Aug 31 2010

Islamic Idol

One Merriam-Webster definition of “idol” is “an object of extreme devotion“. Wikipedia defines idolatry as the “worship of any cult image, idea, or object“. Idols can take many forms. These forms range from the revered icons  of a church/temple (e.g., Madonna and child, crucifix) to that of an adored entertainer (e.g., Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson). The leaders of the ancient Abrahamic tribes knew the power and danger of idolatry. Idols were powerful tools, divine simulacrums, foci for the spiritual energies (and devotion) of followers. The danger was that anyone able to create an idol was armed with a tool that could be used to manipulate the population and erode influence of the incumbent priesthood. The most famous example of this conflict is the “Sin of the Calf“. The golden calf is an interesting example because Aaron and the Sinners (rock band name?) weren’t necessarily abandoning the god of Abraham, they just wanted an image to follow and so adopted a form that the refugees were familiar with, the lunar bull. The practice is now called syncretism, but that’s an article for another day. So in review: sanctioned idols = good (i.e., ark of the covenant… unless you’re a Nazi), unsanctioned idols = bad (i.e., Aaron’s earring sculpture).

All of this is prologue of course. Let’s fast forward about 2,000 years. The year is 632 CE and a man named Muhammad ibn `Abdullāh (Peace be upon him) has died. His adherents call him the Messenger and / or Prophet (his youngest wife might have had other opinions, but again… another article). His greatest work (though never a New York Times Bestseller) is called the Qur’an but he can’t take full credit since he was really just a stenographer for the angel Jibrīl (i.e., Gabriel) over twenty-three years. Talk about a hand cramp! Apparently gods and angels can’t write their own stuff. Raining hellfire, flooding the world, and raising the dead are no problem… applying quill to parchment however, not in their bag of tricks. *shrug* Anyway, as a messenger of Allah, the Prophet is highly venerated (see Shahadah). Soon, the tradition (i.e., hadith) was adopted that his image should never be displayed for fear of it encouraging idolatry; he is after all, just a messenger. It is worth noting that this prohibition does not appear in the Qur’an. Fair enough… for a society that believes in all that. Fast forward another 1,300 some years and people are threatening death to anyone who draws a stick-figure Prophet. What happened?

I don’t want to use this article to bash Islam. I have a lot of friends that are Muslim. That being said, every religion has its nut-jobs. These are usually people who have clung to a particular idea or passage to the exclusion of all other evidence and ideas. You can’t judge all Protestants based on the rantings and pyrotechnic picnics of the Ku Klux Klan. I get that. What I don’t get (or accept) is any group that dictates what I can and cannot do, so long as no else is harmed. If you’re insulted, too bad. There’s a little thing called “free speech” (in the United States at least) that trumps your fragile sensibilities. Another thing I don’t get is the indignation and animosity generated by depictions of the Prophet, whether respectful or otherwise (see Everybody Draw Mohammed Day). The irony here is delicious. Many Muslim groups don’t want images created of Muhammad for fear of creating an idol, but in the process have imbued such power and passion into all images of the Prophet that they’re willing to kill in his name (Peace be upon him). Welcome to Islamic quality control.

As the world community grows and the influence of cultures come into contact like a global Peep Joust, there will be more and more of these conflicts. Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in the world (PBS’s “Islam Today” claimed over 1.2 billion followers in 2010), almost 1 out 4 people on the planet. Whether they admit it or not, those that take offense to images of Muhammad are imbuing them with power and meaning, thereby creating the same idols that their traditions forbid. Do not take that fact lightly. According to the Bible, the tribes of Abraham swept into Canaan in the 15th century BC and slaughtered untold thousands in the name of their god, carrying before them the ark of the covenant, the earthly representation of Jehovah’s will. For the time period, this was an extraordinarily bloody campaign. As the centuries advanced, so have the zeroes on the body count… When the next holy war erupts, don’t be surprised if one or more zeroes are added. So what should we do? Moses was on the right track, if not a little self-serving. We need to undermine the power of idols. “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” was a good step in that direction. Maybe an “Everybody Draw Zombie Jesus Day” would be a good follow-up? When they’re able to dismiss these demonstrations as trivial, the power and threat of their images will be diluted. It’s a small win but even small battles are worth winning.

“Religion is the greatest idolatry of all time and, in many ways, the most dangerous also.” – Diarmund O’Murchu

Aug 13 2010


Nope, no new book reviews yet! I haven’t found / made much time to read lately so I’m still mired somewhere in the last half (third?) of the same book I was reading in June. I realize that this means there will forever be a missing July 2010 archive on this site (i.e., no posts) and for that I am very, very sorry. I apologize to my all my completist readers. *moment of silence* But August is a new month and as the Summer trips and stumbles into Fall, there are movies to see. Movies are much easier than books. You pay your $20, let the story flow over (and deafen) you for two hours, and you’re done. Most of the movies I’ve seen this Summer have been conveniently forgettable, so I don’t even have to be bothered with thinking about them ten steps outside the cineplex (other than that nagging sound in the background of someone complaining that we just wasted $20 on a movie). This weekend was different however. This weekend we went to see Christopher Nolan’s dream-scape tragic thriller “Inception” (2010). Leonardo diCaprio (I’m still warmed by the thought of Jack Dawson disappearing into the depths of the North Atlantic) stars as Cobb, a veteran dream-runner tasked with planting an idea into the head of Cillian Murphy (the Scarecrow from Batman Begins). Seems pretty straight-forward, right? Well, not so much…

Dream stories always risk being cliché. Blurring the boundaries of reality and dream is one of the oldest tropes: “The Wizard of Oz” (1939),  “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), “Brazil” (1985), “Newhart” (1990), and many antecedents, e.g. “A Christmas Carol” (1843). What sets “Inception” apart from the crowd is that from the outset, it defines the mechanics of dreaming and then goes nuts within the parameters of that sandbox. Not satisfied with the trope of a character that wakes from dreaming uncertain whether he’s still asleep, “Inception” involves dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams (within dreams?).  While this might sound silly (and to a large extent, it is) the rules set forth at the beginning of the movie are followed throughout. Complicating things further, each subsequent layer / depth of dreaming allows for an exponential dilation of the passage of time.  In other words, in the time it takes for a van to fall off a bridge, a dreamer could live a lifetime embedded within a handful of nested dreams. Despite a dizzying amount of action, the events remained internally consistent. Even the soundtrack to the movie (based on “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien“) can be used as a metronome to determine what level of dreaming the action is taking place. Kudos for that! As usual, I got wrapped-up in the story and after a while stopped looking for problems. Which isn’t to say there weren’t problems, just that I didn’t see them (admit to them) until they were pointed out to me… *sigh*

In summary, “Inception” was an enjoyable movie that left me thinking, not about anything particularly deep but about the effort and execution of a well-planned, complex story. I think if other fantasy movie-makers took the effort to plan-out and clean-up their stories from the beginning, we wouldn’t leave theaters disappointed quite so often. A movie worth seeing.

“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – Carl Jung

4 out of 5