MAGIC OR MORALITY
This essay is about the dilemma Islam shares with all other major religions. It is whether religion is about morality through true spiritual quest and application or another way of satisfying a crude ego by exploiting the assets of religion together with deliberately contaminating it with inferior and pathological cultural adulterations coming from ancient pagan sources. The latter element broadly comes under idolatry and magic which always go hand in hand.
Both history and current observation as well as anthropology, as we interpret it from and Islamic perspective, indicate to us Muslims that any major religion has rarely been, even in its own terms correctly understood and practiced. God’s religion as given to Moses quickly turned into the tribal religion of Israel with little and rare attempts at presenting it as a universal faith and seeking its spread among at least any neighbouring nations. Moses himself had invited the Egyptians to follow his revealed message just like the Israel would; that is in the Qur’an. Many more religions were similarly misunderstood by its recipients and were abused through silly if not always evil applications. For example, to quote again Israel, they could not even wait for Moses to come back from his appointment with God on Mount Sinai, they went back to the worshipping of a bovine animal just like in the Egyptian idolatry. They built an image of a cow made from jewellery and they performed pagan ceremonies around this visible god by chanting dancing and debauching. That was exactly what idolatry and temple magic was about.
The Qur’an always deplores this fact of converting a Divinely revealed religion back into an idolatry which that religion purported to wipe out. The same misfortune hit also Christianity within a century of the Christ’s departure. It spread among the pagans and was duIy paganised.
Allah’s Book always notes and condemns idolatry which is always based on primitive myth, superstition and magic. Magic is noted in the story of Solomon in Surat al Baqara when two angels are said to have descended to Babel and spread a magical lore but with warnings attached. Allah also mentions some superstitions and warns against them, the chief superstition being worshipping idols named and featured in some old and silly myths. For example among Meccan idols was Ba’al and this went all the way back to Sumeria which flourished as 4000 BCE. It is mentioned in the Qur’an among the idols of Elias’s AS people used to worship (37: 125). Other ritualistic superstitions like entering homes from the back and not from the front door during or after Hajj. All such spurious and inexplicable beliefs are condemned.
If you watch any ignorant zealot in any religion you will notice that what he is doing in his relations with God (or a god in the case of paganism) is trying to manipulate the deity he has in his view by ultimately meaningless words and gestures. This may descend from a primitive hunter’s trick of trying to entice game to issue forth from concealment and come near so that it can be shot and captured. To this and the hunter may dress himself with animal hide and horns or bird feathers as necessary and also make animal or bird sounds. All these gestures and sounds can only be understood and appreciated when we know why the hunter is dong them and we find it an ingenuous and admirable skill. But the similar behaviour of his best known modern offspring, namely the stage magician who waves a wand and utters mystical incantations like “Abra Cadabra” impresses us only as entertainment. A silly pagan zealot performs some silly rituals and utters some especially unintelligible words to bring out the god he is after manipulating as if the god is a coy and shy spirit like a jinni and an ingenuous method is needed to persuade God to play the game as the worshipper wants Him to. At the expense of repeating ourselves we are again noting that such behaviour are unintelligent repetitions of the primitive hunting act.
In Islam, I mean Islam as distorted and abused by magical-minded people, we find attempts to persuade Allah to grant indifferent, irresponsible wishes by performing silly rituals like turning in circles or assuming theatrical postures and muttering incantations sometimes produced by piecing together parts of he Qur’an with no overall integrity or meaning and asking Jinni and even a named angel to finish the job. Many less reputable alims or pretenders to learning boasted of commanding some jinni and even specified angels who had necessarily Jewish names ending with “-eel” but never otherwise heard about before! Why should a sincere and God-fearing believer could, should or need command angels is beyond comprehension. Clearly something unauthorised and nasty or at least deluded has been going on here.
Basically the ignorant zealot is an immature selfish man who sees God as a fabulously rich and powerful person who, being naive at the bottom, must be both flattered and enchanted out of His hiding place and make Him to satisfy the designated needs of the worshipper. But since Allah is too big a bet the magically minded silly zealot prefers a more indirect way of bending the Will of the Almighty to his silly and often guilty wishes. He imagines and installs lesser gods from among real or imaginary historical heroic figures or invents special jinni or angels to whom he applies for the fulfilment of his wishes. It is here that he depends on magical persuasion unconsciously modelled on the as per the primitive hunter’s hunting tricks. This was exactly how pagans of old, like the Babylonians, Egyptians and Greeks saw their gods: powerful but naïve like big game and both cheatable and exploitable by the clever and hungry man.
MAGICAL THINKING AND BEHAVIOUR AMONG ORDINARY MUSLIMS
Among Muslims we find old books which may recommend something like this: "To have your enemy destroyed or so and so woman fall at your feet recite so and so Surah or ayah so many times, in between releasing a smoke from burning this incense or that and within 3 or 7 or 40 days your desire must and will be granted". Or “Visit a graveyard, pick up dirt from a fresh grave and on this handful of dirt recite this or that so many times and secretly put it under the staircase of your enemy and within so many days such and such disaster must and will hit him”. I have personally been approached by some ‘Muslims’ who asked me to make them realise their aims, often against somebody, by employing magical means which included pickings from the Qur’an. That I would be adequately paid for the services was understood. The looks of the applicants were always horrible, like devils in human form with their women in pious hijab and never suspecting that what they were so cavalierly attempting was black magic and blasphemy at its worst.
Such examples are signs of the survival of pagan magic among Muslims which now is clothed in Islamic dress. In the name of Islam astrology, magic and charm books have been compiled and sold sometimes under the names of great ulema which must be lies given the otherwise impeccable credentials of those ulema. I strongly believe that throughout the ages many forgeries have been compiled by many crooks infesting the Muslim community which crooks tried to improve their sales by ascribing their compilations to so and so imam or sheikh or even to one of the sahaba, especially Ali RA. Among the Shia, all sorts of improbable ‘books’ are ascribed to Ali RA dealing with all sorts of improbable and often impious subjects including magical incantations. On top of them many equally improbable adventures in the form of novels are told about Ali and also some of his sons like Muhammad al Hanafi (the first bogus Mahdi candidate put forward by the wily rebel Mukhtar al Thaqafi during early Abbasid times) and followers like Malik Ajdar, one of Ali’s RA generals. All these heroes conquer castles single-handedly and kill giants with one strike of the sword, giants who are tall like minarets and can swallow men and camels in a single gulp. What is worse these fables also contain ‘hadiths’ of the Prophet sws which can only be most blasphemous forgeries by the novelists.
A modern form of writing scholarly or magical works and ascribing them to a living person either for that person’s undeserved edification or unauthorised exploitation is going on. A certain Muslim professor had been persistently accused of making his doctoral students write books for him to publish under his name so that the good professor puts another literary award under his belt. The students had to obey, otherwise their own work could be rejected. In fact this is a universal plague: Many celebrities eventually publish their memoirs in an attempt to sort of immortalise themselves. What is not known by most naïve readers is that the celebrity in question either told his story in his undistinguished words to a professional author who then literally embellished it to make as good a reading as it can. This may not be a great crime but there is worse:
Some ambitious people, like one seeking a high office he does not deserve on academic grounds secretly employs a savant to write an article, essay or book for him so that the employer publishes and presents it under his own name. Some false authors are so prolific and brazen in this respect that despite always being socially involved and on the go- often hardly having time even to sit down for a meal- claim in a single year to their credit massive erudite tomes and even whole encyclopaedias! They normally become great literary or academic celebrities within a shot time and can sit on their laurels all their lives. Such people are in command of some big cash and they employ brilliant savants and authors who are impoverished and believe that they cannot publish anything under their own names.
Among religious groups the cash-rich exploiter can in fact influence some of his more erudite and eloquent followers to supply him with manuscripts to be published to his credit and may in fact also pay them something on top of promising his spiritual blessings. Lastly, some not well-known writers write manuscripts and publish them under the name of a dead savant who cannot be aware of it and therefore cannot sue. Such are most of the Alid literature among the crass layers the Shia as we have already said above. Among the Sunnis similar abuses must have happened since we sometimes come across books ascribed to very prestigious savants but have contents and quality hardly worthy of the great savant.
THE CASE OF FORGED HADITHS
This used to be a universal plague among the early Muslims of tabout the third generation downwards. It is said that a time came when about three million hadiths were in circulation (ignoring the fact that often several versions of a single subject were counted as separate). The great Hadith imams had a very hard time in investigating and authenticating as far as possible each hadith that came their way. The fact that none dared to include more than a few thousand hadiths and these included hadiths are mostly shared among them should tell volumes to any sensible student of the subject. The savants did not stop at compiling their few thousand ‘sahihs’, i.e. reliable hadiths. While some otherwise very good hadith compilers chose to increase the volume of the hadiths and included hadiths which they confessed did not satisfy their criteria entirely others took the trouble to compile books on unsound hadiths as they saw them, the worst category being the palpable forgeries (Mawdu’). Hadiths less perfect than sahihs are variously called hasan (nice) or weak (daif) or ‘alil’ (afflicted). What is more even between the variations of hadiths branded as sahih rather serious discrepancies are not uncommon. And most reputable ulema have been careful about these. What all this indicates are two:
First, the stronger hadiths, despite not being 100% reliable as the verses of the Qur’an, had to be used to expand on the Qur’an and give depth and detail to the emerging Sharia Law or substance to the personalities and events of Rasulullah’s sws age. This was very apt, sensible and made a great success. Little doubt remains about the dependability of the judgments of our great madhab imams or about the veracity of reports and events told about the lives and adventures of the golden generation if we may call the first generation of Musloms so. The existing differences are not too serious and as in all legal opinion giving and historiography tolerable and forgivable.
Second, we need not modify what the Qur’an is explicitly saying about a matter simply because a hadith suggests another view. This is especially vitally important in matters which bear on creedal issues. For example, to take a hypothetical case, a ‘hadith’ saying that Allah can sometimes split into two gods or into two halves is inadmissible simply because it flies only too badly in the face of the Qur’an in its entirety. Or a ‘hadith’ reported by Aisha RA according to the Ahmadi sectarians to the effect that Muhammad could not be the final prophet but other prophets could come after him cannot modify our certainly given us by Allah that Muhammad is the very last prophet however good-looking the transmission chain they quote. Similarly, some few hadiths quoting Allah appearing in the form a tangible person, among which is of “a young boy with curly hair and in a green tunic and gold sandals” or else cannot be credited if one fears Allah enough. Unfortunately many ambitious people make only too much fuss insisting on the veracity of such stomach turning claims which many ulema did not hesitate to brand as impious forgeries. Such reports have a too suspicious similarity to pagan myths and esoteric claims from Sumeria and Babylonia downwards into Egyptian and Greek polytheism. Unfortunately for many, such pagan mentality is too appealing and its products too delicious to refuse. Unfortunately the myth and magic culture is too resilient to disappear even among some members of the most sensible, responsible and realistic of all religions which Islam is.
MORALITY - THE TRUE AND WORTHY AGENDA OF ISLAM
Allah says : Indeed this Qur’an guides to what is worthiest and gives good news to those believers who do works that for them is a beautiful reward (17: 9). Add to this the excellent hadith: “I have not been raised and sent but for me to build up the noblest morals and most graceful manners”.
Understood like this we come into real awliya territory. In this realm the worshipper, unlike the self-seeking hunter-magician type, is not after charming and compelling God (which are impossible) in the interests of his silly or altogether guilty desires. He is after selflessly serving (ibadah) God and pleasing (irda) Him at any possible and legitimate expense to himself. Mind you, there is only one thing and one thing alone which can really and finally please Allah the Most High and Most Gracious. It is revealed in a little noticed and appreciated hadith of the Beloved of Allah, our master Muhammad the Messenger of Allah sallallahu alayhi wa sellem, who said "Innama buithtu li-utimma maqarim al akhlaq" whose translation is already given above.
Yes, the Prophet’s sws ultimate aim is moralising us and making us social graces of the most benevolent (well-wishing) and most beneficent (well-doing) kind. No magic is involved in this nor any magic can produce it.
Now let us look at this excellent aim first and look then what most of us are doing or talking about: Should we kiss our thumb nails when the Prophet sws is mentioned or not? What about the 'Sunna' of the Prophet sws? Sunnas like sitting this way or that, wearing this kind of dress or that wearing a beard like this or like that and picking the teeth and picking them with what? All along these concerns about minor matters we forget or altogether do not know that the chief and greatest Sunna of Rasulullah sws is his high morality and gracious manners- ‘maqarim al akhlaq indahu’. Unfortunately few people note and dwell on this but most note and dwell one everything else however weak or dubious some reports about them. This is another form of pursuing magic; it is about observing a list of set forms and rituals in order to influence the deity to accommodate us on the sheer ground of formalities we performed; our moral tangible or intangible obligations are not thought of seriously enough.
In other words and by way of example, the formalistic and ritualistic Muslim expects to achieve salvation on the sheer amount and variety of his formal acts and not so much on his moral qualities like variously loving, respecting, pitying and helping others from the nobility of his heart. Like a mechanical doll he just cares to fulfil formal ritualistic production quotas with a heavy component of nafls (voluntary devotions) like Muharram fastings but not make up broken friendships or acting charitably towards all his neighbours including any non-Muslims for example rarely crosses his mind. In almost every argument he wants to win, he loathes accepting guilt or liability but must beat off every challenge to his inflated self-opinion. He will bear a grudge or feel jealous of his Muslim brother and still think that by praying such and such nafl salat he will guarantee a place in paradise. It is as if he never heard about Rasulullah’s (sws) definition of his mission, which we quoted above, or even if he heard it a hundred times it did not and will not register with him. This is magical thinking and not real piety. God is to be impressed and cheated by a sheer weight of shoddy external goods; the rights and hearts of other creatures of Allah are not so much relevant.
When Muslims think like this then their discourses become bogged down in the formalistic details of the Prophet’s (sws) Sunna and very little about his high moral qualities and gracious manners are talked about. The correspondents spend hours or pages of long formalistic descriptions of piety and adducing any supporting quotations from this old book or that and like bogus combatants or competing athletes each tries to score the winning goal. For example the obligation of keeping a beard as well as the shape and size of it and whether it should be died with henna or not consume all their interest not taking a step back and thinking also whether at the same time they are considering the Prophet’s (sws) care for not hurting anybody’s feelings or his making things easy.
I am afraid little good can come from such obsessive formalism. We must never lose sight of the Prophet’s sws main mission as above and do a hundred times more to capture his moral qualities and behavioural graces than making our own his formal personal habits and mannerisms (like gait or gaze).
From this angle the fact is that Islam need not be bogged down in a million trifling details most of which may be dubiously imputed to the Prophet or are his natural, genetically determined qualities which we should not artificially emulate. For example, when he sws was very angry a vein between his two eyebrows swelled up; should we have plastic surgery to build up a similar vein in the same place so that we can emulate him more?
From this angle it becomes clear that Islam should be not only simple and clear but also brief. Its objective is not theatrical imitation of persons Allah created uniquely but the achievement of personal salvation through ever improving morality and grace first and social salvation based in individual salvations, second. Salvation means being saved from bad feelings, habits and behaviours and nothing more and nothing less. We simply have Rasulullah sws to emulate in his MORAL qualities and graceful social manners which should exhaust ninety per cent of our time and energy. It should be enough for example to reverently mutter a salawat on Rasulullah sws when he is mentioned and whether the thumb-nails are to be kissed or not should not detain us at all. I personally kiss my thumbs though because I am used to it but if I have anything to teach my fellow Muslims I would rather dwell on moral issues and social manners which for many books on Islam are given at the end in shortest possible space and little inspiring style. It must not be for nothing that our moral condition is in such awful mess. Even during eid prayers Muslims can bee seen arguing with and accusing each other which leave morals and manners oriented ones aghast with regret and pity.
There are so many ways and means to preach the Prophet’s greatest Sunna, his noble morality and graceful manners. Why not for example describe how the Prophet sws responded to a Jew who bitterly criticised him the Prophet sws in front of his ashab for not repaying his debt to him the Jewish creditor and insulted the Prophet’s clan the Hashimites by calling them hardened defaulters on debts. The Prophet stopped his ashab attacking and hurting the Jew and instead he coolly and gracefully admitted liability, bore the criticism with grace and ordered the debt to be paid: The Jew embraced Islam there and then! What are we ourselves doing? Why, we as Muslims are frequently hurting each other for worldly benefit reasons. What are the value of our nafl devotions in the face of our moral ignorances and negligences?
THE PLAGUE OF FALSE ERUDITIONS
Another time wasting and talents abusing area is seeking after occult secrets in the Qur'an like the meaning of muqata'at, those isolated letters at the beginning of many surahs. Fascination with ‘abjad’ (numerology) and supposedly prophesying future by a numerological analysis of the words and verses of the Qur’an is another false learning. In both cases there is an unacceptable, distasteful imputation to the Prophet sws as the teacher of these occult false sciences. That these are most probably spurious as well as unsound may be seen from the irreconcilable differences among the convictions of various ulema and mashaikh about them. Ten different claims can be reported from ten different people. While to one a letter is an abbreviation of a Divine Name to another it is the name of an angel who is at his beck and call; to a third they are numerological values to be used in occult computations. Yet no two computations from the same letters ever agreed. It is so disappointing and heart rending to see Muslims busying themselves with nothing but self-aggrandising occult pursuits and pontifications which explain or facilitate nothing but thrill, mystify and amuse like the attractions of a circus or a stage magician’s show. These delusional arts of occultism and obscurantism pre-date Islam by millenia, were the favourite tricks of pagan temple priests to bemuse and rob the populace who had no interest in morality as the only saving agent but every interest in charming and exploiting gods in the interests of their petty and also often guilty worldly interests. Allah is describing and decrying occultism and magic when he says:
“When they (the magicians) cast their ropes and staffs they appeared to him (Moses) as if they were running (snakes)” (20: 66)
It appears that some Muslims absorbed some of those myth and occult lore which the magic-obsessed Greeks, Egyptians and Indians offered. Even more unfortunately some of such imported lore was subsequently imputed to the Prophet sws in the form of forged hadiths
THE PHENOMENON OF FORGING HADITHS
All great Muslim scholars whether mainly experts of hadith or not are unanimous that tonnes of hadiths were forged soon after the sahaba generation was bowing out. Initially the reasons were political. The flourishing regime of the Umayyad usurpers of power was in need of every support to keep afloat and forging hadiths which would embarrass to say the least the Alids and other opposition to them like ibn Zubair (another short-lived alternative caliph based at Mecca) were desperate needs for the Umayyads. From that point on any enemy could be named and described in full supposedly from the mouth of the Prophet sws and the obligation on any Muslim to kill the hapless fellow be added to the hadith.
The later rivals of the Umayyads, namely the Abbasids forged their own political hadiths to undermine the Umayyads and succeeded. The Shia for their part forged theirs against first the Umayyads and then their replacements the Abbasids. Some ulema or at least hadith peddlers did not lag far behind. If the politcians had their precious political ambitions to serve by hadith forging some scholars (or peddlers) had their academic ambitions to forge theirs. Joining the bandwagon were also the mystics; these forged their hadiths to support their occult and mystical claims and found themselves fighting against the more level-headed ulema.
Lastly, a practice of alive transmission from the Prophet sws took shape- some mystics would relate a dream in which they saw the Prophet sws who either told them that they were the highest mystic ever and forever or gave them instructions to carry out ot transmit or even whole books to publish under their own names which books sometimes were alleged to bear the same authority as the Qur’an itself. Of course it is not that the Prophet sws cannot be seen in dreams and give guidance- he can. But that is of a totally different order than his being seen by his companion of his while both were alive. Those who see and talk to the Prophet sws must take into consideration when they interpret their dream that their experience is a special gift from Allah and NOT the Prophet sws and what they saw and talked with is a special version of the Prophet’s sws soul entirely designed to help the dreamer to sort out a problem entirely the dreamer’s, at least in an ultimate sense. Acting as an authorised messenger of the post-mortem Peophet sws is fraught with dangers and only too open to abuse as some sad historical examples demonstrated, like the emergence of various Mahdis and false prophets and and the bloodbaths which followed.
A certain Muhamad Ahmad in the 19th century Sudan claimed to be led by visions of the Prophet sws who ordered him to launch himself as the expected Mahdi and promised that after Sudan he would reach and conquer Mecca, Medina and Istanbul and become the total caliph. His jehad activities caused so much bloodshed and fizzled out so equally spectacularly that Muslims should be very wary of great and daring claims on the part of any Muslim based on Prophet’s sws nocturnal instructions or new revelations from Allah and instead seek salvation through more level-headed and practical ways. Mad and bad leaders always begin with earth-shaking spectacular claims, may register equally spectacular successes in the short term but their projects and persons collapse equally as rapidly and spectacularly. Note Hitler, Mussolini and the Soviet experience. Any movement which may survive its infancy can only register a stunted growth and stagnate as have Bahaism and Ahmadism. Islam as renewed by Allah through Muhammad sws has been and will remain a one-off experience beginning with a genuine and innocent claim, for which the Prophet sws and his companions paid a heavy but every bit worthy price. Their legacy is so well-preserved and adaptable that no new version or replacement is called for. All previous religions without exception have been hijacked and refashioned by false mystics and prophets but to this day Islam stood its ground and will insha Allah keep standing. More on this problem next. If it is not so easy to understand ulema and it is even more difficult to understand the mystics.
But before we look at these we must refresh our memories of religious debates before the Prophet’s sws advent among the Ahl al Kitab. For example, Christians have been zealous experts of forging and distorting religious material for sectarian purposes like proving the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity of godhead or rejecting the Law of Moses. Additionally their mystics wanted their share of original greatness; they claimed experiences and powers indicating their incomparable status versus the rest. A mystic named Montanus, in mid 2nd centtury of Christianity, rose as the expected Paraclete promised by Jesus according to the Gospel of John, won thousands to his sect at the expense of great bloodshed; even Marcion, another famous mystic was taken in. To this day mystic claimants among Christians have been causing great trouble and sometimes great tragedy as well: Note the Waco in Texas bloodbath less than a decade ago.
If the mainsteam churchmen’s forgeries and distortions served their church political ambitions (because the Christian church following the Pauline heresy has always been strongly political) their motivation is clear; it is like the Umayyads. Protestant Church began as a reaction against the government of the Catholic and it ended up as a duplicate: Another government by the clergy. For the mystics the motivation was could be double- first to conceal their rejection of church Christianity which offered them no advancement and second, to improve their image as top men of God as seen from their spiritual lights, discoveries and esoteric erudition. At this point deliberate pious lying and fraud come in.
For example, the mystic, to discourage the rejection of his claims based on visions of Jesus or Mary or saints and relaying a message from them supporting his claims may at times feel desperate to support his claims by forged evidence. Before that however he has two advantages over his opposition: One, since the opposition cannot disprove the claim of conferring with Jesus or Mary it must think twice before it denies the claim, and two, because the claim looks so fabulous that its rejection may exclude the opponents from any possible sharing in its supposed blessings. The mystic routinely warns: Deny my claim at your own risk: if you do deny you are cut out forever from attaining it, only if you accept you may hope to attain. Strong formula. To make the claims to stick even more, false evidence, like a piece of old cloth being part of Mary’s mantle, may be offered.
It is reasonable to suppose that suitably qualified Muslim ambitious men used the same tactics simply because men are the same everywhere in a fundamental sense except the rare souls who divorced all ambitions but one: Attaining noblest morals and most gracious manners. Because this aim and motivation is so pure and non-materialistic, sincerity and sacrifice are its inalienable attributes. Noblest morals and gracious manners are derived only from Allah through the Holy Spirit and can only be pure and innocent.
Anybody with a less noble ambition than this cannot for long resist fraud and forgery to serve his ambitions and no tonnes of pious protests and accusations can change this fact. Things like trying to prove himself as the more learned or profound jurist at the expense of forging or using already forged hadiths or in the case of a mystic reporting edifying visions or stunning miracles can only be expected and understood. Man is man and with not enough God in him can stoop to anything and everything provided the price is right.
The fact is that Islam bequeathed to us by the Messenger of Allah is enough tough bargain for us and we hardly need any new masters with their revised or transformed revelations with new obligations to newer and newer masters. Each ‘saint’ or accomplished Muslim is for himself and the best he can do for the rest is setting a good and inspring example and not to make new and fresh claims, especially about his rank and status.
We take refuge in Allah from being or remaining impure and pray that he grants us the attainment of all lights He sent His Messenger to beam on us and expect us adopting for ourselves. Amen.