August 13, 2003

I, the damned

Note: This post was drastically modified after Zack was gracious enough to point out to me my own idiocy; see the comments for a fuller explanation.

According to Al-Muhajabah, as quoted in this post by Zack of Procastination, my best chance of entering paradise is to stop learning about Islam before I cross the critical threshold of "receiving a true and complete understanding of its basic principles." Depending on how basic we're talking about, I've most likely passed that threshold; in a comment on Al-Muhajabah's post, Zack suggests the language, "a good understanding of the basics" rather than a "true and complete understanding." Though I do not claim any special expertise in Islam, I believe I have read enough and have had lengthy enough discussions with believing Muslims to have acquired "a good understanding of the basics." Short of conversion (an unlikely prospect for one as set in his ways as I am), I suppose I must number myself among the damned.

With few exceptions, I've always found it presumptuous when mere mortals tell their contemporaries who will get into heaven, and who won't. (Perhaps I should say, with one lone exception: The Divine Comedy. It is most likely though that by writing this, I am falling into the trap of many readers of Dante who assume his purpose was theological rather than aesthetic -- that, like his enchanted readers, he too mistook has grand fiction for reality.)

If one who has been cast by his own contemporaries into hellfire may, for a moment, argue his case before joining the likes of Thomas Jefferson -- who not only read but also annotated his two translations of the Qur'an -- allow me to say that I have a hard time accepting the notion that ignorance is the best policy.

In his post, Zack asks what is the purpose of religion, and suggests that it

is to regulate societal interaction; to make the society work better. In my opinion, it is more important to treat people well than to pray.

[Begin revision] The juxtaposition of these two ideas—potential salvation through ignorance on the one hand and religion providing the ethical construct for society—suggested to me a kind of heresy. If one accepted both Al-Muhajabah's statement of the orthodox view of salvation and that it is more important to treat people well rather than to pray, then it might follow that the religious duty of the heretic is to maintain a complete silence, lest he inadvertently condemn those who do not share his faith and whom he wishes to treat well to damnation by exposing them to the basics of Islam. And surely, the heretic would find fault with Al-Muhajabah, who goes to great lengths on her main site to introduce non-Muslims to "a good understanding of the basics" of Islam. [end revision] She writes,

To any non-Muslims who are visiting this page, I encourage you to take the time to learn more about Islam. Talk to Muslims and read what they have written. There are more than 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, and as many as 6-7 million Muslims in the United States. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States and in the world. There must be something about it that is appealing to a lot of people, and satisfying to a lot of people! Don't just take the word of the media on it, read and learn for yourself and make your own decision.

Entirely independent of her (indeed, long before the Internet existed) I followed this path, only to find that by doing so, I am among the damned.

[Begin revision] In July I linked to some information on sects -- the Druze and the Alawites -- that hide their Scriptures from all but the elect few of their faith. In the Middle Ages and beyond, the Catholic Church suppressed vernacular translations of the Bible, lest the faithful be led astray by the Gospels. But I am not aware of a sect that insists its traditions and rites be kept secret in order to effect the salvation of nonbelievers, a sect that would muffle the muezzins in the minarets to prevent the nonbelievers capable of receiving Allah's mercy from being denied it. [end revision]

Posted by Ideofact at August 13, 2003 11:46 PM

C'mon Bill, did you read the whole post? I did invent my own heresy. It is described in my post and it follows directly from my stated purpose of religion.

I am ok with the no proselytization rule as well. ;-) And you have no idea what a pain muezzins and loudspeakers can be in Pakistan?

Posted by: Zack at August 14, 2003 03:37 AM

Typos! Should use the Preview. The last question mark shouldn't be there.

Posted by: Zack at August 14, 2003 03:39 AM


I did read what you wrote -- if it doesn't come off, my intention here was merely to be playful while pointing out what seems to me to be an inconsistency.

To put it another way, the Renaissance-age Christian who was told that on his deathbed the Prophet recanted his message (one can fill in all the negative adjectives one wants) as his only introduction to Islam, and repeated the assertion over and over, would be in a better position to enter paradise than someone like me, who can understand the "something about it that is appealing to a lot of people," who certainly respects those who find that something and wishes them well, but does not find that "something" compelling enough himself to convert.

Posted by: Bill at August 14, 2003 10:37 AM

I understand that you were being a bit playful. But I thought I made it clear in my post that I don't agree with that excerpt from Al-Muhajabah, though I do understand that it is the orthodox position. Is that not clear in my post? (Especially the paragraph right after the quote from Al-Muhajabah.)

Posted by: Zack at August 14, 2003 11:38 AM


My apologies--I can't fix it from work, but will when I get home. It's not entirely that I didn't read your post carefully enough, it's that I didn't read mine. I changed the paragraph beginning with the line about absurdity several times -- originally I went into a lengthy discussion of the whole question of the focus on minor things -- and somehow, when cutting it down, ended up with that nonsense which completely missed the mark of your post (what can I say -- it was late, I was tired and wanted to get to bed). Again, my sincerest apologies for misrepresenting your views, and as soon as I can I'll post a corrected version.

Posted by: Bill at August 14, 2003 12:10 PM

No problem and thanks.

Posted by: Zack at August 14, 2003 01:38 PM

Well, there's little point in trying to minimize what a goof I was when I wrote and posted this last night. In the original versions of the revised paragraphs, I incorrectly (wrongly, boneheadedly, monumentally stupidly) characterized Zack as agreeing with Al-Muhajabah's view on the whole question of the orthodox view of salvation for nonbelievers.

I think in the first paragraph of the post (which wasn't revised), I'm fairly clear in noting that Zack is quoting someone else's ideas; I spent a lot of time going into (and then deleting and saving for another day) a discussion on minor ritual matters (which Zack also raises in his post), and then in tying everything together, took the easy shortcut of making Zack my putative heresiarch. I did it in a fairly inelegant way as well, which makes it all the worse.

So again, my apologies to Zack.

Posted by: Bill at August 14, 2003 02:18 PM

It's an interesting point. Speaking from my own Ismaili Fatimi perspective, there is no threshold - ther's just acceptance or lack (or deliberate attempt to silence). The issue of who gets into Heaven is pretty stark but there is always room for Allah's mercy, so in the end it's almost heresy to assert that ANY particular person, muslim or not, is or isnt headed upstairs. The final judgement is Allah's. And the only thing teh religion tells you, really, is HOW to get there. That doesnt necessarily preclude another path, but there are also very wrong paths.

Posted by: Aziz at August 14, 2003 02:47 PM

My personal question is: how much do I have to accept, or perhaps - is quality more important that quantity when it comes to acts of worship.

Will I be damned for even questioning some rituals and dogma's in islam?

Posted by: burhan at August 15, 2003 11:51 AM

My original purpose in writing that blog entry, as I tried to state in the beginning of it, was to respond to those Muslims who believe that no non-Muslim can ever enter Paradise, no matter what, and to present information to those non-Muslims who also think that is the position of Islam.

I feel like the conclusions you are trying to draw about Islamic belief and about me go beyond the scope of what was intended by that blog entry. It was in response to a particular question and does not address the entire issue.

Posted by: Al-Muhajabah at August 15, 2003 03:32 PM

"I am not aware of a sect that insists its traditions and rites be kept secret in order to effect the salvation of nonbelievers, a sect that would muffle the muezzins in the minarets to prevent the nonbelievers capable of receiving Allah's mercy from being denied it."

The Church of Scientology would probably fit into this category.

Posted by: Alex at August 15, 2003 03:38 PM

Aziz, I think, raises an interesting point as well. Is God bound to follow the law he promulgates? Suppose it is written that man must wear at all time green hats or be damned; suppose a man who otherwise follows all God's laws, and is exemplary in spirit, wears a blue hat. Suppose he does so because he genuinely believes the divinity intended men to wear blue hats, or because he simply prefers blue to green. Would God be bound to cast that man into hell?

I presume Burhan's question is rhetorical; I certainly don't have an answer.

As to Al-Muhajabah, I did take certain licenses for literary effect, but I am not altogether sure how the point I am making should be limited by the intention of your post. If your post explaining who among the non-believers may enter paradise represents orthodoxy, then I believe under that definition I qualify as one who would be excluded. I am fully in accord with you that one should not derive one's notions of Islam from the black foam of the newspapers, but apparently, under orthodox interpretations, one who does so runs the risk of being excluded from paradise.

Alex, I don't know enough about Scientologists to answer one way or another, but I believe that one can purchase the works of L. Ron Hubbard anywhere (they used to advertise them on late night televison). I think they use these writings to gain converts, but I may be wrong. Given how little I know about their beliefs, though, I may be entirely off on this. If they do have a secret tradition, it might be closer to, say, the Druze, in which only the elect read the sacred books. Which raises another point -- I think the scientologists believe in some sort of metempsychosis (or reincarnation); generally, this is the justification for having an elect indoctrinated into the mysteries while the masses are kept in the dark -- until their turn, generations later, comes for perfection. The heresy I imagined (although not explicitly stated) was for a universal religion like Christianity or Islam, the one true path which, because some men might reject it and be damned (but would not were they to remain in ignorance), must be kept secret. Now that I think of it, some heresiarch might already have come up with such a theology, and promptly shut up about it...

Posted by: Bill at August 15, 2003 11:42 PM

I don't know how this washes with the faqihs, but my take on A-M's post is, if you (pl.) haven't embraced Islam yet, your knowledge of islam is not "true and complete". QED ;) The other aspect of doctrine that is ignored in this heaven and hell sorting is that of Muhammad's (pbuh)shafa'a, intercession. That is, sunni muslims with to my knowldege the sole exception of Sh. Munajid and the wahhabis hold that Muhammad will be allowed to intercede for humanity on the day of judgement. I don't think the sunni world is unanimous about who is "entitled" to that shafa'a, with some restricting it to the muslims, but there are those who hold that all of mankind will be interceded for, within the limit of what God wills.

Posted by: Bin Gregory at August 16, 2003 02:43 AM

I've got some further coments on the topic - do visit...

Posted by: Aziz at August 17, 2003 01:19 PM

Bin Gregory --

That's an interesting reading. Under your formulation, al-Muhajabah's sentence would read that only those who have embraced Islam and knowingly reject it, then die without repenting, are destined for hell.

For what it's worth, that's not much of an incentive to convert (assuming that one who converts is perhaps likely to change his mind at some point).

Posted by: Bill at August 19, 2003 02:21 AM