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Notes on the Near Eastern Legacy of Islam

Mosque_in_AfghanistanI just finished teaching an undergraduate university class on the Ancient Near East: 15 weeks on Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. I read as many original documents and modern histories—and looked at as much art—as I had time to do. I became intrigued by the many parallels between radical Islam and the ancient historical background. Here are just a few, in no particular order, each of which needs more work:

  1. The idea that the world is divided into the realms of light and truth (ruled by a god’s favorite on earth), versus the realm of darkness and lies (ruled by men). There are many parallels between Zoroastrianism (which sees the world as divided into warring realms of light and dark), Manicheism (similar views spread by a Persian mystic in the 3rd century A.D.), and Islam, particularly the Dar-al-Islam versus Dar-al-Harb, or World of Light and Submission versus World of Darkness and Chaos. From such views came Bin Laden’s war with the west, which can only end when the forces of Islam have conquered the forces of Chaos.
  2. The idea that the truth can only come from the authority of a higher power, to be accepted by faith. The ancient Persian kings saw a “world of truth” versus “world of lies,” in which the Great King triumphs over those who lie. Islamists today see enemies lying to them everywhere—while they accept the grossest lies themselves (teaching their children, for instance, that Jews are born of pigs and monkeys). See Elan Journo’s article in The Objective Standard for the conspiracy theory mentality that develops from the idea that myriad enemies are engaged in organized lying.
  3. The idea that evil is a powerful force in the world, to be opposed by the forces of goodness derived from the divine. They see chaos whenever there is no divine force bearing down on men to keep them in line. In such a world, to be at war is natural—and good, if one is on the “good” side. Morally, they claim, those who initiate war for the realm of light are good, while those who defend themselves from such war are evil. Thus Palestinian suicide bombers are said to be good when they blow up little children, while the children are enemy occupiers who deserve death.
  4. The idea that proper political rule is based on the sanction of a divine power, whose commands are enforced by those who fight successfully on earth. For the Persians, it was the god Ahuramazda, among others, who legitimated the king’s rule. The “peace” that follows when the king establishes his rule is a distinct parallel to claims by Islamic totalitarians that all will be well once Islamic law is imposed by a totalitarian Caliphate or ruling council. For such mentalities, adherence to divine commands is more important than the consequences on earth; thus the Taliban brought misery to their people, but called it goodness.
  5. The idea that man is unable to guide himself by reason means that he must be controlled, by either an inner or an outer jihad. Reason was unknown in the ancient world, but is today rejected by Islamists, who claim that each one of us must submit to the power of a god in order to restrain the emotions of rage that lead to chaos. From this follows a series of social rules: women must cover themselves, for instance, else men will go wild and dirty them. Palestinians must have a periodic “day of rage” to vent their anger at the hostile world that does not grant their whims.
  6. There is a need for an external enemy, as a point of focus for the rage which would otherwise turn into civil war. The Arabic tribes were in constant warfare, until Islam pointed their energies outwards, into conquest. To this day, the civil wars return to such areas whenever there is no external enemy, or no dictator to keep order by force. (There is a parallel to countries in Medieval Europe, which warred constantly unless they pointed their energies outward toward a Crusade against infidels.)
  7. The wars of expansion—by which the Near Eastern kingdoms and, later, Islam rose—continued until a dictator imposed his will. The ancient Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Median and Persian Empires all expanded to the limits of their power. For the Persians, the expansion to universal rule was stopped by the Greeks. Similarly, Islamists today say that a Caliphate will impose Islamic law over all, by force if necessary, under a totalitarian dictatorship.
  8. The demand by every ancient king for submission to his will everywhere is a precise parallel to the demand by Mohammad, and the Islamic totalitarians today, that people everywhere submit to the will of Allah. Ancient Persians were all slaves to the Great King; now, they are all to be slaves to Allah (as early Christians called themselves the slaves of Christ).
  9. The “everywhere” of expansion and submission is important: as the ancient Persian-Iranians set out to expand their kingdom over the entire world, so modern Islamists demand the spread of Islam over the entire world. Universal submission is their aim.
  10. The idea that the world of light receives its sanction from the divine—whether the Persian god Ahuramazda, or Allah—is the prime motivator for war and dictatorship. The rest of the world must either submit to highly motivated warriors, or die.

There are many more parallels between Islam and the Near Eastern past, and the transmission of these ideas through history is complex. But there is one central issue at root: only reason can allow human beings to reject the claim that God dictates the truth to submissive servants, who gain his favor by imposing that claim by force.

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Image: Creative Commons by Sven Dirks


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