, because of what their hands have written, because of what they did.”  Elsewhere the first surah informs its readers that “truly, those who commit evil and become engrossed in sin shall be the inmates of the Fire, wherein shall they abide forever.”  Elsewhere again, “Whoever is the enemy of God, His angels, or His apostles, or of Gabriel or Michael, will surely find that God is the enemy of the unbelievers.”  “The Cow” gives believers explicit permission to exercise “retaliation… in bloodshed.”  It urges jihad when it states that “fighting is obligatory for you.”  It judges that “idolatry is more grievous than bloodshed.”  Its final words are “Give us victory over the unbelievers.”  “The Cow,” in other words, sanctions violence against the out-group, which, because the in-group, out-group distinction is never purely spatial, provides a ready source of sacrificial victims spatially internal to the community.

The Introduction to this essay remarked a kinship, possibly remote, but not necessarily so, between the Koran and the radical sectarian pamphlets of Late Antiquity, which it characterized as Gnostic.  One of the longest enduring types of Gnosticism was the religious movement whose followers called themselves Manichaeans after their founder, Mani, who anticipating Mohammed claimed to be the last and supremely authoritative prophet of God.  Mani was a Persian of the Second Century; familiar with a variety of religions, including Christianity, he freely appropriated from them the parts of his synthetic creed.  Thus Manichaeism contains Christian motifs, Greek philosophical motifs, Jewish motifs, and motifs from many other sources.  From Zoroastrianism, Mani adopted the cosmological motif of dualism.  Now dualism posits that the universe divides itself into two territories: Half of it falls under the dominion of an evil spirit and the other half under the dominion of a good spirit or True God.  The two divinities battle one another through eons of time although the True God enjoys the knowledge of his predestinated triumph whereupon he will make whole the world.  Such a dualism belongs to Gnosticism generally.  One finds it, for example, in the convergent cosmologies of the Nag Hammadi Library.  The dualism of the Manichaeans is odd, because it will issue eventually in a monism and is teleologically, in the triumph of the True God, a type of monotheism.

Although Islam declares itself resolutely the most absolute of all absolute monotheisms, it bears the traces of something like the Manichaean dualism.  Manichaeism and Monophysite Christianity might indeed have exercised formative influence on Mohammedanism at its inception.  (Some scholars have postulated that the geographical origin of Islam was not the Arabian Peninsula, but Persia; and others that Islam was originally a militant breakaway branch of Monophysitism.)  Islam translates the Manichaean theological dualism, in which two deities compete for dominion over the cosmos, from the heavenly to the earthly realm, where it reproduces itself in the globally reaching in-group, out-group distinction.  The very notions of Dar al Islam, or the House of Submission, and Dar al Harb, or the House of Conflict, qualify as Manichaean, if merely in their starkness.  Moreover, although “The Cow” proclaims that the gods of the idols are non-existent, the attitude towards the gods of the idols that it prescribes (implacable hostility and the justification of expunging violence) lends to them a certain reality that they would not otherwise possess.  Another element of Gnostic cosmology is the idea that the cosmos once constituted a Paradisiacal Monad called the Pleroma or Fullness, but that due to the envy of the lesser god, the Pleroma became fragmented.  Against this background “The Cow” yields an interesting claim: “People were once but one community,” but when false prophets appeared, that unity broke apart.   Islam aims to put it all back together in the universal Ummah.

Last Supper

Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255 -1319); The Last Supper (1311)

As the Western reader reads and then re-reads “The Cow,” the constant obsession with the anthropological division – the in group, out-group duality – becomes something like a sign of constant crisis within Islam present from the beginning.  Sacrifice, as the brilliant thinker René Girard has shown in his studies of myth and the Bible, always organizes itself as a response to a sense of crisis.  When a sect or creed repetitively announces its great strength, as the prose of “The Cow” and of the Koran as a whole does, the reader grows suspicious that such boasts design to conceal a deep sense of weakness hence also the need for a scapegoat.  Thus when, in “The Cow,” Allah declares that “there is no compulsion in religion,” one thinks right away that the demand to submit furnishes an instance of compulsion.  When apostasy falls subject to capital punishment, one is definitely in the realm of compulsion.  The style of the New Testament, by contrast, conforms to the canons of persuasion; and this reflects the influence on it of Greek rhetoric and logic.  An informed Western reader cannot help but remark the difference.  Jesus did not say, “Slay them wherever you find them” or “drive them out of the places from which they drove you.”  Nor did Jesus say, “If anyone attacks you, attack him as he attacked you.”  Allah, speaking through Gabriel to Mohammed, and Mohammed himself, said these things.  Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.”

The Western reader, once again, looks for beautiful images whether in expository prose or in narration.  “The Cow” not only bereaves itself of beautiful imagery; it is more or less bereft of imagery, period.  How to describe it?  The prose is unadorned, utilitarian, banal, and prone to use the imperative tense until one tires of the ceaseless exhortation.  Only the recurrent invocation of the Hellish fire in which the infidels and apostates shall burn forever exempts itself from the general absence of imagery.  The text dwells on the implacability of divine punishment.  A remarkable contrast comes to mind.  In the Gospel of John, famously, the mob of self-righteous men has arrested an adulterous woman, taking her in flagrante.  The mob seeks from Jesus the rabbinical sanction to carry out the customary punishment – to stone her to death.  Jesus tells them, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”  In shame, the crowd breaks up and the men wander off, humiliated.  The Gospel never interests itself in the details of the sexual act, which remain private.  One of the ugly aspects of Koranic prose in “The Cow” is the authorial obsession with the sexual act and related matters.  “Women are your fields: Go, then, into their fields whence you please.”  That admittedly qualifies as an image, but hardly as a beautiful one.  “Keep aloof from women during their menstrual periods and do not approach them again until they are clean; when they are clean, have intercourse with them whence God enjoined you.”  That is not an image; it is an injunction.  It has nothing to do with the Gospel of Love.

Further observations and summing up… “The Cow” consists mainly in endless repetitive injunctions and exhortations; it is almost entirely prescriptive.  One finds in it no arguments, but only commandments, almost always under the implicit threat of condign punishment for trespass.  A few stories, borrowed from the Bible, mostly from the Old Testament, intersperse themselves among the injunctions and exhortations.  The compiler of the Koran lacks any talent for story telling so that the episodes impress the reader – the Western reader, at any rate – as being obscure and poorly motivated.  Perhaps it is in line with Islam’s iconoclasm that images absent themselves from the prose, which comes across as barren, rather like the deserts where the Bedouins roamed.  Indeed, the injunctions and exhortations extend into a formless distance like the dunes of the Mojave or the Sahara.  I could not help but think of some lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”: “Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road / The road winding above among the mountains / Which are mountains of rock without water.”  Even the grammar of the Koranic prose in “The Cow” must strike a Western reader as confused.  In tribal, oral fashion it switches from the first person plural, the Royal We, to the second person plural of direct address.  It reverts to the third person plural in describing the unbelievers.  One has constantly to re-read to remember who is saying what to whom.

I have tried to record for my own readers the reactions of a Western reader to a radically non-Western book.  I have brought to bear as best I can my knowledge of religious developments in the gestation-time of Islam.  I am indebted to books on Islam itself and on Islam and the West by such as Robert Spencer, Guillaume Faye, Emmett Scott, Dario Fernandez-Morera, and many others.  The Western mind has taken its stamp from three thousand years of literacy beginning with the Greek innovation of the alphabet, based on the consonantal script of the Phoenicians.  Western thought is linear – logical – obeying a concept of causality.  Western story telling conforms to a type of logic.  Supposing a variety of Western literacy that encompassed only the primer, the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer, it would nevertheless have internalized the characteristics of linearity, of an implicit logical precedence, and a sense of imagery.  What about a variety of literacy that encompassed only the Koran.  It would not internalize such characteristics because those characteristics are absent from the text.  In the case of a non-literate condition that focuses on the Koran but knows it only through recitation and memorization – the structure of the mentality would be even more minimal.  The Koran declares.  In the Gospel, Jesus speaks in parables, which invite the reader to supply his own answers to lofty questions.  The Koran grants no such autonomy to Muslims.  They must submit.  Parabolic thinking has no place under the sign of submission.  Very likely thinking has no pace under the sign of submission.  Reading the first surah of the Koran attentively and line by line has been for me something of a shock – and at times deeply appalling and depressing.

15 thoughts on “A Westerner Reads the Koran (Second Surah)

  1. It seems that humans are natural suckers for obscurantism (and for the radical overreactions to obscurantism). We naturally assume that all murky water is deep (unless we make the opposite mistake of assuming that all deep water is clear). My sense of the Gnostic texts is that they are simulacra of profundity, or what we nowadays call B.S. I’ll venture to say that this is simply a case of fakes flooding the market when demand exceeds supply. That and what you describe here as an overactive hankering for originality–plagiarism improved with errors. I would encourage anyone to read the Koran cold. One very soon grasps that it has all the vigor and vacuity one expects from barbaric art. If an Arian German warlord had undertaken to write a holy book in the seventh century, it would have looked a good deal like the Koran.

    • I would say that to some extent the Saga of the Volsungs is the equivalent of a Gothic warlord’s handbook — but while being replete with vivid and enthusiastic descriptions of outright murder, torture, and treason, it at least tells a story consistently and observes a concept of causality. One could read it, indeed, as declaring that any triumph is bound to be short-lived. With all the rest that you write I find myself in complete agreement. The popularity of the Derrida-school is a case in point. Derrida’s prose is so convoluted, his sentences meander through so many subordinate clauses, that it functions more or less as a performance rather than as any kind of exposition. It is an ink-blot in which people see what they want to see. They also treat Derrida (and Foucault, etc.) under the concept that “this book is not to be doubted.” We are re-living the Seventh Century and not only in regard to resurgent Islam. There is also an internal insertion of dogmatic barbarism, to borrow a phrase from Jose Ortega. Thank you for commenting.

    • I have the same impression. Most Gnostic texts read to me rather the same way that New Age stuff does: full of portentous sounding phrases that mean … well, hard to say exactly what they mean. Which I suppose makes perfect sense; the New Age stuff is just recycled Gnosticism. Think of the thousands of pages of New Age stuff published every year. The demand for that sort of thing is huge. It’s much easier reading, and less challenging doctrine – because the doctrine in it is so very vague – than anything you’d find in any truly theological text. The ratio of (popular New Age bunkum / technical theology) published and read today is probably about what it was in the first century. So it is hardly surprising that we find still extant so many Gnostic texts from that day.

      The thing about false doctrines is that they are generally much easier to understand than the true. They are simpler, and don’t call for so many fine distinctions or so much careful thought. CS Lewis points this out somewhere, I think in Mere Christianity: all the heresies and Gnostic systems, indeed all the other religious options to Christianity, are simpler and easier than Christianity proper. But they are also simpler and easier than any theory that might be anywhere near adequacy to reality. In just the same way, QM is lots harder to figure out than Newtonian physics.

      • New Age stuff — and everything published by university presses and in the so-called scholarly journals. I mean: EVERYTHING. The second reality requires highfalutin’, but ultimately meaningless language, making a mockery of the Greek etymons that it plagiarizes, that permits the user to put on show of erudition. But there is no erudition: There are only a few slogans. It is all show.

        At least Churchward’s books about Mu tell a story. If I were charged with saving either them or the vast literature of deconstruction, I would save Churchward without blinking an eye.

      • Gnostic doctrines are often very simple, indeed silly, once you penetrate the armor of their language. Thomas mentioned deconstruction. It really comes down to nothing more than the proposition that signifier and signified are the same, or that words refer to nothing but other words. I was once in a bookstore in Boulder, Colorado, when I conceived a project to map the ratio of linear shelf space devoted to Christian and New Age books across the country. In that Boulder bookstore it was about 1:50. Here in central Texas, perhaps 3:2.

      • I’d be really interested to get your reaction to any one of the “web lectures” delivered by Gnostic Bishop (claiming apostolic succession) Stephan Hoeller. They can be found here:


        I find him really interesting (heresy aside). The website gnosis.org is a good resource for Gnostic texts if interested.

    • As Wittgenstein says, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”

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  3. Postmodern English professors refer only to other postmodern English professors. (Just glance at the bibliographies of their articles.) In respect of them — Derrida’s proposition is spot on!

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  5. “The dualism of the Manichaeans is odd, because it will issue eventually in a monism and is teleologically, in the triumph of the True God, a type of monotheism.”

    Not really. The two deities appear to simply find themselves in an initial situation of conflict, which presupposes an Absolute which is their source.

    Islamic monotheism, by contrast,particularly in its <Sufi tendency, takes the declaration in the Shahada “There is no God but God” to mean that God alone is existence and that individuality and personality, along with the material world, are illusory. This is the meaning of Bayazid Bastami’s “All this talk and turmoil and noise and movement and desire is outside of the veil; within the veil is silence and calm and rest.” That is why he could also say, “Praise be to me for my great glory.”

  6. “Thus when, in “The Cow,” Allah declares that “there is no compulsion in religion,” one thinks right away that the demand to submit furnishes an instance of compulsion”

    2:256 sticks out like a sore thumb in the Koran because it is surrounded by nothing but compulsion. The very next verse is the threat of hellfire for unbelief, and if that isn’t compulsion I don’t know what is.

    What is 2:256 doing there? The answer is to be found in Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Mohammed:


    On p256 of Alfred Guillaume’s “Life of Muhammed” we find Mohammed addressing the Jews of Kaybar thus:

    ‘God says to you O scripture folk, and you will find it in your scripture “Muhammad is the apostle of God”…..Do you find in what He has sent down to you that you should believe in Muhammed? If you do not find that in your scripture then there is no compulsion on you, “The right path has become plainly distinguished from error” so I call you to God and his prophet’.

    Therefore the famous “no compulsion in religion” statement in Koran 2:256 is only conditional, and since that condition has not been met compulsion is not proscribed. That doesn’t prevent Muslims claiming it as evidence of Islamic tolerance, of course. I wish more of them, and more non-Muslims, were aware that it is nothing of the sort.

  7. Interesting, almost everything put here can be said about Moses. Whenever one speaks of Muhammad, he ends up “degolating” Moses without noticing — by the same terms. I’m getting tired of this; don’t try to condemn Islam internally, that’s intellectual suicide.

    Islam is a mistake because there is no revelation, the station ended with the disciples.


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