September 21, 2004

Victory of the Sadducees

I started working on something rather lengthy, trying to recreate with my meager writing talent a view of the Salem witch trials from the perspective of one who a) sincerely believed in the power of witchcraft and b) believed that such witches were attacking his loved ones. It all fell apart, though, in part because, while I can sometimes imagine such an outlook, it becomes very difficult to draw someone else into one's ruminations on the topic. (And, note well, I can best imagine such a world under the influence of a high fever...)

Cotton Mather, who wrote extensively on witches and witchcraft, was fascinated by the subject because, it seemed to him, here was empirical evidence that, contra the materialists (called Sadducees after the Jewish rabbis who denied the existence of angels) the "invisible world" of angels and demons did indeed exist, and did exercise influence on the physical world. And, as Chadwick Hansen notes, absent the force of the invisible world, "We shall come to have no Christ but a light within, and no Heaven but a frame of mind," Mather fretted. And that is, by and large, what we ended up with. While I can read Hansen, see his rather detailed disquisition on clinical hysteria, and believe that, contra many of the historians of Salem, that the girls were tormented by witchcraft, I understand the term as a Sadducee. It was not the action of magic, but rather, a hyesterical and psychosomatic reaction to the fear of magic being used against them that caused the girls to suffer, and suffer they did.

Still, something worth pondering -- something I otherwise would discount out of hand. When our old friend Sayyid Qutb rails against Western materialism, should we put him in the same class as, say, a Hollywood philosophe arguing that money can't buy me love, or is he something else -- a Mather-esque figure who'd drag the world back into superstition?

Notes: Added Fightin' with Grabes to the favorites list, and fooled around with the font color at the request of a reader to make it easier to see. I found it works on Safari but not on I.E. -- I'll keep trying.

Posted by Ideofact at September 21, 2004 11:40 PM


I'm not sure I get your question about Qutb.

One of the great stresses in the teachings of the Prophet (saw) was against superstition. This is one of the major themes expressed by the Prophet (saw) in moving people from a belief in polytheism to monotheism.

At the same time, Muslims believe there is a such thing as evil magic. Believing in the existence of the unseen, including angels, the devil and other jinn (some good, some bad) and the fact that these forces have influence on us is also one of the points of emphasis of Islamic belief. Of course all these forces, as created beings, are subject completely to the will and permission of Allaah (swt). That is, there is no manichean idea of those forces struggling against Allaah, but rather those forces struggle against human beings and other created things.

Anyways, perhaps if I have more time or you're interested I can think about it more and add something.


Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at September 22, 2004 09:33 AM

Was Qutb arguing against 'materialism' the metaphysical doctrine (i.e., there is no reality independent of the observable) or against the 'materialist' who worships money and possessions?

Posted by: Stygius at September 22, 2004 10:46 PM

Well, that's more or less the question. I generally assume that Qutb has imbibed enough of modernity that, even if he's rejecting materialism as a metaphysical doctrine, he's still checkmated by the rational, scientific world that is the construct of the Sadducees (I think this was more or less the position of Cotton Mather as well). Like Mather, perhaps, Qutb is looking for something to counter a materialistic interpretation of nature, and like Mather, he's not finding anything particularly convincing or that works particularly well. So he takes pot shots around the edges (evolution being one) as a proof that another mode of thinking (one he himself does not use) is preferable.

This is why Abu Noor's comment is interesting, but also somewhat unsatisfying.

In any case, my head starts to spin whenever I venture into this sort of thinking. Without concrete examples to prop myself up, I become lost in the maze of words.

Posted by: Bill at September 22, 2004 11:27 PM

Qutb or any believing Muslim would reject both the metaphysical docrtrine of materialism (obviously) and against materialism in terms of being overly concerned with matters of this world (called dunya in Arabic).

I did a very little reading on Sadducees and it seems almost all of their beliefs would be unacceptable to Muslims, so I'm wondering in what sense you think that Cotton Mather accepted the world they constructed?

Again, Qutb would accept the idea that Allaah (swt) has set up a world in which he (swt) has also set up certain observable and discover 'laws,' meaning patterns which can be understood and therefore predicted by humans.

This would be why Qutb would allow Muslims to study hard sciences and benefit from 'scientific advances' or 'technology' with non-Muslims, as we have discussed before.

Obviously it seems clear to most that even these sciences are value laden and not quite as completely objective as we would like to believe.

The most important point to a Muslim would be the supremacy of revelation. That is, there is no contradiction between 'real science' and revelation. If there appears to be a contradiction, then one is either wrong about the science or misunderstanding the revelation. If the revelation is clear, like the fact that there are Angels and Jinn, or that all human beings come from a single father Adam (as) who was created from clay), then that would trump the science and one would have to say any 'theory' of evolution that contradicted that was wrong even if one did not know why yet. Obviously, the history of human science has been such that it should not be hard for any of us to accept that what humans at a certain time or place think is proved scientifically may very well not be accepted at a later time.

I'm going to try to figure out what you are talking about with Cotton Mather so I can understand what you are saying Bill.

Of course hanging over all this discussion in my mind is the fact that just because there are 'unseen' forces at work in our universe does not mean that everything that is attributed to those forces is necessarily in fact the result of those forces. Thus, the girls in Salem could have really been suffering from psychosomatic symptoms as Bill suggests, but there could still be such a thing as witchcraft or evil magic.

I think this is what I was talking about when I mentioned how Islaam emphasized losing superstition. First and foremost, it said that no other entity besides the One God (Allaah) had any of the powers of a god. Polytheism is the greatest superstition, and Islaam is the greatest enemy of polytheism. Many other Arab superstitious practices were also abolished by the Prophet (saw).

In a most remarkable incident, when the son of the Prophet (saw) Ibrahim died as an infant, there was an eclipse. Some Muslims were quick to link the two events and try to claim this as another sign of the Prophet (saw) being a true Prophet. The Prophet (saw) told them: "The sun and the moon do not eclipse because of the death or life(i.e. birth) of someone but they are two signs amongst the signs of Allaah. When you see them offer the prayer."

So, again the key is monotheism. It is not to materialistically say that there is no unseen force in control, but to see that every single thing is in the control of Allaah (swt) who created everything.

I realize I'm far off the point now, but inshAllaah there was some benefit in these random thoughts.


Of course all of this remains in the hands of God and therefore there is always room for miracles, especially at the hands of Prophets or other karamat at the hands of any righteous person.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at September 23, 2004 03:16 PM

If I may chime in:

The Sadducees were part of the Jewish faith during the centuries surrounding the life of Christ. They were named after an early leader (Sadduc), and their belief denied any form of life after death, and any supernatural powers other than God.

Three of the Gospels tell of Jesus discussing life after death the Sadducees. However, Jesus had much more to say about the Pharisees, who believed in life after death, angels, and such things that are often called 'superstition'.

It appears that "Sadducee" has been abstracted into a general description of those who believe that any supernatural power that does exist has no regular business with the material world we live in.

Posted by: steve h at September 24, 2004 02:37 PM

This is a subject I'll have to think about some more, but in the meantime I'm working on a lengthy post that addresses some of the questions and arguments that I can answer...

Posted by: Bill at September 27, 2004 12:49 AM