I don’t believe any religion, not really but I recognise that they are all extremely enlightened texts for the period, based on the teachings of the greatest philosophers that ever lived. You will not see me use the word ‘prophet’ but will see the word ‘philosopher’ often.
There are secular divisions within all religions; channels that uphold the core principles but adopt different stances on the interpretation of the scriptures, such as the different denominations of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian etc.).
In Islam, there are many differing sects mostly adhering to the principles of the Qu’ran and Sunnah in general and marked only by their nuances concerning the hadith and certain ritual differences. I think we would all agree that Sunni Islam is the predominant ideology across the globe (most markedly in Indonesia and Pakistan) closely followed by Shia Islam, the predominant faith of old Persia since the sixteenth-century. There are many other sects, the popular number being seventy-three due to Mohammed’s premonition about the divergence of the Islamic faith.
Within Islam, just as with the other religions these divides make it difficult for there to be an accord. Protestants and Catholics, Mahayana and Hinayana, Rabbinic and Karaite, Sunni and Shia.
No religion can actually develop unilaterally, it always seems to split at some point, as we evolved as a species and scholars of jurisprudence begin studying the holy words, trying to apply them to a changing world. The Qu’ran holds that seventy-two of the alleged seventy-three sects are false and will be condemned to Hell, the problem there being that they all follow the core traditions; differentiating may be difficult. It also gives rise to a superiority complex among the different sects, that they are the true branch of Islam.
It wouldn’t surprise me to find that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi thinks his version of Islamic State lore is the one, true thread of Islam and that all other sects are heretic. Sadly, his biased interpretation of the great philosopher’s words has alienated him from the majority of his faith and his war-cry pantheon of suffering and abuse appeals only to the vulnerable and mentally ill. Had he established his caliphate on the earlier teachings of Mohammed as opposed to the later, then he might have had more success converting people to his way of thinking. Plus, his new addition to the sects of Islam takes the number over the preordained target of ‘seventy-three’ so he fails on that level, too.
Saying that, Al-Baghdadi’s rhetoric has sparked age-old grievances across the world and seems attractive to disenfranchised Muslims living in persecution. The dream is the same old war-script, a mandate for world domination based on a totalitarian ethic; all races subjugated or destroyed in the name of Islam. We’ve heard it all before, from the Mesopotamians, The Romans, the Mongols, the Christians. We’ve heard it from Islam before up until the fall of the Ottoman empire and the fragmenting of the Arab states. Iran have threatened it thinly, Al-Quadia used to bang on about it but now have their own problems to worry about.
It might be useful to go right back to the first recorded war in human history, estimated to be around 2700 b.c. This conflict between the Sumerians and The Elamites was etched into stone, a pictogram becoming page one in our bloody history of conflict Of course, there were wars before this date yet they were never recorded. We can only assume by looking at things such as the walls of the ancient city, Jericho, estimated to have been created around 7,000 b.c that humanity was already defence-conscious. I can’t imagine many large threats in the area in terms of wildlife that would warrant such fortifications as the walls of Jericho, apart from Man.
As I mentioned in my other blog, every human civilization on Earth is given an identity through its religious beliefs. This has been the pattern since, well…since Man first grunted and bowed at the Sun. I’ll drop the gauntlet again: since the first recorded war, can anybody tell me a major social group that isn’t defined by its faith?
Religion gives us identity, the essential part of our character, that which makes us individual and unique. Naturally, there are plenty of sociological and psychological theories about personal identity. I won’t go into them too much but they make for interesting reading. One can see the gradual shift (as human thinking evolves) from the metaphysical to the logical where identity is concerned, from the theories of Plato and Descartes to the more modern interpretation by Freud and others.
Social identity theory concerns our self-awareness within groups and the work of Polish psychologist, Henri Tajfel proposed that
“Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s).”
Nowadays, in the twenty-first century there is more focus on the individual as a unique entity, on our intrinsic thoughts and behaviours, that which makes us stand apart from others. Religion is a pseudo-identity, assumed to give us our sense of belonging. By adherence to its coda, we form our identity based on the thinking and behaviour of a higher power which works in two ways. Firstly, it gives us our sense of social identity and therefore elements of a personal identity, something which we can use to define ourselves and our purpose for existence. I imagine that back in the times of Elam and Sumer, personal identity was nonexistent with people merely primal creatures driven by the urge to reproduce and self-preserve. Enlightened men and women within these communities will have put forward their suggestions about human purpose, described communing with strange gods that controlled the unpredictable elements. Secondly, it takes away our sense of individuality, our personal identity becoming less important to that of the group as a whole. Our actions and feelings become governed by the group mentality and the self-esteem of the group becomes mutually inclusive to individual self-esteem.
I suspect that the first notion of religion was gleaned through our exposure to death. The Natufian culture, thought to be one of the earliest forefathers of civilisation existed 14,500 years ago and in 2008, a grave was excavated in Israel disclosing remains of a 12,000-year old corpse surrounded with artefacts and trinkets in the manner of ritual burial. The scholars believe that the body of this woman was that of a ‘shaman’ from the Natufian era and indicative of organised religion from that early period. Evidence of recovered artwork intimates that religious ideology was present much earlier in the civilisation but the discovery of the grave is the first real evidence of religious hierarchical order, the woman being buried in a unique way that differs from the other excavated Natufian graves in the region.
That means as early as 10,00 b.c, humanity had already developed the ideology of religion, of a power greater than Man that demanded propitiation and special treatment. I suspect it was much earlier than this that organised religion became part of social structure, that we clung to the idea as evolving hominids as soon as we were able to question our own existence and environment. Maybe some evidence will come to light, one day of religious ideology in the earliest stages of human development, in the tool-bearing homo habilis?
The discovery proves that we, as a species need to have a purpose, a sense of identity and moreover, we need to rationalise the irrationality of death. The Sumerians, architects of the first recorded war believed in many deities and the Elamites had their own version of polytheist lore. These beliefs formed the core identity of their societies, an almost hive-mind by which every individual could identify. The different belief structure of the two sects no doubt precipitated this first recorded conflict.
Tajfel argues that the social groups we identify with give us our senses of pride and self-esteem. I would argue that ‘pride and self-esteem’ are the framework for purpose and that we feel proud and worthwhile when we know we have a goal to which we are working, a sense of usefulness. Social identity gives us a purpose though its collective aims; each member feeling as if they are part of the bigger picture, an integral tooth in the gears that drive towards universal goals.
In order to enhance our self-esteem we seek to enhance that of the social group and an important part of social identity theory becomes apparent; that of the ‘us and them’ mentality. Those in our social identity group are ‘in’ and those without are ‘out’.
“The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.”
Tajfel says that we will always gravitate towards this mentality and his work with British psychologist John Turner gave us three mental processes involved in assessing those in and out of groups.
The primary stage is ‘categorisation’ by which we put objects into groups through knowledge of their states and functions. What we know about something helps us to classify it and identify it. In the same way, we categorise people based on what we know about them. We categorise on things such as aesthetic appearance, religious views, actions and behaviours, even colour of skin. We categorise by role and by traits, by which we can have a ‘tall Indian postman who is a bit of a joker’, identifying this man by his character traits, appearance, ethnicity and his role in society. We categorise on emotional responses, too branding people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but that comes with a later stage in the social identity theory.
The second stage is the ‘social identification’ stage in which we assume the identity of the group we have decided we belong to. Self-esteem will become higher and interwoven with the group mentality. Therefore, if you have defined yourself as a student, you will adopt the norms and behaviours of a student. Emotional attachment to the group will facilitate pride and self-esteem, become a regulator for purpose which in turn will be the purposes of the group (in this example, the purpose being the successful gaining of qualifications).
The third stage is ‘social comparison’; having identified and accepted a group we then compare ourselves to other groups in an effort to maintain self-esteem. This leads to the ‘us and them’ mentality and can lead to competition and prejudice as groups see themselves hierarchically more esteemed than other similar groups. Alternatively, it can lead to the merger of groups and the sharing of ideas as both groups seek to understand the other more intimately.
I’d like to say the latter statement is true of all modern social groups but it is not the case. Especially where religion is concerned. It seems Mankind has always felt the need to be governed by a higher power and it is easy to understand how a primitive human mind can readily accept the notion of many omnipotent gods moving the heavens and the earth, directing the seasons and the elements. Belief in these ideologies gave rise to unique social groups, strengthening identities and self-esteem within members by answering the eternal question: what happens after we die?
Someone with such potent knowledge of the unknown would quickly be elevated to a status of supremacy, marked apart from the group by their advanced intuition. Their ideas seemed to answer questions, give reasons for the happenings both in the body and the environment. The architects of Natufian religion were clearly more introspective than their group as a whole, able to provide seemingly plausible answers for things such as death and the elements, the rotation of day and night. These ideas were seized by minds eager for enlightenment and explanation. In a world full of so much uncertainty and ignorance, the Natufians would have settled for any old flummery to explain their existence and that of the world around them because by knowing more about an object or event, we can categorise and classify it, understand it and therefore conquer fear. I imagine that, if we could travel back in time 12,000 years and be among the Natufians, we could pretty much tell them any amount of made-up shit about life and death and they would lap it up like buttermilk.
Up until the seventeenth-century, identity had been associated with the ‘soul’ and therefore under the influence of whatever higher power the given group believed in. The rest of us were defined by our social identities and in particular, by our beliefs. Our religious beliefs forged the foundations for our personal identities and many philosophers strengthened the notion of the divine through their theories on personality and identity.
In the 1600’s, John Locke put forward his theories on personal identity, dissociating it from the notion of the ‘soul’ and giving it more medical and environmental parameters. In his thesis, Locke had a ‘theory of religious tolerance’ that happened to coincide with his own fears of a Catholic monopoly over Anglican England. The theory gives credit to the human mind for questing the authenticity of religious doctrine. Some might argue that this theory was proposed to gear up resistance against Catholicism and that it’s timing was extremely convenient but it was discussed much earlier in history as the below article will attest:
Convenient or not, it gives us an insight into how the human mind had developed over the centuries, now willingly capable of dissecting and analysing its own identity. In 500 b.c, the Hindu movement gained popularity though its culmination of mixed beliefs from different groups. There is apparently no founder of the religion, Hinduism being seen as a force of enlightenment that developed divinely and without the interference of a prophet, much like a ‘becoming’ from the truths of many ideas.
Hinduism has remained largely unchanged for over two millennia, worshipping the same deities with the same rituals and ethics although, like the tohers it has schisms, other diversified groups that set themselves apart through ritual and belief. The impact that religion has is directly affected by its ability to offer something to the follower, both physically and mentally. All religions have developed due to dissent, a desire to not conform to the social norms of a group. I would go so far as to say all religions have also developed from a sense of oppression, that the nuances in religions started when they were forced upon others unwillingly through war. Certainly, the Anglican Church would never have come about had the Catholic Church not forced its ideals onto England in the sixth century, a few decades before Islam was born in the Middle East. From Catholicism came the other schisms such as the Anglican, Methodist and Episcopalian. Without the original forceful legislature of Catholicism, the other religions would not have been born. Similarly, from the different tribal beliefs of India, through occupation and enslavement, Hinduism was manifested. Back to Sumeria and after its defeat to the Akaddians then the subsequent fall to the Gutians, the religious ideologies transcended into other similarly linked yet stand-alone beliefs.
It seems a religion is necessary to birth a religion and it makes me wonder what the first recognised religion was and how it was absorbed into early cultures such as Sumer and Babylon, forming the basis for their theological beliefs.
Christianity was born in a time of dissent among the subjugated Jews of Roman-occupied Asia. His life is one of struggle and sacrifice as he fights against the Roman Empire, only to be killed by the regime as it threatens the very stability of their belief system and therefore their power-base.
Similarly, Judaism was born between God and Abraham, the latter of lowly Babylonian descent and no doubt feeling the pinch of oppression from the barbaric regime. Babylonian religion was as complex and polytheist as Roman lore and Abraham introduced the concept of ‘one true god’. His back story is one of pilgrimage and suffering as war is rife between different tribes such as those of Babylon, Elam and Egypt. The entire desert was probably a melting-pot of conflict as each group fought for superiority through membership and amassing of resources, through the forceful invasion of other group’s territory.
Buddha was born a prince and felt oppressed by the regimes of corruption and flagrant selfishness he saw from his peers. Even though he never forced his religion through war, after his death the religion diversified and wars did erupt as empires such as India adopted the ideology. Thanks to the introduction of Buddhism and the subsequent conquest by Islam, several different Buddhist movements have developed around
India such as the Tibetan Buddhist and Neo-Buddhist movements.
We all know the story of Mohammed and for those that don’t, he was born in the social structure of a polytheist Arab culture, a mish-mash of ancient Mesopatamian and Persian religions and the newly evolved Judaism and Catholicism. We might call it an Arabic voodoo, a religious soup. From these ideologies, Islam was drawn and shaped by Mohammed, who encountered his own persecutions from those who now saw him as outside their group and therefore beyond their control.
Because there is another side to the social identity theory, an important one that has its own theory (of course). It is that of identity control, not just the individual’s approach to dealing with their own identity but how identity can be used to give people control over others. By instilling an identity in someone, we give them self-esteem, pride and a purpose. Therapists and the military alike seek to do this by changing the way that individual’s see their own and their social identity. Religion also does this, changing the way that people perceive the world around them, especially other groups by inciting a sense of supreme self-esteem within the individual, setting them apart as part of the divine flock, above the other groups spiritually and morally.
Whilst existentialism focuses on the identity of the individual as a divine being, consciously free to make decisions all other religion mostly focuses on a collective identity under the guidance of a god or gods. These supreme beings give us the coda by which we must live or else we will suffer after death. If we do not observe the rituals and propitiate in the correct manner then we will have failed to live up to our purpose. It’s nice to hand one’s responsibility over to God, to ultimately admit that every action we do is somehow planned and directed by a divine motive. To me, it’s a massive cop-out and the minute I have to say that God told me to think or act a certain way, you might as well shoot me.
Without the birth of Islam in its initial form, the divides between it could never have occurred. Yet Muslims everywhere celebrate these divisions, mindful of the Qu’ranic verse purporting that only one sect is the true Islamic nexus. Thanks to this premonition, the various sects can never unite to form a universal ideology, much as the Sunni and Shia can never agree on who should have rightfully taken the helm of Islam after Mohammed’s death. Does it even matter? It doesn’t matter how many Popes the Catholic Church has, the original text are pretty much the same. It’s the way in which the Pope uses and interprets that sacred text that causes argument. Henry VIII didn’t like the way in which the Pope assumed control over so many lands and monarchies, wielding religion as a dangling carrot. He created the Church of England and consolidated his own power as directly affiliated with the divine by virtue of being King.
Personally, it’s irrelevant who took the seat of Islamic power, post-Mohammed. Whoever the caliph was, the original words of Islam had been spoken, the message transmitted. Never mind who the fuck was in charge of the ship, the sacred words had already been made available. It was more a political argument rather than a religious one that fuelled the split. Whoever was caliph held control over all Islamic land. As always, as soon as religion was developed it became recognised as the ultimate control measure and whoever led the faith held the reins of power.
I imagine that, in every culture there has been a spiritual adviser, a high priest or priestess of the cult. The remains in the Israeli dig prove this much, that people existed who were seen as divinely unique, linked to ethereal forces that mere men could not understand. The notion of a prophet has been long-standing for millennia and is no different today. We may not call these people ‘prophets’ any more but we call them ‘philosophers’ and ‘enlightened thinkers’. I don’t think the Pope has any link to the divine; he’s just some Argentinian guy who worked his way up the corporate ladder and won an election through his charisma and ethics. Just because he knows the in-and-out’s of the Bible doesn’t make him any better a man than me. Same with the Ayatollah Khamenei; he’s a man of great learning and intellect but also affected by a chronic lack of identity, his goals being that of the collective Shia faith and the preservation of Iranian culture, not necessarily the welfare of the diverse populace of his country.
Religion is such a critical part of our identities that even non-believers have their own classifications (Agnostics, Atheists, Nihilists etc.) and by believing in the absence of something (i.e. nothing) they still hold a belief. Their lack of faith becomes their identifier.
Religion is a handy tag to have, it says a lot about a persons views and explains their behaviour. To not have a religious identifier (even a non-belief) can give rise to a personality dysfunction as one struggles to find a group to fit into. Family is the first and foremost group that we belong to and from family we draw our strongest facets of personality, through exposure and inheritance. Religion is taught, to the degree that some infer it is ‘in the blood’, therefore giving the individual an immediate sense of belonging and pride. To have something such as faith genetically imbued (impossible, by the way) gives people an integral map for their own identity. This is what we see nowadays in lots of countries as children are born into religious ideologies and immediately taught prejudices and differences that make then stand apart from others. It can lead to the alienation of some people from other groups and confusion for many as they leave their social group and expand their horizons, finding conflict against their faiths and mannerisms in some places, acceptance in others.
As for Al-Baghdadi, he’s had a complete identity hijack, his own mental illness precipitating a paranoid and violent interpretation of the ‘religion of peace’ that leaves no room for human error and freedom of expression. Even by Islamic standards, his orthodox religion is too entrenched in negativity to be anything other than a false ideology born of oppression and personal loss. I don’t blame him for getting pissed-off; his country has been butt-fucked by just about every other country in the region and not counting the US, England and the Soviet Union-slash-Russia. Part of old Persia, Iraq gained its independency as a state in 1932 after being handed back by the British Empire following the defeat of the Ottomans. The Empire still puppeteered the country for many years until it fell under the jurisdiction if the United Nations, predominantly the United States. It has seen much civil war and hostility with regime changes and religious oppression being associated with the region for many decades. Wars with neighbouring Iran and it’s Shia regime was the backdrop for his childhood. I can imagine that Al-Baghdadi’s early life was not one filled with hope for the future yet despite this, he was a devout Sunni cleric.
Ironic, then that he has alienated himself from his ancestral roots, forming another religion based on his own megolamaniacal assumption of being somehow directly connected with divine Islam by being the new caliph of a true Islamic state. The mix of religious ideology and oppression has forged yet another faith, that of the Islamic State. We cannot say that this religion is affiliated with the other branches of Islam as they mostly denounce the atrocities committed by the group. By warping Islam into a merciless, unforgiving faith, Al-Baghdadi has caused his own downfall, learning nothing from the lessons of history. His disaffected mind, already scarred by conflict and betrayal can only focus on universal supremacy. I imagine he spent most of his life being a nobody until war brought him to the attention of partisan groups with which he identified.
He is a philosopher but sadly, he lacks the impartiality to be taken seriously, hence his congregation being composed of hostages and the mentally ill. But one might ask, how can so many people be so mentally-ill at the same time, ill enough to follow the directions of the ‘caliph’ and commit acts that contravene their standard interpretations of Islam?
He did it the same way any other dictator does, by assuming control of a small but powerful faction and recruiting through fear and intimidation, the lure of a better life. His interpretation of Islam gives carte blanche to a number of excessive behaviours; murder, rape, child abuse that appeal to many dysfunctional people, allowing them to throw off the restraints of their traditional values and indulge in dark pleasures that have probably agonised them for years. Yet Al-Baghdadi isn’t really the liar we all think he is.
Yes, he is psychotic and completely deluded yet his interpretations of the Qu’ran and hadith give weight to his biased argument for war. Mohammed really did say some bad things and I feel that, once the religious world had stabilised he might have retracted them as he grew more enlightened about the nature of humanity and its need for diversity.
Mohammed’s last sermons focused a lot on the right of men over women with violence against them legislated. If you think that’s bad then check out the Old and New Testaments, both advocating superiority over woman and in some instances, rape! Most religions hold this inferior view of women and have only recently had the insight to review this archaic lore and see it for the sociocultural preset that it was at the time. It need not apply to a modern, free-thinking world in which we respect women as equal and opposite to men.
It’s such a shame that Islam cannot kick itself into the twenty-first century. Even the Catholics have reluctantly allowed gay people into churches, under the grumbling assent of God, the Father. They can’t get married, per se but they can get a ‘civil ceremony’ in the church which is a step of tolerance that might precipitate acceptance, some day.
This will never happen in Islam and instead of become more enlightened, as in the case of the Islamic State the religion just deprecates, becoming morally and ethically worse. Focus is lost completely on the individual, that are merely part of the hive collective, under the will of a higher power and directed by an appointed cleric who, of course knows God a little more intimately than the rest. Their lives become negligible and the focus for Al-Baghdadi is on numbers, not believers. He will gladly recruit anyone, irrespective of belief because his infrastructure is falling apart. His frantic calls to unite a fractured Islam are resounding echoes that are shunned by most apart from the actively insurgent pressure groups around the world who see his rhetoric as a worthy bandwagon to jump upon. If the Islamic State did eventually assume world dominance, aided and abetted by hundreds of splinter groups, they would all be killed systematically under the forced conversion to radical Islam because such heresy would never be permitted under the harshness of Al-Baghdadi’s Shari’ah law.
If anything, this massive multicultural cluster-fuck has caused the oppression of Islam, once again and with people like Trump touting for discrimination and Teresa May segregating the UK from the rest of the world, it is only a matter of time before a new pop-up religion happens. This time, it will have to be something special, something unique that gives us all an ‘aha!’ moment, when the jigsaw pieces seem to slide a little better into place. Only when we see a religion that suits our own interpersonal needs will we pledge allegiance to God. In this day and age, like I said the focus is more on the individual than the collective. I like to think that if you got a room full of Sunni Muslims together, they would all have a slightly different take on their religion that sets them apart as an individual. Their own experiences and knowledge will have shaped their belief structure and either raised or lowered their self-esteem accordingly. Al-Baghdadi makes the fatal mistake of assuming that his congregation are all one manifest model of his making. It’ simply not true; they are all individual people and although they might identify with a particular religious group, their values might not reflect those forced upon them and with this, the theory of religious tolerance comes into practice.
IS holds its territories through fear not wilful allegiance to the caliphate. Its membership is screaming for help and to be perfectly honest, I think the majority just want it to be over as soon as possible, even if it means their own deaths. Just a release from the bondage of suffering is enough of a reward for them yet I hope that the UN does not decide this means an all-out destruction of the IS territories, irrespective of civilians. Each one of those captive minds is an individual with their own perceptions and identities. Their world has been thrust into terror and uncertainty and only the strength of their faith keeps them alive. It is a horrific situation and if I had just one wish from the genie, it would be for some kind of exoskeleton ‘iron man’ suit so that I could rocket off to Asia and liberate the prisoners, laying siege to the phony caliphate and bringing its architect to justice, to be held accountable and questioned about his actions.
This is only one part of the world. If we turn our attention to Africa then the story is not much different. Boka Haram and Al Shabaab are supporting the Islamic State (oblivious to the fact that Al-Baghdadi will kill them all should the caliphate win) and importing their own nuanced version of terror into the continent.
Religion used to be pandemic, a disease with a definite source that radiated outwards in circles and infected other lands. Now it can sporadically ‘pop-up’ in any area thanks to our advancements in communication and whilst I am in support of organised religion for its logical tenets of modern society, I disagree with a lot of the ethics involved.
It can bring closure to some and a sense of belonging but their faith is all to easily exploited by others with hidden agendas. Religion will always find prejudice because, by its very nature it creates a social group and a ‘us and them’ mentality. Even if it is peaceful and benign, as soon as it is noticed then arguments against its esteem will begin. If it is excessive and violent then it will not be tolerated in our evolved world, if we look at it as an overall social group.
The fact is, if a religion is going to be successful then it has to offer the individual a sense of self-esteem and purpose. If the purpose is merely to die then a lot of people are going to find that this chafes with their own sense of self-preservation. A religion that preaches death and sacrifice will cause stress and this is not what the human mind seeks from group involvement. It seeks self-satisfaction and self-actualisation. To depraved people who like to inflict pain and misery, a religion that preaches death and licenses fetish might be just the ticket. If Freud is correct, then these people are attuned to their id and their ego sanctions it through its identity with the ethics of the social group. Religion becomes a license to exploit lusts and this primal satisfaction appeals to many.
A religion that preaches tolerance and gives new perspective on old arguments is more likely to be accepted and in this vein, such things as Scientology and Adonism have become somewhat accepted as religious orders. In fact, I’ve been having some very strange dreams recently and might have to write them down. They concern the paradox of life and death and the concepts of the universe. They give a different view on what might be our origins and future beyond death and are a little bit scary.
Don’t worry! I’m not a prophet, just some mental guy with an idea about how things work. Might make for interesting reading.
Thanks for reading this blog. I’m not really sure what my point was here but I’ve had fun writing it, nonetheless and learning more about the way in which we identify with social groups, forming our own personal identities based on these interactions.