Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The folly of seeking premonitions in sacred texts

by Salman Hameed

I have written before about the futility of finding science in the Qu'ran and other scriptures. None of these efforts actually lead to any scientific developments (because this is as far away from science as you can get - and lacks a fundamental curiosity about the natural world), but instead are used by followers of each individual religions mostly for proselytization purposes. The same is true for seeking premonitions in sacred texts.

I'm currently listening to a fascinating Teaching Company course titled, The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meanings in Western History. It us taught by Professor Craig Koester, and is one of the best courses I have done there (One of my absolute favorites has been the series of three course on the Middle Ages by Philip Daileader). The first 12 lectures are spend on exploring the context in which the Book of Revelation was written and how people understood it in their own times. For example, the seven-headed dragon stood for the various aspects of the Roman Empire at the time of the writing of the book - and the infamous 666 stands, most likely, stood for the name of Emperor Nero (his name's numerical value adds up to 666). Koester calls the example of the dragon as a word-picture, and compares it to editorial cartoons in modern times (for example, a donkey and an elephant in political cartoon in the US would be interpreted by all to be the Democratic and Republican party, respectively).

But one of the fascinating bits in the lectures is about a particular change in the 12th century, where the Book of Revelation was interpreted by a reformer, Joachim of Fiore, to be a map of history. Apart from other things, for him, the seven heads of the dragon meant seven periods of history where the Christian Church was under a serious threat. Of course, he believed that he was living in a special time. And so he divided up the time periods from birth of Christ to the present. Some of the early Roman emperors represented couple of heads and early Islam was also included as one of the heads of the dragon. He assumed that the 6th and 7th heads were in his own time - and Saladin was considered as the 6th head, and his potential collaborator - the anti-christ - to be the 7th and final head.

Here is the relevant bit for this post: He also believed that the year 1260 was of paramount importance, as it will launch the final stage of history. Why 1260? He derived this from the Gospel of Matthews, that mentioned that there were 42 generations before Christ. Well, 42 times 30 years for each generation, leads to 1260 years. He assumed time to be symmetrical around Christ, and so he believed that the age of Jesus would last 1260 years after his death. Joachim of Fiore died in 1202, but some of his followers did believe in a drastic change in the world in the year 1260. Nothing major happened.

But this mapping of history onto the Book of Revelation then took hold, and it transformed the book from a purely spiritual document to providing a roadmap of history and future events. And of course, people see themselves - no matter in what century - as playing an important role in the ultimate history of the world. If Joachim and his followers saw apocalyptic events in the 13th century, then it is not much of a surprise that many see signs in the of end-of-times today.

Many Muslim interpreters have done the same with the Qur'an and the Hadith (For a recent example, you can check out this sensational Urdu TV special, Hidden Truth by Shahid Masood). The impulse comes from the drive to make one's existence more meaningful and to envision the ultimate triumph of one's own religion (be it Christianity or Islam) over all others.

This mining of clues in the sacred texts for premonitions reminds me of the search for modern science in the same books (and yes, Muslims find modern science in the Qur'an, Christians find it in the Bible, Jews in Torah, Hindus in the Gita, etc). Both approaches are clearly flawed and problematic. The science one stymies intellectual growth - and that is a loss for that particular culture. The obsession with end-of-times can lead to actions be some that can be harmful to others as well. I hope people keep their worse-righteous impulses in check.

And I hope that people use their Sacred books for their spiritual value.


Asad M said...

It is interesting because if you go back in history a bit one will find that major parts Judeo-Christian and Muslim eschatology are heavily borrowed from Zoroastrianism. Let’s see how.

King Josiah considered himself a savior of Judaic monotheism and amongst his contemporary prophets he may have inspired the concept of hope for a future ‘messiah’. In 609 BC he died fighting Egyptian pharaoh Necho at Megiddo (from which the word ‘Armageddon’ is derived). Twenty years later when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, a sizeable portion of Jews including priests, scribes and prominent citizens were exiled to Babylon.

In 540 BC Babylon was captured by Cyrus of Persia who allowed the Jews to freely practice their religion. It is believed that major parts of the Old Testament were written down and theology expanded during this period in Babylon. Before the exile to Babylon in 6th century BC, Judaism had a very vague or no concept of the end of times or heaven & hell and it’s only during the exile that Jewish eschatology & messianism as well as the concepts of heaven & hell, resurrection, demons/Satan and angels were developed.

Persia, whose chief religion was Zoroastrianism, was the dominant nation of the region and had a rich cultural mythology definitely predating the written Jewish Torah. There is little doubt that Jewish eschatological concepts were influenced by Persian & Zoroastrian mythologies as the similarities are too vivid to ignore. These ideas then found their way into Christianity and Islam. Jews, early Christians and Muslims were a persecuted lot and the idea of a messiah provided hope for the future and an ultimate triumph of good over evil and the establishment of a pious kingdom/governance on earth.

Here are some links:

Asad M said...

It is because of this hope that the ancient Jews and early Christians and Muslims found the apocalyptic & messianic ideas appealing and that is why they were adopted and then expanded upon. Even to this day many muslims (esp. shia) most fervently wait for the messiah 12th Imam and pray for his early arrival (along with Jesus’ 2nd coming) to intervene and rid the world of evil. Some like Shahid Masood or Haroon Yahya know how to make a quick buck out of it while others like Harold Camping or 2012 Mayan doomsday ones just make fool of themselves.

Salman Hameed said...


Thanks for the broader historical context - and you are right about these roots and about the influence of the period Babylonian Captivity. The same is true for some of the origin stories as well as the narrative of the flood (from the Epic of Gilgamesh).

But, of course, there is a tremendous appeal for these end-of-days narratives - and I think one can find spiritual elevation from these. The problem comes when they are simply reduced to the specifics of battles and various destructions. Such reductions soak out complexities and leave us with a Michael Bay version of Sacred texts. And that is a problem.

By the way, I like your comparison of people like Shahid Masood with Harold Camping. This is accurate. When I teach about UFO religions (like Raelians or Scientology), I stress their similarities to mainstream religions...and leave the value judgement aside.

Asad M said...

Yes, messianic beliefs were motivational and spiritually beneficial for endangered minorities like Jews, early Christians or Shias (facing persecution under Umayyads & Abbasids). But when these beliefs are misused and hijacked to promote vengeful militant or political ideologies (as in present times) then there will be a potential for conflict and human suffering.

Here’s a rather long essay from a mainly Jewish perspective by a Hartford seminary professor.

Mohammad Jawwad said...

I have come across a toned down version of the same folly of finding science in scriptures. The argument is that Quran is not a book of science but the statements in Quran pertaining to science are always accurate. Perhaps this is less of a worry as it is a veiled attempt that in essence concedes that scriptures are reinterpreted in the light of science but the link between science and holy texts remain nonetheless. And of course, the ultimate motive remains to prove the superiority, correctness and miraculous nature of one's religion.

Salman Hameed said...

It will be interesting to see how global communication is going to combine or wipe-out certain ideas. If we go by the example of the "2012", then we will fuse new ones with content from all over the world.

yes, since the power and success of science is now quite apparent, it is now used for the promotion for all sorts of religions. The pattern of inerrancy that you have alluded to is also seen in other religions as well.

Ali said...

God is not a Delusion -- A well book by a Muslim Doctor presents arguemnts against atheism.

Dear Salman and readers of this website,
Ramadan Kareem.
Long, long ago, I mentioned that I was writing this book.
Now that it is complete, and out in the market, I thought I will let you know.
Kind regards,

Please visit the following link for details.

Ali said...

* please delete the word 'well' in the description of the book.

Mohammad Jawwad said...

"Dr Ali argues that in our observations of science there is plenty of evidence for God. This evidence becomes clear only if we interpret scientific findings comprehensively."

Dear Dr Sheeza Ali

Anxiously waiting for the next Noble Prize to go to you. It seems from the description that you have rendered Scientific Method useless in one master-stroke! I can predict in advance that there will be one condition missing in all your statements in the book and that is falsifiability!

Best Regards and good luck to all your patients.


Ali said...

@ Jawwad

There was no need for such sarcasm. But thank you for the "Best Regards and good luck to all your patients" part.


Salman Hameed said...


Thanks for letting us know about your book.