Friday, September 15, 2006

Ghazan Khan on Idolatry (of the Buddhist Sort)

Once in private [Ghazan Khan*] said to this humble servant, the writer of this book [Rashiduddin Fazlullah]:

There are some sins that God will not forgive. The greatest of those is for someone to place his head on the ground before an idol -- for that there will be absolutely no forgiveness. The poor people are caught up in ignorance in placing their heads on the ground before idols, and I too was like that. However, God gave me illumination and comprehension, and I was delivered and purified by God of that sin. The gist of these words is that there is nothing that will take a person to hell as easily as ignorance; rather ignorance is a hell one cannot get out of. How can the mind accept that a person should place his head on the ground before an inanimate object? Such a motion is a sign of sheer ignorance.

Originally idolaters said, 'There was a perfect individual but he passed away.
[As usual in medieval sources, 'idolater' here means Buddhist, and Ghazan Khan is thinking of the Buddha, whom he worshipped in his youth.] We have made an image of him, and we set it up as a reminder. We recollect him in order to seek help from his psychic power, and we take refuge in him, worship him, and prostrate ourselves before him.' All the while they were ignorant of the fact that when that person was alive, when that which is the germ of humanity was still together with his body, he never desired any such thing and never allowed anyone to place his head on the ground in front of him lest conceit and self-aggrandizement be born in himself. Therefore when they worship him and prostrate themselves to seek help from his psychic power, how can his soul possibly be content to have those people place their heads on the ground before an image of his body. Even if they have good intentions for his psychic power -- and let us imagine that there is some trace of that power -- assuredly it would be a bad and unhappy psyche, not a good and happy one.

Furthermore, one should know as a given truth that the body has no importance, and therebey one may forget to love one's own body. One should also know that what will depart from this body is one's essence. One should therefore contemplate just what it is that will depart, where it will go, and how it will remain. If one thinks of that thing, that place, and that state, as a consequence one may come to know them. When one believes in a form made in the shape of a body and bows down before it, one cannot think about or seek the essence that is paradise itself. Quite the opposite, one inclines to that which is the lowest depth of sheer hell. The more one thinks about it, the more one realizes that the only use an idol has is to be turned into a threshold so that people will step on it coming and going in order that the spirit of which this thing is supposed to be the body will be content with them because it will be thinking, 'While I was in this world I attained perfect humility; after my departure the form of the body is also in that state.' It will also be thinkiing, 'My sould had such perfection. Its body has turned to dust and is worthy of being a threshold to be stepped on.'

For us who have no such perfection, how will our bodies be? One should detach one's heart from the body's condition altogether and think about the next world, pure stages, and the conditions of holy spirits. Let one constantly think about those states so that perhaps one may attain something of that which is reality, so that there may be some benefit to one's having come into the world, so that one may attain some perfection, since the goal of creation is for one to go from the world of darkness into the world of light.

Why have I posted this? First, because while I was in China, Buriatia, and Mongolia, I saw the rapidly reviving Buddhism (not to speak of shamanism) among many dear friends and acquaintances. Well, here I will let a Mongolian, a descendant of Genghis Khan, express his opinion about all this.

Secondly, with regard to Pope Benedict's recent speech, many have argued that "in Islam" God is completely above and separate from reason, that God could order idolatry if he pleases, whereas "in Christianity" reason and faith are congruent and any form of voluntarism (the idea that something is right or wrong simply because God wills it or forbids it) is of course rejected with horror.

The Pope himself cites Western students of Islam thus: The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.

Far be it from me to deny that there have been many Muslim thinkers who expressed this idea of God's complete transcendence and freedom. Indeed Ibn Taymiyya, one of the favorite writers of Islamists today, specifically rejected the conversion of Mongols like Ghazan Khan because, he said, they rejected idolatry and embraced Islam not because God commanded it, but because Islam seemed more reasonable to them than idolatry. To his mind this was a bogus conversion. But actually Ibn Taymiyya was a fanatic of little influence in his time and his viewpoints were rather transparently linked to the foreign policy aims of the Mamluk Egyptian regime he served.

But as the citation from Ghazan Khan, endorsed by Rashiduddin Fazlullah -- one of the great world historians -- shows, there is indeed a different tradition of Islamic thought that is not voluntarist, seeing reason and faith as congruent.

And Evangelicals should of course remember that there is a different tradition of Christian thought that is volutarist and sees reason and faith as often violently in conflict. They should also remember that one of the great writers in this voluntarist tradition was Martin Luther. And of course the Pope's aim in criticizing late medieval voluntarism is to implicitly link it to our Evangelical faith as another form of irrational religion.

So of course I find it grotesque that an academic citation of a fourteenth-fifteenth century writer should provoke demonstrations and demands for an apology -- particularly from the sort of people who say and do much worse toward other religions every day. I agree with those who see these demonstrations as the expression of weak and brittle faith in the Islamic world. I hope the Pope is not intimidated into some sort of groveling apology.

But among ourselves, what bothers me about the Pope's statement is that his generalizations about Islam are intended to serve a particular partisan interpretation of Christianity (big surprise that, no?) and the relation of reason and revelation.

The Pope writes: The vision of St. Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) -- this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

Well, I suppose it can be so interpreted. But it can also be interpreted as the need for revelation to just replace an inquiry which despite its theoretical knowledge proved completely and utterly incapable of purifying its practicioners of even the grossest of sins (like idolatry and fornication -- see Romans 1). And one can ask, in the Christianity Pope Benedict here recommends is there any place for praising a man willing to sacrifice his own son in obedience to a divine command?

*More on Ghazan Khan and his historian Rashiduddin here and here. By the way, the name Rashiduddin is often (and more literally) written Rashid al-Din but pronounced Rah-SHEED-owed-DEEN.

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