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Islam and the Afterlife Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Fundamentalism

Resurrection on the Day of Judgment as the Primary Reward

IN VIEW OF THE martyrdom beliefs of the suicide attackers who brought down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the development of the afterlife doctrine in Islam has become especially important to Americans; but few have bothered to survey the Muslim tradition to get a broader perspective on it. Though the attackers voiced visions of paradise in their suicide notes, and thought of themselves as martyrs, not even their intense faith can persuade Americans, or most Muslims, that their faith is the norm for afterlife beliefs in Islam. Rather, they are eccentric and dangerous views, though they have something important to teach about afterlife beliefs and the production of martyrdom through fundamentalist extremism in every religion.

Ordinary Islamic views of the afterlife are just as rich and manifold as in Judaism or Christianity, but later in time than this book can study in detail and different in some important ways from the religious ideas analyzed until now.1 We cannot study the whole tradition. But we can learn enough to know how to avoid the prejudices of seeing Islam from the perspective of its extremists. And we can also ask how the classic view of Islam has been so liable to manipulation by contemporary Islamists (fundamentalist extremists).2

Coming after Judaism and Christianity and being cognizant of the previous revelations, Islam was built on the doctrines of both Judaism and Christianity but tailored them for its own needs and out of its own understanding of the meaning of Muḥammad’s revelations. Unlike Christianity, Islam did not canonize the texts of its forebear religions; to the contrary, it posited that the traditions of the Old and New Testaments have been garbled where they disagree with the Quran. The watchword of Islam’s faith is: “There is no god but God and Muḥammad is His apostle.” With it, Islam claims its rank as the last and foremost of the Western monotheisms. It worships the same God as Judaism and Christianity. Its revelation is in the same tradition as Moses and Jesus, both of whom it acknowledges as true prophets.

Implicitly, in the next clause, Islam claims that the revelation given to Muḥammad is not just a special revelation for the Arabs but the fullest and most complete revelation for everyone. Muḥammad was the “seal of the prophets” (khatam an-nabiyyin), the last and most perfect prophet, hence revealer of the right path for the world at large. Islam in its classical form takes a freer view towards its predecessors than did Christianity and, at the same time, is even more organized than Christianity for missionizing the world. Functionally, this gives Islam an ever wider degree of freedom than Christianity has in reinterpreting its Jewish and Christian forebears.

Muḥammad’s special title, raṣul, means “apostle” (Aramaic: sheliḥa) showing that, like Paul, Muḥammad’s revelation contained the command to proselytize, conveying a specific message of salvation. The word already meant “apostle” in Muḥammad’s own day. The Quran, however, uses this term especially for Muḥammad and uses other words for previous messengers.3 Even more than Christianity, Islam is organized for mission and expansion. Its view of paradise is central to that purpose.

Muḥammad’s revelations first came to him through the intermediation of the angel Gibril (English: Gabriel) at age 40 in the year 610 CE, while he was meditating in a cave near Mecca in what is today Saudi Arabia. The first revelation began with the word ’iqra, “Recite!” from which the name Al-Quran (“The Recitation”) is derived. Because books were in short supply, and reading itself was almost always done in public declamation, and because Arab culture had already developed extensive oral, public, poetic traditions (conventions which the Quran follows in its internal structure), the word “Recite!” also shares some implications of the word “Read!” or even “Read out publicly!” According to many Muslim traditions, Muḥammad was himself illiterate, a tradition that, among other things, augments the miraculous nature of his revelations. Whatever one may think of this legend, the fact is that Muḥammad’s revelations were oral, and were preserved both orally and in written form throughout his career. Today, the word ’“iqra” serves as the normal Arabic word for “Read!” (as does the same root in Hebrew). Today as well, though there is still a premium on memorization and recitation in Muslim piety; the place that most Muslims look for the revelation oftheir faith is in the book of revelations given to Muhhammad called the Quran.4

The revelations themselves vary from short ecstatic utterances to theological and ethical discourses on the importance of monotheism and moral behavior. The revelations pointed the way to a monotheistic system that Muḥammad was to bring to the originally polytheistic Arabs, although there were already groups of pre-Islamic Arab monotheists in the Hejaz, called by Muslim tradition the ḥunafa (sing. ḥanif), as well as some Arab Jewish and Christian tribes. Muḥammad’s religious teachings soon brought him into conflict with the Jews and Christians, the other Arab tribes, and, indeed, even his own Quraysh tribe. Muḥammad exercised both religious and military leadership over his movement; there has never been a clear distinction between secular and religious power, between religious conversion and conquest in Islam. After many battles, his forces and his teachings gradually unified the whole Arabian peninsula, even making forays into the area of Syria. This unification of the Arabian peninsula was both difficult politically and important strategically because it melded together a new military force in a remote and forbidding peninsula from which neither the Byzantine Christians nor the Sasanian Persians expected any threat. When the Arabs exploded out of Arabia they conquered half the Mediterranean and more, making Islam a world religion as well as a universal one.

The Byzantine Empire in Anatolia and the Sasanian Empire in Iran had exhausted themselves in warring against each other.5 After Muḥammad’s death, Muslim armies took advantage of the power vacuum in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moving quickly out of Arabia, Islam and its armies captured Syria, Jerusalem, and the Levant, conquered large sections of North Africa and Asia, eventually reaching as far as Spain, with forays into France and Iran (eighth-century), and, by successive stages, even overran Anatolia, renaming Byzantium as Istambul in 1453 CE. By the sixteenth century, the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Sultan of Istambul were at the gates of Vienna. The result was that Europe was surrounded from east and west in a classic pincer movement. The speed of the Muslim conquest has itself been taken by Muslims as a demonstration of the truth of its doctrines, just as was the conversion of the Roman Empire by the Christians before them. There were setbacks as well but the first millennium of Muslim history was a record of constant and inexorable expansion. When it stopped Islam faced a crisis of confidence.

But the succession to Muḥammad’s leadership proved problematic. None of Muḥammad’s sons survived into adulthood to carry on his work. His successors (the Khalifa, the “Caliph”) were the husbands of his daughters. In one of the greatest ironies of history, the family that eventually founded the first great Muslim Imperial Dynasty, the Umayyads, was also descended from the bitterest opponents of Muḥammad in his own Quraysh tribe. In spite of the enormous and complicated Muslim empires that quickly established themselves, the “ecclesiastical” organization of Islam itself has remained relatively informal. In contrast with to the very centralized, leadership of medieval Christianity, Islam seems almost bereft of a supervisory or episcopal structure, with administrative structures tending to be local and national rather than centralized, waxing and waning depending on the prestige of the various officials. There are no structures in Islam that are as universal as the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church. In this respect, Islam resembles Judaism more than Christianity.

The religion of Islam is united not by clergy but by the revelation to the prophet. Muḥammad’s utterances, as recorded in the Quran, concerned many things; on the subject of afterlife he spoke mightily about the resurrection and only hinted at any other forms of afterlife. The Day of Judgment (Yawm al-Din) or “the Hour” (As-sa’ah) is second only to the oneness of God in importance to Muslims. At the great Day of Judgment, there will be a reckoning (Ḥisab) for all who have breathed. Resurrection (Qiyamah) will be the blessing of the Day of Judgment for those who have faith and have acted justly: “Truly the Hour is coming-there is no doubt of it-when God will resurrect those who are in the graves” (Q 22:7). The Day of Judgment is featured in the famous Fatihah, now the opening sura (chapter) of the Quran itself: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being, the All-merciful, the All-compassionate, the Master of the Day of Judgment….”

This might argue for millennialist sentiments in the formation of the earliest Muslim community. But there have not been many studies of the earliest Islam which explore the few early, millennial notes.6 Like Christianity, the millenarian kernel, if there was one, was soon integrated into more normative doctrines and institutions. But, as Islam was always a political as well as a religious power, the transformation must have been even quicker than in Christianity and therein lies its great interest. So, if millennialism was present, unlike Christianity, it was already rechanneled into the institutions of Islam before the major texts were promulgated.

Even though Muḥammad had already reached the age of forty when his revelations began, he had twenty years of contact with the community that he founded. This compares with the very short, probably one-year period of Jesus’ entire ministry. Muḥammad’s long and influential life, his continuing revelations, and his exercise of temporal and religious power, gave him the opportunity to build a movement that recognized the end but ruled for the present, an opportunity that was denied Jesus. In one sense, he serves as both “the Jesus” and “the Paul” of early Islam.

Muḥammad spoke often of the coming day of judgment but did not predict when it would arrive. The Quran gives no date for the “hour of doom” but does describe it in vivid and terrible images. It will devastate the earth and reverse all the natural processes that were established by Allah:

When the sun shall be darkened, When the stars shall be

    thrown down,

When the mountains shall be set moving, When the pregnant

    camels shall be neglected,

When the savage beasts shall be mustered, When the seas shall

    be set boiling,

When the souls shall be coupled, When the buried infant shall

    be asked for what sin she was slain,

When the scrolls shall be unrolled, When heavens shall be

    stripped off,

When hell shall be set blazing, When paradise shall be

    brought nigh,

Then shall a soul know what it has produced. (Q 81:1-14)

The imagery itself is deeply involved in polemic and parenesis, showing Muḥammad’s attention to the social evils of his day. The reference to the exposed baby girl reflects a practice which Muḥammad sought to end, explicitly building the inquiry for these secret sins into the vision of the end and thus to end all such practices. Paradise approaches and hell will be ignited. Judgment is at the end of time. Other, later descriptions go into great detail about hellfire and brimstone. This only makes more obvious that Islam was, from its inception, a religion of conversion. The images of the fate awaiting the damned is an argument to change one’s life and join the early Islamic movement. Muḥammad was a preacher who challenged his hearers to convert because the soul will stand in judgment.

Indeed, it is arguable that the word “Islam” itself functionally means conversion (literally: “submission”), as well as becoming the proper name of the religion. That very well may make Islam the first great Western religion to develop its own name for itself, the others adapting names first used by others.7 In any event, the close connection between the vision of the horrors awaiting sinners at the day of judgment and the necessity of conversion is at the base of Islam, and it is designed to convince its hearers to submit to the precepts of Islam, which is the only way for a pagan to avoid the coming eschatological disaster.

Neither Jews nor Christians would have found this message outlandish. They may have disagreed with it or with Muḥammad’s sense of the coming end, but they would have agreed with the exhortation to a moral life and the revelation of the “Day of Judgment.” The hostility to this part of the message came from the pagans around whom he lived. Muḥammad records in his revelations the hostile attitude of the Arabs to his message of a resurrection on the Day of Judgment. “They swear by God to the very limit of their oaths that God will not raise him who dies …” (Q 16:38) and “They say, ‘Are we to be returned to our former state when we have become decayed bones?’ They say, ‘That would be a detrimental return!’” (Q 79:10-12). It is no surprise, then, that when Muḥammad reveals the doctrine of resurrection, it is in the context of missionizing an often quite hostile audience.

Here is the complete context, as revealed by the Quran:

O You people: If you are in doubt concerning the resurrection, know that We created you from dust, then from a sperm-drop, then from a blood-clot, then from an embryo partly formed and partly unformed, in order to make clear to you. We establish in the wombs whatever We wish for an appointed time, then We bring you out as an infant, then [sustain you] until you reach maturity. And among you are those who die and those who return to the infirmity of old age so that, after having been knowledgeable, they now have little understanding. You saw the earth lifeless, and then We poured down upon it water and it quivers and grows and sprouts forth all kinds of beautiful pairs. That is because God is the ultimately real [al-ḥaqq]. He is Who gives life to what is dead; He it is Who has power over all things. Truly the Hour is coming-there is no doubt of it-when God will resurrect those who lie in their graves. [Q 22:5-7].8

The dualist structure of these early Muslim ideas of the resurrection, its “two-way theology,” its description of true, calm, peaceful life existing in the Islamic community, while death and suffering characterize all outside of it, served to further the mission of early Islam. The Fatiha, which functions like a creed for Islam, sums up the two-way theology: “Show us the straight path: the path of those whom You have favored; not [the path] of those who earn your anger nor of those who go astray” (Q 1:6-7). There is every reason to suppose that Muḥammad learned the value of missionary work from Jews and especially Christians active in the Arabian peninsula in his day. But his prophecy allowed him to hone it to new heights of effectiveness for his Arab audience. Islam downplayed the elaborate temple rituals of Arabia’s polytheistic past, substituted simple daily devotions, and emphasized oral sermons (an art-form in the Hejaz), which both convinced hearers to convert, while continuously fostering and confirming the faith of those who had already entered the community.

So while the Quran is revelatory writing, it also reflects the traditions in use in the days of its composition and the use to which these utterances were put in the early days of Islam. One of the most obvious literary qualities of the Quran, besides its Arabic poetic couplet format, is its exhortatory tone. The surahs (chapters) and ayyas (verses) are mostly sermons, lectures, and exhortations, not narrative like the Hebrew and Christian Bible. The longest and most sustained narrative is the famous story of Yusuf (Joseph) in Surat Yusuf, Sura 12 of the Quran, which is used as a story illustrating the rewards of avoiding temptation, among other things. This only emphasizes the exhortatory core of the Quran’s message.

Other than the obvious missionary zeal of early Islam, the social context and nature of the earliest community are hard to reconstruct. The difficulty may be partly due to the fact that, unlike Jesus, Muḥammad lived into his sixties and had ample chance to translate his visions into a social program. The relatively long life of the founder is itself an argument against seeing Muḥammad’s mature view of Islam as a millennialist cult and raises the question of what Christianity would have become had its founder avoided martyrdom to missionize more.

We would like to understand the historical development of Muḥammad’s message, but that is not easy to demonstrate. We may suspect that in the course of his relatively long life of sixty-two years, the emphasis of his message subtly changed, reformulating what had previously been tried and abandoned, perfecting what had been received and proven successful. We have but hints of what might have happened. One might hypothesize that the notion of the coming end, so important for conversion, was more and more supplemented by institution building. By the time of the Prophet’s death, the Muslim community (the Umma) was firmly fixed and the principles of its piety were firmly in place.

The Prophet’s message, even if it had a millennialist tone at the beginning, certainly became the basis of a movement more of purification and repentance, as it grew more successful. It demanded repentance and submission (’Islam) and joining the community of fellow believers. Jews, Christians, Sabeans (and eventually Zoroastrians) were allowed to remain in their own community, as “people of the book” (’ahl al-Kitab), though they were subjected to taxation and social discrimination.

But it is arguable that, at its inception, the word ’islam sometimes did not refer just to the explicit Arab community of the faithful (ummah), but “surrender to God” in general, as the word “God-fearer” could refer to anyone who accepted the One God in the Hellenistic world. Islam could tolerate Jews and Christians as actual believers: “Whoso desires to behave in any other way than surrendering [to God], it shall not be accepted of him [by God], who will punish the individual by making him among the losers in the world to come” (Q 3:83-84), which is often today understood to exclude all non-Muslims. But the understanding of ’aslama as “surrendered, submitted” and not specifically “converted to Islam” is supported by the context of this prophecy, which suggests a far more tolerant interpretation:

What do they desire another din (religion, way of conduct) than God’s, and to Him has surrendered (’aslama) whoso is in the heaven and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him they shall be returned?

Say: “We believe in God and that which has been sent down to us, and sent down on Abraham and Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, and the Tribes, and in that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and the Prophets, of their Lord; we make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we surrender (muslimun).” (Q 3:83-84)9

Muḥammad may be understood as calling everyone to a moral life, respecting Judaism and Christianity, and using the Day of Judgment of those religions to extend the moral choice to the peoples of the Hejaz: “Believers are friends one to the other to the exclusion of outsiders. To the Jew who follows us belong help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided. The peace of believers is indivisible.”10 There were limits to his toleration (Muḥammad dealt harshly with those who opposed him militarily) but the pattern of his intentions is clear enough. Later tradition, though, usually interprets these passages to mean that neither Jews nor Christians will share the benefits of the resurrection, although they are to be tolerated.11

The Prophet spoke about and received good advice on how best to govern the growing ummah (community) of Islam. After the Prophet’s death, it became more what we might recognize as a purification movement, in some ways like Judaism, except with fewer “special laws.” Compared to Judaism and Christianity, the demands of Islam are elegant in their simplicity.12

Study of the Quran

SOME OF THE ambiguity about earliest Islam may be due to the way in which the Quran has come down to us. When Islam was first studied in the West, a number of scholars (and Ernest Renan perhaps foremost among them) pointed out that, unlike Judaism and Christianity, whose origins are lost in the darkness of time, the foundation of Islam took place “in the full light of history.”13 Hence, it ought to be easier to study. That first impression turns out to be mistaken. The most important reports about Muḥammad (ca. 570-632 CE) are all written long enough after the fact by people deeply impressed with the message of Islam so as to look suspicious to secular scholars. They are, essentially, as reliable as the early Christian writings or the writings in the Pentateuch and subject to the same kinds of historical constraints, although there are far more of them than exist for early Christianity.14 Muḥammad personally touched far more lives than Jesus could in his short, earthly career. The modern, scholarly study of the Quran is, however, in its infancy.

The present Quran was compiled from separate prophecies ascribed to Muḥammad edited during the reign of ’Uthman (644-656 CE), the third Khalifa (Calif, literally: “successor”). All versions of the Quran which disagreed with his version were destroyed. ’Uthman was killed by the fourth Khalifa ’Ali, who in turn succumbed to the Umayyads by 661 when the Umayyad Dynasty was firmly founded. Under these circumstances, some scholars have rightly felt free to reconstrue the early history of Islam, trying to recapture the “original movement” free of ’Uthman’s proto-orthodoxy.

’Uthman’s redaction of the revelations of Muḥammad was not chronological; he put the longest of Muḥammad’s revelations first and the shorter ones later, exactly as the New Testament treats the letters of Paul. The overwhelming consensus of scholars today is that the shorter, more ecstatic utterances are the earliest revelations which Muḥammad received, so the earliest prophecies are actually at the end of the book. Muḥammad eschewed any attempt to confuse his person with the message of Islam, and Muslims have, on the whole, avoided deifying the prophet, though a considerable hagiography has unavoidably grown up around him.

Rather, it is the volume of the Quran itself which is claimed to be divine in Islam, not the founding figure, as in Christianity. Indeed, the Quran was later claimed to be the Uncreated Word of God, actually an aspect of divinity in the way that Philo’s logos is intradeical (part of God) and extradeical (part of the world) at the same time. So instead of the divine logos being made flesh as in the Gospel of John, in Islam the divine logos is made “Recitation,” Quran. Muḥammad is greatly venerated for being a pious man and the carrier of this revelation, perhaps in an analogous manner to the respect for Moses in Judaism. Even more than the pious biographers of Muḥammad himself, ’Uthman’s edition of the Quran, therefore, is the arbiter of the divine and transcendent in Islam. It is partly for this reason that Muslims have resisted either translating the Quran or subjecting it to historical criticism.

Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that early Islam was based on Judaism and originally indistinguishable from it. This movement, they call “Hagarism.”15 The term expresses the notion that Islam was formulated on the basis of Judaism and Christianity except that it was directed at Arabs and comprised of Arabs. But this portrait is drawn largely from the reports of Jews and Christians. To be sure, early Islamic practice was actually rather close to Judaism in some of its theology and organization, while its zeal for conversion resembled Christianity. It learned much from its older sibling religions. On the other hand, the more radical scholarly reconstructions of Islamic origins, like the Hagarism model, lack complete credibility because early Islam was hardly free from sectarian strife. One would have expected that such radically alternate tellings of the early story, had they existed, would have surfaced both before ’Uthman and afterwards. It is one thing to critique the received story of Islam; it is another to critique it using only reports from outsiders who would naturally see it as a kind of Judaism.16

If Islam is the missionary religion par excellence, it has rarely been guilty of the crime for which it is always indicted in Western culture-conversion by the sword. Islam’s conversion strategy has often been caricatured by its most militant statement: “Convert or die!” Though there have been cases of forced conversion, the Quran is itself a powerful argument against it: “There is no compulsion in religion” is the firm conviction of the Quran right after the famous Throne Verse (ayyat al-kursi, Q 2:255-6). No one should be forced to convert. Islam rarely presented its subject populations with forced conversion by brutality. Rather it designed a system of subtle but effective persuasions.

The fact is that conversion to Islam did not follow immediately upon Muslim conquest. When one looks, for example, at the Islamization of Iran, after its conquest (646 CE), one sees that the movement of the populace to Islam began slowly and only reached rapid growth in 791-864 CE.17 It is a full century and a half after the Muslim conquest. Likewise, as Islam conquered Anatolia in progressive stages, displacing the Byzantine Empire, Islamization followed slowly thereafter, with many interesting cultural combinations.18

Islam is, first and foremost, a code of living for a worldwide community. To say that it emphasized conversion should not imply that it neglects the daily needs of the believer, even at the beginning. Its call to prayer five times a day, its five pillars of pious deeds, its rites of passage, as well as its sophisticated theology mediate the lives of millions of Muslims and have done so since Muḥammad instituted them. After the great period of conquest was over, Islam became primarily the religion of a very large, stable population. So it would not be fair to consider Islam only a religion of conversion. Like every successful world religion, it became the way millions of people understood their lives and purposes in the world, so much so that most Muslims would not even see directly how effective was the Muslim intuition on life for missionary purposes. Mostly at the edges of the Islamic world, and in its more sectarian forms, Islam continues its missionary activities. One might say the same for Christianity.

The Grave and the Barzakh

MUSLIM BURIAL customs generally parallel Jewish ones. The dead are buried as soon as possible and doing so is a good deed, in spite of the un-cleanness associated with touching the dead. They are bathed, clothed simply, and put in a clean shroud, legendarily to allow the dead to visit each other in heaven. Coffins are unnecessary but simple ones may be used; excessive display at funerals is against the spirit of Islam, as it is in Judaism.

There are also unique aspects of the tradition: Because Muḥammad was buried at night, nighttime became opportune for a funeral but it is not a necessary aspect of the ceremony. Women are forbidden to attend funerals at all, presumably because of their unrestrained expressions of grief. In general, Muslim funeral rites attempt to correct the excesses of ancient Near Eastern mourning rituals, as do Jewish ones as well. We have seen evidence of the ancient elaborations of funerals in the myths of Babylon and Canaan. In Islam, the body’s decomposition is often viewed as a sentient experience for the corpse, with the pain serving as penance for the sins of life.

At first, there is very little, either in the Quran or classical canonical Muslim texts, to explain what happens to the individual “in the grave” before the day of judgment. The seeds of the later teaching can be found in Q 23:100ff., a passage that discusses a barzakh, a barrier, separating the departed from this life. The Arabic term is a Persian loan word, farsakh, meaning “a physical barrier” or “hindrance” or “separation.” It was used in Old Persian to designate a unit of measurement, which was also borrowed into Greek as the word parasang.19 The original Quranic passage is, granted, somewhat ambiguous but the term barzakh eventually comes to extend to both the time every individual waits for the day of judgment (in the grave) and the habitation of the dead who are awaiting judgment.

The original Quranic idiom is used to express that those on earth have only one life to prove their worth, that the dead have no second chance. This is an important incentive to repentance and conversion, as well as a call to charitable works:

When death comes to a wrongdoer, he will say: “Lord, let me go back, that I may do good works in the world I have left behind.”

Never! These are the very words which he will speak. Behind them there shall stand the barrier (al-barzakh) ‘til the Day of Resurrection. And when the trumpet is sounded, on that day, their ties of kindred shall be broken, nor shall they ask help of one another. (Q 23:100-102)

The term appears in a sermon meant to convince the hearer of the necessity of submission to Islam by explaining that repentance and belated promises to do good will be of no avail after death. There is a barrier separating the dead from the living.

Although the exhortation to a moral life is conspicuous, the meaning of the term barzakh is not entirely clear to later tradition. Other occurrences of the term in Suras 25:55 and 55:60 do not mention the dead, rather talk about the insurmountable barrier that God has placed between the oceans. This may suggest that the original meaning had as much to do with the lack of communication between the living and the dead, a theme sounded at the end of the ayya. The dead are not able to contact the living hence no one is to be consulted in the grave because the dead cannot hear the living (Sura 35:19-22; 27:80). This is meant to arrest universally popular spiritualism. On the other hand, the living can visit the afterlife, both in dreams and visions, because that warns humans about what awaits believers and nonbelievers after death.

Earliest Islam essentially taught that only the good among the faithful could count on resurrection; the bad believers and infidels were punished by their inability to gain resurrection at the day of judgment. The development of a notion of an interim state develops in response to the perceived delay in the arrival of the “day of judgment,” just as the notions of the immortality of the soul and Original Sin develop in Christianity in response to the delay of the parousia. Later Muslim tradition adds a hell to the story, Jahannam (cognate with the Hebrew Gehinom, “Gehenna,” but also called sijjin or the Wadi Barhut), giving the imagination space to expatiate on the punishments that await sinners after the day of judgment. All of these notions have social benefits-they encourage the faithful and aid in missionary outreach to prospective converts, as they do in every religion. We have seen the phenomenon before in Christianity. Islam produces a unique but similar synthesis in which the dead retain a permanent identity in the interim period so that they can be rewarded and punished before the final consummation.

When the body, though dead, is conceived of as the residence of a sensate person in the grave until the bodily resurrection, there does not need to be much more philosophical reflection about an essence of the person’s identity, because it adheres to the corpse. The carrier of identity can remain the body when the afterlife is thought of as resurrection of the body. But Arabic contains the equivalent terms to the other Semitic tongues we have studied: nafs for “soul” and ruh for “spirit.” They appear in the Quran and early Muslim writings. Like the other Semitic tongues, Arabic imposes its own connotations on the terms. In Arabic, nafs generally means “self” in a reflexive, grammatical sense (as in “I myself”) more than “soul” and the ruh means “spirit,” which designates God’s spirit imparted to humanity.

When the day of judgment does not arrive in Christianity and Judaism, attention turns to postmortem reward and punishment. Islam also readjusts its expectations and develops an intermediate sense of self. As Muslim tradition adumbrates, the barzakh period begins to be seen more and more as a separate place, like purgatory, in which the dead become penitents to work off their sins in contrition and punishment. Then, it becomes important to be able to account for how the person can be both a corpse in the grave and also have an identity somewhere else doing penance. When this happens there is a tendency to use the two terms, nafs and rub, to carry the freight of a separate identity apart from the body. In this context, nafs and rub are often synonymous.

In Quran 39:42 we find the difficult ayya:

God takes unto Himself the souls [al-anfus, plural of nafs] at their deaths, and that which has not died [He takes] in its sleep. He keeps that for which He has ordained death and sends the other to its appointed term. In that are signs for a thoughtful [person.]

In commenting on this verse, Muslim exegetes tried to determine the difference between the departure of souls at death and during sleep and the differences between the nafs and ruḥ. The nafs al-’aql wa’l-tamyiz (“the soul” possessing the rational faculties of intelligence and discrimination) is the part of the “self” that is taken by God during sleep while sometimes the rub is viewed as another part of the “self,” nafs al-ḥayat wa’l ḥaraka (“the soul” possessing life and movement), namely that by which God gives life. Again, the notion of “self” reaches a more distinct form when a community needs to define a person as different from the body, an identity that survives death-namely, the transcendent part of the personality, and to describe how the person continues into immortality.20 In this case, however, the split is only temporary since in the final disposition persons will regain a renewed body on a reconstructed earth (or at least a new habitation in paradise). The bodily resurrection makes possible intensifications of earthly pleasures-like food and wine, shade and leisure, pleasant odors, tasty foods, and sexual congress.

Later Views of the Afterlife

AFTER ITS INITIAL statement, Islamic traditions of the afterlife proliferate in as many ways as do Jewish and Christian ones. People all over the world want more detail about what awaits them after death. Muslims narrate that the angel of death (Izra’il) comes to remove the soul, which happens painlessly as the soul travels upward in the company of angels. Time in barzakh is usually understood as a kind of purgatory in which the body can feel the excruciatingly painful effects of decomposition. The angels Munkar and Nakir question the deceased and supervise the punishment process in the grave, depending on the good deeds (’ibada) of the deceased. The angel who blows the trumpet at the final judgment becomes Israfil, if it is not Gibril. This moment is the occasion of enormous elaboration in later Muslim tradition. People are reclothed in flesh and sit on the grave waiting for their verdict. This is followed by the great gathering (al-Ḥashr) and the standing (al-Ma’amad) when the pious and impious contemplate their lives on earth. The adumbrated story emphasizes contemplation of one’s deeds so as to spur better behavior.

We cannot trace the entire history of Muslim afterlife. A sample will have to suffice. A famous and well-known fifteenth-century author, al-Suyuti, describes the blessed and the “heretical” or condemned (kafirun) in their abodes after the final judgment. Al-Suyuti believes that heaven and hell are part of the present cosmos, not created at the judgment; therefore, the faithful dead can travel about, even visiting the living through dreams and visions. Sometimes the faithful dead are winged creatures, like birds, visiting the various heavens. Martyrs are described as beautiful green (a lucky and prefered color) birds living in the highest heaven, enjoying its lush foliage and water features while the kafirs (heretics or nonmuslims) are condemned to be devoured by huge black birds in hell (sijjin or the Wadi Barhut).21

Islam rejects reincarnation because reincarnation encourages moral laxness: For a believer in platonic reincarnation any good deed missed or any bad deed perpetrated in this life can be fixed in the next. Reincarnation has been condemned in Judaism and Christianity as well, though the idea occurs more frequently in Jewish lore and sometimes sneaks in through the backdoor in mystical meditation or in the Church Fathers. It does the same in Islamic mysticism and various sectarian movements.

In general though, Muslim eschatology is geared towards conversion and then for enforcing correct, moral everything about one’s destiny depends on doing good in this life, a single chance to earn one’s immortality, making necessary continuous moral striving (literally: jihad), and making Islam hard to synthesize with Neoplatonism.

Nevertheless, it did so, quite successfully, in exactly the same way that Judaism and Christianity did-by accepting the Neoplatonic cosmology with its view of revelation of the good through successive spheres and, at the same time, denying or deemphasizing reincarnation. As in Judaism and Christianity, Neoplatonism was an important stimulus to mysticism because it validated ecstatic states in which the good and the divine could be apprehended in meditation. Islamic mystical language particularly emphasized the subsumption of the soul entirely into the being of God in “extinction” (fana’), which sometimes becomes a description of the afterlife. Neoplatonism gave Islam its notion of an immortal soul also.

Mi’raj and the Heavenly Journey of the Soul

WHILE THE Quran itself says almost nothing about Muḥammad’s “Night Journey” (the mi’raj), it becomes the subject of a later tradition in which Muḥammad leaves this earth from Jerusalem on his steed al-Boraq (from Lightning, al-barq). Although Jerusalem is not mentioned in the original quite brief report of the mi’raj in the Quran and, indeed, the Arabs did not conquer Jerusalem until after Muḥammad’s death, the adumbrated story certainly emphasizes the importance that Jerusalem quickly achieves in the Islamic world. The ascent tradition constructs a Quranic importance to the city, which is otherwise lacking. This seems to mirror the historical fact that Jerusalem became a Muslim pilgrimage site after its conquest, just as it had been a Jewish and Christian one before.

To give concrete expression to this triumph, Muslims quickly built on the Temple Mount in Jersualem (691 or 692 CE), a new building called a mikdasa (a sanctuary, not a mosque), which explicitly mirrors a Hebrew designation for the Jewish Temple (Beth Hamikdas), destroying and replacing the church that the Byzantine Christians had constructed there. It is the oldest surviving Muslim building outside of Arabia. On the Dome of the Rock were placed inscriptions stating that God is single and unique, that He needs no help or partner, and that He neither begets nor is begotten: “Praise be to God, who begets no son, and has no partner;” “He is God, one, eternal;” “He does not beget, He is not begotten, and He has no peer” (Q 112).22

These brief statements certainly mean to contradict the main premise of Christianity, replacing it with a new dispensation, represented by the new, powerful, architectural statement (itself based on a Byzantine church). So Islam both inherited and emulated the importance that Jerusalem had achieved in Judaism and Christianity, which Islam acknowledges as its legitimate but incomplete predecessors.23 At the same time as it incorporates themes from its predecessors, Islam always insists that its claims take precedence over the previous revelations.

According to the later tradition of the prophet’s sayings (the Hadith), which is richly detailed, the soul, once separated from the body, goes on a journey similar to Muḥammad’s mi’raj, leaving earth from Jerusalem. Muḥammad had already ascended to the heavens from there while alive and was able to look down into the recesses of hell. In later tradition, Muḥammad’s body is specially prepared for the trip by the purification of his heart (from Q 94). The angel Gibril opens Muḥammad’s chest and washes it clean of impurities in a golden basin before restoring it to him. Thus, Muḥammad was ritually cleansed of all doubt, idolatry, paganism, and heresy so he can visit the pure Temple precincts and then join the even purer, heavenly hosts in the celestial Temple.

Later tradition tells many more stories of Muḥammad’s ascent. While in heaven, he meets all the prophets, including Moses, and the angels residing in the various heavens. He has an audience before the divine throne, during which the command for Muslims to pray fifty times a day is communicated. It is Moses who advises him to return to God’s presence, again and again, to reduce the onerous prayer requirements. Islam eventually ordained that Muslims should pray in fixed fashion, five times a day, twice more than Jews, and equal in number to Zoroastrian daily prayers. The Quran itself specifies prayer only three times a day-morning, noon, and night-but this story makes the added requirements seem light.24

Besides legitimating an increase in the number of Islamic daily prayers, the “Night Journey” story also defends against some of the objections of Muḥammad’s early Arabian detractors-namely, that Muḥammad was simply an ordinary person. Though he promulgated a revelation, he showed few of the conventional characteristics of ecstatic holy men and mantic prophets who practiced in the Arabian peninsula. The Quran preserves some of these objections: “What’s with this ‘messenger’? He eats food and walks about in the marketplace. Why hasn’t an angel been sent down to him, to be a warner with him” (Q 25:7)?25

Quran sura 25:32 makes these objections painfully clear:

We shall not believe in you until you cause a spring to burst

    forth for us from the earth,

Or until you have a garden of dates and grapes and cause

    rivers to burst forth abundantly in their midst,

Or until you cause the sky to fall upon us in pieces, as you

    have pretended it will, or you bring God and the angels

    before us,

Or until you have a gilded house or you mount up into the sky.

    And we will not believe in your mounting up until you

    cause to come down upon us a book that we can read.

The expectation was that a holy man would mount to heaven and reveal a whole book, all at once, which Muḥammad did not do. In fact, later tradition sometimes suggests that the entire Quran was revealed in one “Night of Power.” The Quran itself, however, advises that such complaints can be countered with simple statements of God’s majesty: “Say, Glory to my Lord, am I anything but a mortal human being and a messenger” (Q 17:93)?

Ascension traditions are crucially important to the social process of confirming the picture of the universe and the ethical systems. They have been told about prophets and priests since the beginning of historical time. Already before Islam, the heavenly journey was a well understood religious mythologem of great antiquity which, like Jerusalem itself, had to be domesticated to the Islamic cause. In relating the tradition, one can see the drama of creative minds working out the most effective way to bend the ascent tradition to express best the revelation of Islam.

Muḥammad’s journey, therefore, also forms the confirmation of the journey of the soul heavenward. The soul of the virtuous takes the same route: it slips easily and painlessly from the body, led by the angel of death, or the angel Gibril, through the seven heavens to a vision of God; then, it returns to the grave to await the resurrection. The wicked have a different experience: Their passing is painful, and their taste of the hereafter is fearful. They are foul-smelling and are not permitted to ascend to heaven. Instead, they have a vision of the hell that awaits them on the day of judgment, whereupon they return to the grave to await their punishment in dread.26

The story of the mi’raj also forms the basis of a number of important ecstatic and ascension traditions for the living, thus confirming the existence of the heavenly realm, as developed by Muslim tradition. One of the earliest accounts by Muḥammad’s successors is found in “The Quest for God” (Al-Qasd Ila Ilah) attributed to Abu’l-Qasim al-Junayd, though it is most likely pseudonymous. The ninth chapter of this work contains the account of the mi’raj of Abu Yazid al-Bistami, a person whose ecstatic utterances are, in turn, discussed in “The Book of Flashes” (kitab al-Luma’) of Abu Nasr as-Sarraj (d. 988). To Bistami is attributed a number of ecstatic utterances (shaḥiyat), like those of the prophet himself at the end of the Quran, but far more provocative. Among them is “Glory to me,” which claims divine attributes for Bistami, probably within the transformation tradition, which we have traced in ancient Near Eastern religious life, as well as in Judaism and in Christianity. What justified the divine self-designation of Bistami may well be his heavenly journey, which is found in Pseudo-al-Junayd. A great journey to God is described in the mir’aj of Abu Yazid al-Bistami. In it he appears before the divine throne and is vouchsafed a vision of God and special status as a chosen one (ṣafi):

I continued to cross sea after sea until I ended up at the greatest sea on which was the royal throne (’arsh) of the Compassionate. I continued to recite his praises until I saw that all that there was-from the throne to the earth, of Cherubim (karubiyyin), angels, and the bearers of the royal throne and others created by All Most High and Glorious in the heavens and the earth-was smaller, from the perspective of the flight of the secret of my heart in quest for him, than a mustard seed between sky and earth. Then he continued to show me of the subtleties of his beneficence and the fullness of his power and the greatness of his sovereignty what would wear out the tongue to depict and describe. Through all that, I kept saying: O my dear one! My goal is other than that which you are showing me, and I did not turn toward it out of respect for his sanctity. And when Allah Most High and Glorious knew the sincerity of my will in quest for him, he called out “To me, to me!” and said, “O, my chosen one (ṣafi), come near to me and look upon the plains of my splendor and the domains of my brightness. Sit upon the carpet of my holiness until you see the subtleties of my artisanship I-ness. You are my chosen one, my beloved, and the best of my creatures.”

Upon hearing that, it was as if I were melting like melting lead. Then he gave me a drink from the spring of graciousness (luf) with the cup of intimacy. Then, he brought me to a state that I am unable to describe. Then, he brought me closer and closer to him until I was nearer to him than the spirit is to the body.

Then, the spirit of each prophet received me, saluted me, and glorified my situation. They spoke to me and I spoke to them. Then the spirit of Muḥammad, the blessings and peace of God be upon him, received me, saluted me, and said: O, Abu Yazid: Welcome! Welcome! Allah has preferred you over many of his creatures. When you return to earth, bear to my community my salutation and give them sincere advice as much as you can and call them to Allah, Most High and Glorious. I kept on in this way until I was like he was before creation and only the real remained (baqiya) without being or relation or place or position or quality. May his glory be glorified and his names held transcendent!27

This is as complete a retelling of the ecstatic journey to heaven of Mesopotamian, Jewish, Christian, and Hellenistic cults as we are likely to find. And it seems to function in the same ways as its predecessors. The adept enters an ecstatic state, journeys to heaven, and is greeted in each heaven, verifying that each has all the things that the faithful are led to expect. Then, the adept is led into the presence of the saints and prophets and God himself, just as is narrated of Muḥammad himself. Ecstasy accompanies these miraculous events. The adept comes into the presence of God and is transformed into one of the immortal company, essentially becoming a saint or angel.28 The metaphor for the transformation is of smelting metals together. As we have seen, there are physiological concomitants to these ascension traditions. The content is a mixture of physiological experience and cultural expectations.

The Martyr (Shahid)

IN QURAN Sura 29, “The Spider,” Ayyas 57-58, we find the following stirring picture:

Every soul must taste of death, then to Us you shall be brought back. And (as for) for those who believe and do good, We will certainly give them abode in the high places in gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding therein; how good the reward of the workers.

This passage discusses the felicities awaiting all the faithful. But there are those who associate the verse with the word shahid of ayya 52. In any event, unlike the mass of humanity, “martyrs” (sing. shahid; pl. shahada) do not have to wait in their graves for the final consummation.

The word shahid is related to the Muslim affirmation of faith, the shahada. It means “witness” and appears to be a direct appropriation of the Syrian Christian term for “martyr,” which, in turn, comes from the Greek Christian martyr. The watchword of Muslim faith can also be called “witnessing” because it is a kind of creed spoken publicly like an oath. It is always difficult to use the vocabulary of one religion to describe characteristics of another. But there is an added difficulty with the extension of the term to martyrdom. Because the Christian tradition of legal witnessing (sacramentum) is not present in Islam, there is a difficulty in the early Muslim tradition concerning exactly what “witness” means: for example, is the martyr the witness or does God witness the sacrifice?29 This parallels the use of the term martyr in early Christianity, like the protomartyrium of Stephen.30 It is quite probable that the vocabulary was borrowed from Christianity first, with its specific meaning in Islam developing subsequently.

From all that we know about martyrdom, we should expect a special reward between martyrdom and the afterlife, from everything we have come to understand about the two conceptions elsewhere in Western traditions. Islam adds an important new twist to the tradition: The martyrs await the day of judgment in a specially prepared pleasure-garden (aljamia), which is elliptically described in several places in the Quran (see, e.g., Q 56:1-26). As in Rabbinic Judaism, this garden is the garden of Eden, where the original couple enacted their drama of disobedience. In Muslim tradition, Satan himself is present as Iblis (perhaps from Greek diabolos); he plays the role of the snake. He also sins against God by refusing a direct order to worship the newly created Adam (Q 2:29-30).

Not only is there a special heaven reserved for martyrs while they await the day of judgment, the same accommodations are available to the holy warriors (sing. mujahid; pl. mujahidin), who die in battle. These martyrs are those people who take on Jihad (from the root meaning “striving”) as soldiers. The use of the term goes back to Muḥammad, who spoke both of the striving to be moral in each person, the greater Jihad, and the lesser Jihad, a term usually translated “holy war.” Most of the discussion of Jihad in the Quran, and for a considerable time afterwards, deals with “holy war” and not with personal striving. The term mujahid, striver, normally refers to the soldier-warriors of the “holy war.”31

As a sacred duty, holy war is regulated by religious law. Over the centuries, many things about holy war are prescribed and proscribed in Muslim law. What we today call “terrorism”-that is, randomly killing civilians-is forbidden. So is suicide. Yet, in a “holy war,” the mujahidin can attain the status of the shahid, the martyr. Not only that, the early Hadith literature encourages martyrdom. The person seeking martyrdom, the talab al-shahada, is to be exalted and emulated. This kind of martyrdom is earnestly prayed for and devoutly wished for. A merciful God would never deny the desire of a seeker of martyrdom: “One who prays for martyrdom sincerely: God will place him among the ranks of the martyrs, even if he dies in his bed.”32 The practice became associated with the Kharijite rebels and condemned.33 Nevertheless, holy war and martyrdom are two tandem engines powering the early Islamic conquest of the Middle East, as well as large chunks of Europe and Asia.

According to Muslim tradition, Muḥammad himself ruled that the soldier of Islam who died in attacking the infidel would go immediately to paradise. The tradition goes back to the battle of Badr, on March 15, 624, when Muḥammad’s greatly outnumbered band of Muslims faced the organized forces of his own tribe, the Quraysh. After spending hours in prayer, Muḥammad told Abu Bakr that the angel Gibril himself, armed for war, and his entire angelic host would be fighting with them (Q 8:9). Muḥammad announced to his troops that the soul of anyone killed that day while advancing against the enemy would be transported immediately to paradise. When a youth named Umayr heard the promise, he exclaimed: “Wonder of wonders! Is there nothing between me and my entry into paradise but that these men kill me?” Miraculously, the day was an enormous victory for Muḥammad and the Muslim forces. Only fourteen Muslims died at the battle of Badr but among them was the fifteen-year-old Umayr.34

The rewards awaiting the mujahidin are similar to those of the faithful and righteous after the day of judgment but they are specially rewarded during the barzakh in Islamic imagination, with all the luxuries of the current life, including access to seventy-two wide-eyed beauties, the bur (“the pure,” often called “Houris” in English), whose presence is inferred from the Quran itself:

For them [i.e. God’s sincere servants] is a known sustenance, Fruits, and they shall be highly honored. In gardens of pleasure, on thrones facing each other. A bowl shall be made to go around them from water running out of springs, white, delicious to those who drink. There shall be no trouble in it, nor shall they be exhausted therewith. And with them shall be those who restrain the eyes, having beautiful eyes; as if they were eggs carefully protected. (Q 37:41-49)

Since the word bur itself does not appear in the Ayya, the interpretation is somewhat obscure. “Those who restrain the eyes” (Aaruf ’ayn) can be interpreted in several ways. One key is to associate them with Quran 56:22, where the “pure of eye” (bur ’ayn) are described in a very similar description of paradise. Hence the women receive their name, the bur. In later tradition, they often are described as constantly repristinated virgins, possibly picking up on connotations of their designation as “pure.” But a more cautious interpretation would be that they are wives (’azw’aj), taking a clue from yet another, similar Quranic passage (36:56). In the original description, the bur are described as modest women. They restrain their glances and sex is never mentioned, though their glances may imply seductiveness. There are more than two bur but their number is not given.

Another opinion in later tradition, that “ḥur” is a specification of the fruit mentioned earlier in two locations, is unlikely grammatically and seems to be an apologetic against the later excessive sensuousness of this picture of paradise. But beautiful women who serve the needs of the men are a regular part of the folklore of the Hejaz. They are a conventional picture of the court and pleasure gardens of a wealthy, powerful sheikh (tribal chieftain) or an oriental potentate. Given the culture from which it arose, that the pleasures of kingship are used to describe Allah’s special paradise reserved for His martyrs ought not to be surprising. The strict regulation of sexual access before marriage in this part of the world, a custom that preceded Islam and is by no means confined to it, accounts for the paradisal vision of the pleasures and wealth, as compensation for forgone youthful pleasures in this world.

This alluring portrait is part of Islam’s efficient organization for conversion and conquest. Few have ever been convinced to fight to the death by a philosophical treatise. The mujahidin’s attainment of a sheikh’s harem is a more concrete and attractive reward. There is no corresponding reward for female martyrs.35 But wine-drinking (forbidden to Muslims on earth), garden leisure, and other pleasures can be envisioned. Christians and Jews have tended to denigrate this description, especially in its most florid versions, because orgiastic sexual relations are implied in heaven. Neither Jews nor Zoroastrians should find the more temporate descriptions so jarring, as both religions affirm the benefit of sexual pleasures on earth and, sometimes, in heaven.

As for continued sexuality in paradise, Jews and Zoroastrians opine on both sides of the issue. For Islam, the imagery of the pleasure garden was also transformed by sophisticated theologians and mystics; but the pleasure garden remains a lively tradition with ordinary Muslims and is still especially relevant for those who seek martyrdom. Each tradition picks its own vocabulary to express the balance between pleasure and piety. In Islam, the words of the Prophet himself are a useful guide: “la rahbaniyya fi al-Islam,”he announced, “There is no monasticism in Islam.” Neither is there in Judaism or Zoroastrianism. Modesty is a virtue but celibacy per se is not.

The concrete image encourages Muslims to greater bravery and piety. For intellectuals, for non-traditional Arabs, and for Muslims in non-Arab lands with very different notions of sexuality, Islam also contains a great many more sophisticated views of the afterlife, in which the nature and pleasures of postmortem identity are explored philosophically or mystically. But there is no doubt that the pleasure-garden motif is a strong characteristic of the traditional Muslim view of paradise. So characteristic is it of Muslim narratives of heaven that pleasures of this world and great works of art are regularly described as “the fragrance of paradise.”36

The Early Extremist Shi’a Mystics

OTHER ENGINES of Muslim religious conquest are mystical Sufi orders, who often penetrated a new land before the armies of Islam reached it. A great many Islamic traditions pick up the mystical mythology of heavenly ascent. They seem deeply affected by the Merkabah and Gnostic traditions that preceded them, but the traditions also develop in purely Islamic directions.37 Islam in its classical formulation disallows intercession. This powerful notion of improving one’s passage to the hereafter (or, in contemporary Islamicist explanation, improving one’s loved ones status) makes a strong comeback in Sufi and Marabout Islam, as well as in the description of the martyrs’ rewards for extremist Islamic terrorism. Veneration of saints seems to be an almost universal phenomenon in human life and Islam contains its fair share of it.38

Jews and Muslims both emphasize their own strict monotheism in any polemic against Christianity and so tend to downplay these minority traditions of mediators. The issue of mediation is important in early Christianity and certainly continued in mystical Judaism. The Kabod figure, otherwise named Metatron by the Rabbis, and one of the bases of the conception of the risen Christ as a hypostasis of God, was occasionally reimagined in mystical Islam. In Islam it also designated the primary human representation of the divinity. For instance, we find a peculiar report in the Quran that the Jews compromise Biblical monotheism by worshiping Ezra: “The Jews say, “Ezra (‘Uzair) is the Son of God’; the Christians say, ‘The Messiah is the Son of God.’” This suggests that the prophet knew of these mystical traditions of mediation among Jews as well as among Christians.

Gordon Newby argues that ’Uzair is not actually the Biblical Ezra but should be equated with another familiar Biblical figure-namely, Enoch-who becomes the angel Metatron in 3 Enoch.39 All of these traditions seem to underlie the Quran’s statements and to make them most fully intelligible. Steve Wasserstrom also suggests that the original name may be Azaz’el, from the term for the Biblical scapegoat (e.g., Lev 16:10) that eventually becomes the name for an angel (one of “the sons of God”), though a fallen one in the Enoch tradition.40

But, in spite of the warning, the same kind of doctrine shows up in Islam, in the ghuluww (the early extremist Gnostics and mystical Shi’a, a forerunner to Ṣufism which was often held heretical).41 According to these doctrines, God himself did not create the universe, rather relegated (fauwwida) the act of Creation to a lesser divinity.42 The clearest instance of this binitarianism is quite similar to the Jewish traditions about Metatron and can be found in the ’Umm al-Qitab, a Persian Gnostic apocalypse of the eighth century. Salman al-Farisi, a human, becomes a demiurgic divine potency in the ’Umm al-Qitab. But the demiurge is patterned on Metatron, as suggested by the phrase “lesser Salman,” as in Metatron’s “the lesser Lord.”43 Mas’udi in the tenth century, brings up the “Ashma’ath” (themselves categorized as a kind of Isra’iliyyun, “Judaizers”),44 who adore a “little Lord,” (ar-rabb aṣ-ṣaghir). The name itself is related to the Latin demon Asmodeus and may go back to Biblical traditions about the Samaritans, a mixed population of those Israelites left behind by the Assyrians and those whom the Assyrians brought in to resettle the land of Israel. Those who came from Hamath are said to have made Ashima their god (2 Kgs 17:31).

The transmitter of these traditions is likely to be Karaite Jews, not the Samaritans, who are too marginal to carry such a well-attested tradition. Maqdisi also mentions the Ashma’ath but says that most Jews follow the beliefs of Ashma’ath or ‘Anan, the founder of Karaism, apparently assuming they are both founders of sects, if they are not meant to be the same. Ibn Hazm mentions the Ash’aniyya, whom he thinks are Rabbinic Jews. He criticizes them as worshipers of the Little Lord (ar-rabb aṣ-ṣaghir). Su’udi in the sixteenth century says that the Ashma’iyya assert that their creator has the form of an old man with white hair and a beard. They assert that He has a deputy in the third heaven whom they call the “Littler God” (allah al-asghar): they assert that He is the ruler (or organizer) of the world.45 The Gannat Bussame, a Syriac compendium against heresy written about the year 1000 CE, suggests that the Jews worship a Adonai Haqaton (Hebrew for “the Little Lord” or “the Little YHWH”), General of Adonai HaGadol (Hebrew for “the Great Lord” or “the Great YHWH”), which it views as scandalous error. No doubt, this is a figuration of various Jewish mystical doctrines arising out of the Daniel 7:9-13 traditions, which somewhat conform to the ideas found in the Hekhaloth literature. Although the tradition is very ancient (it is, in a way, the basis of Christology in Christianity), it can also be seen throughout Muslim history, with outstanding examples even as late as the powerful Shi’ite cleric Muḥammad Baqir b. Taqi Al-majlisi of Isfahan (1628-99).46

To be sure, it is difficult to talk about “heresy” per se in Islam, where sects tend to delegitimize each other with epithets like “un-islamic” (kafir, “denier”). Nevertheless, we can talk about these struggles in a general way with the Christian conception of heresy. The differences in the way these sects are described suggest that the Muslim heresiologists are not just copying from each other but know the phenomenon personally, though they may not be familiar enough to describe it exactly. Under the circumstances, it remains all the more elusive to us.


AS WE HAVE seen, the grave is the location for the Muslim masses to await the great day of judgment. Though no Muslim would formulate this as a rule, there are two great exceptions to the fate that awaits the dead in the grave until the day of judgment. The first and most important exception, as we have seen, is the martyr. But, in their own eyes, at least, mystics also are entitled to an exception to the rule that all have to meditate on their sins in the grave and be judged at the day of judgment. The exception evolved slowly. Early ascetics such as Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) stressed their fear of hell and their desire for paradise because they were overwhelmed with their own sinfulness. They sought the hereafter (al-’ahira) because they rejected this world (al-dunya). In Hasan’s words, “Be with this world as if you had never been there, and with the other world as if you would never leave it.”47

But ecstatic love of God soon took over from asceticism as the key element in Sufism and, as a result, new views of the otherworld began to appear. For the earliest Muslim love-mystic, the Arab poetess Rabi’ah al-’adawiyah (d. 801), selfless love of God required the Sufi to be veiled from both this world and the other by visions of God. The Sufi must love God so much that even paradise and hell are forgotten. Sufis such as Yahya ‘ibn Mu’adh ar-Razi (d. 871) replaced fear of punishment and hope of reward with complete trust in God’s mercy. He found death beautiful because it joined friend with friend in God.

The Sufis, in particular, quite frequently articulate their goals after death and in life as pantheistic extinction (fana’), which may free them from what we might call in an extended sense the “purgatory” of the barzakh state or the grave. Their earthly asceticism and meditation effectively earn them an exemption from the grim job of the rest of us in atoning for our sins. Indeed, many Sufis like Yunus Emre of Turkey (d. approx. 1321 CE) simply ridiculed the Quranic notion of the afterlife as folklore for the naive masses.48 His example has been followed by many modern, believing Muslims who look at the paradisal imagery of the Quran as appropriate more for the original Arab hearers of Islam than for mystics and moderns.

The goal of the Sufis became fana’ or annihilation, which usually means the complete obliteration of the self in the personhood of God. This mystical state of oneness can be achieved either in this world or the world to come. In this world, fana’ is the state of meditative absorption into the divinity, available to the greatest meditative masters, which is proleptically the state of the afterlife. It describes the pantheistic ecstasy and joy of the mystic absorbed into God on earth and, at the same time, it is the condition of the saved soul after death (and sometimes before birth as well). Thus, the mystic in the performance of his mystic meditation achieves a preview of the final consummation of the soul, perhaps even, by achieving the state on earth, insures his own final disposition after death. This search for ecstasy may function in many ways, not the least of which is that it claims that the joy which mystics achieve in meditation is proof of their own ultimate reward.

Aware of the arrogance of this position, some mystics suggest that the joys of fana’ must themselves be given up so that one is absorbed into God with no ego left at all. This tradition therefore distinguishes between the fana’ that is achievable by the mystic on earth and the final consummation. fana’ can also be expressed in a variety of other metaphors, like being in the light of the face of God or being subsumed into God. A famous Sufi statement of the subsumption of the individual in God is: “I was raw; I was cooked; I was eaten.” The claim that the individual Sufi has achieved unity with God is a powerful claim to religious legitimacy and power, surpassing all other kinds of religious authority. We have already often seen this strategy of using direct contact with the divine to innovate and neutralize other forms of religious authority.

Although fana’ sometimes also implies a previous ascent to God, and so can be identified with the heavenly journey of the soul as the Platonists understood it; it can also quite successfully be identified with the Aristotelian notion of intelligence. Al-Ghazzali, who was both a philosopher and and a Sufi, suggests that, as a soul ascends, its individuality fades away, which is considered “a second death.” For a Sufi, however, this is how it should be: human intelligences, upon their death, are subsumed into God himself, who is quintessentially intelligence and love.

This synthesis of Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism carried over and developed in both Judaism and Christianity as well, which learned much of their Greek philosophy secondhand from the great Medieval Muslim philosophers. For Maimonides and some other medieval Jewish philosophers, this meant that the soul’s afterlife was assured but that no convincing proof of a personal afterlife would come out of Aristotelian philosophy. Personal immortality was based on faith, guided by the knowledge that the soul’s immortality could be proven. Maimonides developed this approach by personal study of Islamic philosophy-more exactly, by reading Arab philosophers like al-Farabi.49

Martyrdom in Shi’ ite Islam

THE SHI’ITES are those Muslims who believe that Muḥammad’s companion ’Ali b. Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, should be his immediate successor as the true Imam or prayer leader of the Muslim community. However, Abu Bakr, ’Umar, and then ’Uthman were appointed over ’Ali by the more powerful members of the Prophet’s closest companions. Finally, ’Ali was appointed as the fourth Caliph but the dispute was exacerbated by ’Ali’s refusal to punish the murderers of ’Uthman. This dispute continued for approximately 50 years after the death of the prophet, with considerable periods of antagonism between the various parties.

Shi’ite Islam as a formal movement began with the defeat, destruction, and deaths of the “party of the faithful” (Hizballah) at the battle of Karbala in Iraq on the Tenth of Muharram, 61 AH (680 CE), known in Arabic as “The ’Ashura,” (“The Tenth”). The day is marked by most Muslims, but for the Shi’ites it is a very special and most holy day. For them, the battle signifies the formation of the denomination of Islam known officially as the Shi’at ’Ali, who hold ’Ali and his son Hussein (Muḥammad’s grandson) legitimate successors (Caliphs) of the prophet.

In Shi’ite history, the defeat and death of Hussein are understood as a martyrdom in which the evil perpetrators of the murder were other, wrongly-guided Muslims. As a result, Shi’ite interpretation of the succession is quite different from the Sunni one; and Shi’ites also differ with each other about the order of the succession, spawning many messianic and mystical notions of the true Imam. Shi’ite religious piety differs significantly from Sunni practice even today. The most obvious difference is that the Shi’ites recite two added clauses about ‘Ali’s special status in their five-times-daily prayers. Shi’ites may also make a pilgrimage to Karbala as a mark of their religious devotion.

Shi’ite ritual and religious life contains a great many traditions that honor the memory of the early martyrs, giving the Shi’a an even richer martyrological tradition than the majority Sunna tradition. Some of the traditions feature flagellation and blood imagery prominently as signs of the remembrance of the martyrdom of Hussein.


ONE INTERESTING Shi’ite folk tradition is the Ta’ziye, a dramatic reenactment of the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Muḥammad and and third Shi’ite Imam. This may be the only native Muslim dramatic form, which originated in rural Iran as well as now existing in Iranian cities in more refined form.50 In the basic village format, traveling troupes perform the plays for the benefit of the villagers’ religious devotion. Villagers become participants with the actors and so lose themselves in the tragic events of the play that some report they are transported to the original martyrdom. In this way, the play moves from commemoration to reenactment, becoming a truly religious ritual rather than theater.

The various cycles of ta’ziya depict the entrapment and death of Hussein, his family, and followers. The play resembles medieval Christian Passion Plays in many respects. There are many obvious conventions that help the audience/participants interpret the action of this dramatic liturgy. For example, the good characters always wear colorful clothing and chant or sing their lines. The villains always wear black and always speak, never sing. Martyrs always don white clothing before their sacrificial act.

In one poignant cycle, the two young sons of a warrior named Muslim, a follower of Hussein, are tracked down relentlessly. They try to escape until they are found out and then vie with each other for the privilege of being martyred first. In recent years, the villains have often been costumed and figured as Jews or Israelis and, since the 1979 revolution, as Americans. The effect of this kind of religious drama is to divide the world dualistically into the Shi’ite Muslims, the only true Islam, and the rest of the world, who are not just neutral observers but active, demonic enemies of Islam. The Sunna and “The Great Satan” (the United States), are all equally enemies of Islam, while Israel is styled “the Little Satan.” This justifies any Shi’ite attack against Sunnis, Jews, Americans, or non-Muslims as a defensive action. It is also a powerful religious encouragement to martyrdom, to say nothing of its depiction of the seemingly inevitable tragedy of life.

Salvation for the Crusaders

JIHAD IN THE sense of “holy war” has been part of Islam since its foundation. It has been used to conquer previously pagan lands as recently as 1896, when north-eastern Afghanistan was won for Islam through Jihad. Nevertheless, Jihad is normally understood as a defensive war, to protect the faithful from attack. But holy war was not a native or long-standing tradition in Christianity.51 When Christianity sought to reclaim the Holy Land, it came up with the equivalent doctrine to Jihad and, to motivate its armies to fight the Muslims, a doctrine equivalent to shahada. A Christian religious war is a crusade and the religious instrument used to motivate soldiers for heavenly reward became the plenary indulgence, though it took several intermediary steps to get there.

Augustine himself outlined a theology of a “just war.” While deploring the necessity of war, he maintained that even the righteous were compelled to fight wars to repress the sinfulness of the wicked. Thus, the church could endorse certain acts of violence as protection of the faithful. Daniel 2:21 allows that God both sets up and deposes kings, a verse that was soon interpreted to justify wars of the righteous against the wicked. John of Mantua suggested that even Jesus supported the use of religious violence. He based himself on Matthew 26:51-52, verses in which Jesus rejects violence at his arrest:

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

According to John of Mantua’s interpretation, this verse allows for religious violence because Jesus asked the disciple to put his sword away instead of throwing it away. While this argument is a pretext for military action against Islam, it is also an insight into the violent age that produced it. It even became customary to bless the sword of a new knight in a religious ceremony.

Already in the ninth century, the Popes were promising that death in a war against infidels would bring salvation. Pope Leo IV (847) promised a heavenly reward for any warrior dying in battle for defense of the church. Pope Nicholas I (858) promised both an earthly and heavenly indulgence for those having violated canon law, if they took up arms against the infidels (which he called a “plenary indulgence”). Pope John VIII (872) extended this promise to mean that victims were as pure as martyrs for the cross and so received a remission of sins. Pope Alexander II (1061), promised the same indulgence for all those who fought for the cross in Spain, expelling the Moors from Christian lands (the Reconquista). Gregory VII became the first pope to call for a war of all Christendom against the infidels. All that remained was for his successor Pope Urban II to call for the First Crusade (1095), which resulted in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 by soldiers of Christendom, who were told that if they died in battle, they would go directly to heaven, in spite of any previous sins.52

The history of the Crusades is riddled with terrors for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Impatient to earn their salvation, the soldiers of Christ began by killing anyone not like them. In the Spring of 1096, when the Crusaders were passing through the Rhine Valley on their way to the Holy Land, they attacked the Jewish settlements, killing anyone they could catch-man, woman, or child. These tragedies formed the core of a medieval Jewish martyrological tradition, most fully attested in chronicles and poetry.53 The Crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem in 1099 inaugurated the short zenith of their military power. It was a disaster for Muslims, for Jews, and Eastern Christians as well.

The Muslim reconquest began in earnest when Reynald of Châtillon initiated raids and skirmishes from his fortress city of Kerak, south of Amman in Jordan, which harassed the local caravan and shipping routes. Saladin (Salah ad-Din) eventually called a jihadwhen Reynald’s raids extended into Saudi Arabia and to the Red Sea. This brought the Crusader leader, Guy of Jerusalem, into the fray. The climactic battle took place at the Horns of Hattin (a topographic feature named for the god Ba’al) in the Galilee on July 4, 1187.

It was a total victory for the forces of Saladin. Reynald was captured and killed while King Guy of Jerusalem was captured and held for ransom. As a result, the Crusaders lost their Holy Land possessions, subsequently managing to burn Constantinople in their efforts to reclaim their possessions (1204). They also unknowingly killed thousands of Palestinian Christians throughout their rule, because they confused them with Muslims. They never regained Jerusalem again. For their part, Spanish Christians, after expelling the Muslims and Jews from Al-Andalus in 1492, turned to torturing and burning suspect converted Muslims and Jews, as an act of faith.

In spite of these grave injustices, many ordinary Christians learned altruism and piety from the stories of the early martyred saints. Just like medieval Christians, millions of ordinary Muslims have lived lives of religious striving and piety, gaining strength and motivation from the stories of Jihad, martyrdom, and suffering.54 They are not particularly affected by the extremes of Islamic thought which have recently reached the attention of the West. They are quite commonplace spiritual meditations for ordinary people.

On the other hand, these ideas of martyrdom can be manipulated by unscrupulous political and religious leaders. It would be wrong to underestimate the force of these religious justifications for motivating soldiers of Christendom and Islam in the Middle Ages or even in our own day, whether the war be national or religious in nature. It is characteristic of our day that national and political conflicts are being reexpressed in religious terms.

Modern Islamic Views of the Afterlife

IF THE CLASSIC and medieval Islamic views of the afterlife are more complex than we can characterize in a few paragraphs, modern views are nearly impossible even to categorize in this chapter. It is, however, tentatively possible to divide modern Muslim views into ways similar to those of modern America. There is the traditional camp that views Quranic descriptions of bodily resurrection as still relevant today. This camp will include a number of ordinary pious Muslims for whom the language of the day of judgment and the barzakh remains especially meaningful, as well as the growing number of fundamentalists and the small but very dangerous group of fundamentalist extremists. These latter Muslims are very much more conscious of the value of conversion and mission in Muslim life and tend to favor the foundation of states based on Islamic law, the shariya’. Not only do heaven and hell retain a hold on their religious life, they are often quite elaborately described.

However, unacknowledged innovation abounds in these modern interpretations of tradition. The horrendous descriptions of the pain of dying for the sinful, and the pleasures which a shahid can bring for himself, his family, and friends are new ideas in Islam; many Muslims, with some justification, would judge these innovations as heretical. The people who promulgate them are in very many respects like modern Christian fundamentalists or Christian fundamentalist extremists, who innovate even while claiming they are returning to the ancient tradition.

On the other side, one sees another group of theologians who interpret Islam’s traditional teachings much more broadly and attempt to see in Islam a justification for cultural pluralism and interreligious tolerance. Though these writers are as yet only a small minority of Muslim writers, their existence is very significant. They tend to speak out of culturally plural situations, like India, or the Muslim Diaspora in Europe and the United States, and they try to demonstrate that Islam can coexist with other like-minded, tolerant religions.55 But they do not come only from these places. And, indeed, some fundamentalist extremism was formed in Diaspora, European and American culture as well.

Osama bin Laden and Fundamentalism

FUNDAMENTALIST extremism is a phenomenon that exists in all religions, not just Islam. At the moment, Islam is numerically the largest sponsor of violent extremism. Since the events of September 11, 2001, Muslim extremist religious beliefs have been tragically emphasized for Americans, but Muslims have been very much aware of them for decades, while we have occasionally focused on our own brand of fundamentalist extremism.56 It is crucial for Americans to realize that these movements are not normative for Islam, much less American Islam, but are sectarian movements of extraordinary intensity present in every religion. Islamic fundamentalist extremist sects have as much in common with sectarian, fundamentalist extremism throughout the religious world as they do with Islam in particular. We need to study them and their relationship to martyrdom and the afterlife.

The horrifying events of September 11, 2001 are instructive for our discussion of the role of the afterlife in motivating extremist actions. Some of the terrorists may have been agents of terrorist groups like ḥamas,57 Hizballah,58 or Al-Qa’ida.59 Whether or not Iraq has had a role in the World Trade Center attack (which has neither been proven nor disproven), Iran has certainly been bankrolling ḥamas and Hizballah for decades while they engaged in terrorist acts against the United States and the West, as well as against Israel. Iraq, a ferocious secular despotism inspired by Nazi fascism, has been giving aid, support, and training to a variety of terrorist groups, without regard to the religious roots of their extremism. In the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.60

Islamic extremism (or “Islamism”) has been especially good at blaming the scandalous state of human rights in the Arab world on the existence of two mythologically evil opponents of Islam: Israel and the United States.61 This is not predominantly a political statement although, obviously, there is some truth to the opposition of Israel and the United States to Islamicist goals. The United States has had a stake in supporting the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel, though it is hardly the reason why any particular regime has remained in power.

The United States, along with most of Europe, also supported the regime of the Shah, which was a very Western-oriented government, but did not prop it up when it was in danger of falling. In point of fact, the United States has stayed away from extreme forms of domestic interference since the embarrassments of CIA involvements in the 70s and 80s. It is also true that Israel has curtailed the rights of Palestinians in response to violence against its citizens. As a result, they have also strengthened the conditions of deprivation and hopelessness which underlie the production of martyrdom. To the dualist minds of Islamicists, this demonstrates the Israelis’ satanic purposes.

If the West is not blameless, neither is the Arab world. In spite of attempts to help the Arab world develop, the economies of the Arab states are in shambles, because capital usable for development is siphoned away by the despotic and the wealthy. The entire Arab world ranks far below Israel in exports, goods, and services. Arguably anti-Western attitudes are part of the problem. The interference of the United States operates as much as an excuse as a real reason for the problems of the area. Certainly the Arab world has been no friend of American foreign policy in the modern period either. It gave significant aid and support to the Nazis during the Second World War and then to the Soviets in the Cold War. It consistently applauds the successes of terrorist actions against the United States and then irrationally blames the very same actions on Israelis or the CIA. It cannot find its way out of the quagmire of irrational hates. Favorable public opinion of the United States in the Arab world is steady at 4 percent. In spite of this, the American State Department continues to court both Arab governments and the people, both in the moderate and despotic states. In spite of considerable American aid to moderate states, Arabs judge the United States seemingly by one standard, its support of Israel, which has been positive but far more evenhanded than is ever admitted.

Islamicists merely provide one more excuse to ignore the real internal reasons blocking Arab development. By blaming the United States and Israel and characterizing them as Satan, they target them for destruction rather than try to understand how to use capitalism as a tool for economic development. Islamicists actually aid secular despotisms by ignoring the internal reasons for the current deprivations of the Arab world. They use the one positive symbol in these totalitarian states that has survived complete control of the despots, Islam itself. But they manipulate Islam so that it is often not recognizeable as a universal religion and they prevent Islam from becoming the engine for progress which it has often been.

“Everyone Who Disagrees with Us is Un-Islamic”

IN ISLAMIC extremism, the United States, as the greatest power, becomes the biggest enemy, the Great Satan. Anyone who supports the United States, including any Muslim who supports the United States, becomes an infidel. Since Satan is in constant battle with Islam, this attitude has already been responsible for enormous damage against the Ummah. This supernatural pretext essentially labels every violent act against non Muslims as an act of self-defense, an answer for some previous offense against the faithful Ummah, and is used as an excuse to murder any non Muslim or Muslim alike.

Any Muslim can be executed as a kafr, if he disagrees with Islamist interpretations of Islam, a theory that was promulgated by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt but is traceable from the early heretical dissenters to ’Ali, the Khawarij (the “outsiders”). The outstanding founder of modern extremist thought is probably Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim brotherhood. He taught that those who oppose his interpretation of Islam were apostates and unbelievers. He emphasized jihad and preached seeking after martyrdom (talab al-shahada), like the early kharijites. In the end, he himself was assassinated in 1949.62 His disciple Sayyid Qutb was hanged in Egypt on August 29, 1966.63 But other disciples and students like Mawlana Mawdudi (1903-79) of Pakistan and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-89) of Iran, carried on his teaching.

This dangerous ideology is still vibrant in Islamism; it arguably became Iranian government policy after its Islamic revolution because the United States supported the outwardly moderate and secular regime of the Shah without too much attention to its sins of internal repression. Destructive dualism is characteristic of every fundamentalism, but it has been obvious since the revolutionary regime took power in Iran. The Iranian revolution of 1979, its very ease in defeating the Shah, seemed to many on the “Arab Street” to be the confirmation of the truth of Islamism. But, as is now evident to Iranian Muslims, even the overthrow of the Shah did not bring about a free or just society in Iran. It has not even brought about a just Islamic state. So far it has not brought significant actual reform; it merely substituted a more repressive religious elite for a repressive secular one. It is the very simplicity of Islamism’s answer, with its underpinning of religious self-righteousness, which is so appealing at first. But, as more and more Iranians now see, the appealing answer was simply a wrongly guided, seductive dream.

Fundamentalism and millenarianism may be quite different. For one thing, fundamentalism is a broad intellectual movement that favors the limitation of knowledge to that part of modern science which serves religion. Fundamentalist extremism, however, is a violent form of fundamentalist sectarianism, usually promoted by a small political extremist cadre. Fundamentalist extremism and millenarianism are deeply intertwined; indeed, one could make the case that it is a modern variety of politically motivated millenarianism. At the same time, there are significant differences in how power is mediated in millenarianism and fundamentalism. In millenarian cults, normally, a charismatic leader is important, so the decrees of the leader can serve as absolute law. In a fundamentalist-extremist movement, the organization of the movement is usually more sophisticated. Besides the charismatic leader, other leadership roles are filled and supported by a class of people whose job it is to make absolute claims based on a scriptural tradition.64 Usually this class of people claims clerical status, as in Iran and in American fundamentalism. But, they may not necessarily be trained as clergy in the standard, normative fashion. The effect in either case is that absolute and uncompromising claims are used to garner support for the political program of the “clergy.” Simple truths are always easier to understand than more ambiguous complicated, relative ones.

Martyrdom as a Political Weapon?

THE MARTYRDOM beliefs of contemporary Muslim terrorists have much in common with the Khawaraj, as well as medieval Christian notions of crusaders dying for plenary indulgence, as they do with the preaching of Muḥammad. Their doctrine is also very much an innovation in Islamic thought and should be regarded as a combination of religious extremist fundamentalism redefined as a modern religio-political agenda. Indeed, since fundamentalism is a worldwide phenomenon, hardly confined to Islam, we will need to look at what forms it takes and how it sometimes becomes radical fundamentalist extremism. One key issue for us in post-9/11 analyses of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is the relationship between fundamentalism, on the one hand, and millenarianism and martyrdom on the other. But the relationship between martyrdom, millennialism, and fundamentalism is neither simple nor one-sided.65

In its long history, Islam has fostered tolerance and understanding between faiths, particularly in Spain and Moghul India. It has also undergone intolerant revivals, just as have Christianity and Judaism. The intolerance of the Islamists of today represents a new and extremely worrisome development because of its use of martyrdom as an offensive weapon. These new Muslim martyrs are not the equivalent of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim martyrs of the historical past.

Focusing on the suicide or martyr terrorists of the World Trade Center and suicide bombings in Israel can help us understand some of the social conditions that produce this innovative doctrine of martyrdom as well as shed light on the birth of the notion of the resurrection of the dead in second century BCE Judaism. Suicidal martyrdom is a new idea for Americans (and the world) to comprehend, although the nineteenth-century colonial and imperialist powers certainly had to deal with native uprisings where the motivation to self-sacrifice was similarly religious.

In that century, the colonial powers simply understood their native opponents as religious fanatics. Just like suicide hijackers and bombers, who are fueled by notions of a paradisal afterlife, the ancient doctrine of resurrection arises directly out of situations of religious martyrdom-in this case, the execution of the pious by an oppressive political force. And the religious circumstances that produced the doctrine of resurrection were religious apocalyptic sectarianism.

What makes this new attack different is that the martyrs are essentially offensive soldiers who kill others, and the others are always civilians. Islam has had glorified soldiers who died in Jihad as martyrs. But it has never recommended suicide as a way of killing innocent civilians in Jihad. This is a total innovation and is strictly forbidden as murder and suicide in traditional Islam, both punishable by damnation. Nevertheless, there is an innovative religious message in their acts of terrorism. First, Islamism provides them with a rationale that they were attacked first; they are only striking back. Every single Western male, female, or child is demonic. Western culture is itself anti-Islamic and satanic in its orientation so its very existence is evil. Proof of this is that the West is responsible for every bad event that has happened in the Arab world. Willingness to undergo martyrdom emphasizes that the cause is so important that masses of Muslims are even willing to die for it.

But what gets public attention is the huge civilian toll of carnage. The very size of the reaction is part of the perceived victory of the policy. The suicide bombers believe they are also bringing the attack to the homelands of the perceived enemies of Islam. There is a further precedent of soldiers claiming the rewards of the righteous in medieval Christianity and Islam but even that is not a sufficient precedent to explain an event like 9/11/01.

A martyrdom in the ancient world was a way to take what looked like a defeat and turn it into a moral victory over the seemingly powerful. Islam saw soldiers who willingly gave their lives in battle as martyrs. Starting in the medieval world and into the present, soldiers have been given the afterlife reward of martyrs, both in Christianity and Islam. But, they rarely functioned like the kamikaze pilots whose intention was to sacrifice themselves for the Japanese homeland in World War II. For the kamikaze, self-sacrifice for the state was a religious as well as national duty. It too changed a looming defeat into a moral victory because it was performed as an act of desperation against a militarily superior force. So religion may be said to play its part in the production of martyrs, but one must also note the strong importance of political aims to which the religious idea is put. However the kamikaze only atacked military targets, while Islamists deliberately target civilians.

Behind this political agenda is the historical judgment that Ottoman Turkey’s defeat in World War I and subsequent attempt to turn itself into a modern state was a terrible satanic mistake. The destruction of the Ottoman Empire was accomplished by Britain and France in the Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916, after Turkey’s unwise entrance into the war. After its empire was taken away, Turkey repatterned itself as a modern European state, under the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk (1881-1938). In the Islamists’ eyes, the secularization of Turkey must be undone because it is a temporary, damnable condition like the crusader kingdom. Then, Islam can return to its prior glory.

But in realistic politics, this judgment seems impractical in the extreme. However unwise the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire was, no practical, political analyst would believe that a single Muslim state (from North Africa to Indonesia) under a Caliph is plausible or desirable, much less a world Islamic empire, even less the conversion of all Christians to Islam. Nor will Israelis (or any other minority living in Muslim lands) give up their state or agree to live under traditional dhimmi (“protected”) status. These apocalyptic aims make their appearance not only in al-Qa’ida’s charter but also in Hizballah’s and ḥamas’s constitutions. Its implausibility is only underlined by the skepticism that it draws among ordinary Muslims. But poor, disadvantaged, and alienated youth, as well as educated youth with no employment, find the dream attractive because it fulfills their sense of the rightful moral leadership of Islam in the world.

The Religious Motivations of the Hijackers

IT IS VERY HARD to study the motivations of the 9/11 hijackers, though they left us notes professing their religious motivations. Their behavior seemed strange as well as horrifying at first because we know that in the days before their martyrdom, they went out to bars, sought out women for sex, and engaged in a variety of behaviors which would be considered un-Islamic. Perhaps, as their training manuals said, it was to allay any suspicions in the American public. Perhaps they were not as good Muslims as their handlers wanted us to believe. In any event, their suicide notes were full of the desire for martyrdom, leaving no doubt that they considered themselves to be Muslim shahada, even though their families often denied their adherence to fundamentalist Islam.

We have more information about the making of suicide bombers in Palestine. There, the dominant ideology is very favorable to the creation of martyrs. Palestine is dominated by Israelis, whom the Palestinians see as a hated, colonial oppressor. The success of Al-Qa’ida in bringing down the World Trade Center was itself encouragement. In response to Israeli domination, parents encourage martyrdom in their young children. This suggests a second necessary condition for martyrdom: Besides opposition (or some other deprivation), there must be a religious ideology. People must be willing to analyze the situation in such a way as to affirm that their personal death is meaningful and, indeed, that death is not the end of life. In the ancient world this was the general rule, but such notions are more open to doubt in the modern West. Usually, this means that the martyrs necessarily see their death in a transcendent context in which it is but a step to a higher reward on earth and in heaven. For our purposes, it is enough to say that anything functioning to give transcendent meaning to their sacrifice is operating as a religious motivator.

Closely associated with this disposition towards religious explanations, there must a public acceptance of the efficacity of the mission. The relationship between the public and the martyr is a social discourse of encouragement: The public reinforces the martyrdom, and the martyr reinforces the ideals of the public. Public acceptance, one might say, is necessary because it aids in creating the credibility structure that makes martyrdom seem natural and logical. For instance, in the occupied territories, after a suicide bomber is recruited and trained, his or her mission is often announced publicly. During that period, the shahid becomes a “living martyr” in which he (or rarely she) is publicly celebrated as a volunteer. He has a picture taken in a warlike or martyr’s pose. In one example, the shahid was photographed holding his own head as an offering to God, using trick photography to depict his willingness to die. But all use photographic images, made into posters for the walls of Palestinian cities, to spread their fame in the community. Just as it takes a whole village to raise a child, it also takes a village to turn a child into a martyr.

We have already learned that martyrdom can be religious drama, a spectacle of transcendence staged around the death of a believer. In Iran, Ta’ziye is a ritual and a drama at the same time, though it is but a stage performance. But even real martyrdoms are played out as a religious, ritual, a socio-drama.66 It always depicts the supreme confidence of the believer, showing that the martyr’s religious beliefs are correct, thus the cause is just. All the statements are simple and absolute. The cause is so important that one can sacrifice one’s life to it. The power structure, which appears to have the upper hand, is actually just one step from destruction. Martyrdom tends to confirm notions of life after death, which are the most obvious beliefs to be demonstrated by the death of the martyr. So it creates a new “master narrative” of revolution against the power structure, saying that the power is demonic and against divine wishes, and, at the same time, demonstrates that the religious belief of the martyr is true and manifest.

The 9/11 hijackers caused more than 2,800, unsuspecting, civilian deaths in one act of sabotage directed against entirely civilian targets. This act cannot be justified by any suffering in the Middle East; nor was it born out of the frustration of the Palestinian people. Indeed, Palestine was only a minor, supporting motivation in the act on bin Laden’s bill of particulars. Bin Laden’s major reason for the action is Jihad against the presence of infidel US soldiers in Saudi Arabia.

Few Muslims would join such an organization. Yet, young Palestinians and other Muslim youth, all over the Middle East, danced in the streets when the World Trade Center came down. Saudi, Egyptian, and Lebanese students, influenced by fundamentalist education, regularly justify the attack on the World Trade Center as repayment for various injustices-some real, some imagined-perpetrated entirely by the United States or Israel and in which the Arabs were portrayed as innocent victims without any defenses.

Conversely, educated people in the Western-leaning Arab countries simply denied that any Arabs would have done such a terrible deed. Rather, it was the work of the Israeli secret service, who even warned all the Jews to stay home on that morning. Both rationales are equally absurd. The story is still widely run in the Arab newspapers and on television stations. Egyptian television also recently ran a dramatization of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in installments, though it is universally known as a cruel anti-semitic fraud.67 Beyond the official statements of consolations, conveyed through diplomats, the two dominant Middle Eastern responses to 9/11 have been celebration and modern, anti-Semitic ideology used to foster denial.

This mythological anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism are being used in their classic scapegoating role towards the political aim of keeping the Arab “street” focused on mythical outside dangers rather than real, domestic injustices. So too is the United States targeted frequently, which is hardly responsible for the difficulties of Arab countries. With these grand, easy-to-understand, dualist simplifications, a great many, more complicated facts of life can be avoided. Anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism are being used to avoid facing any domestic responsibility for the horrific state of human rights and human development in Arab countries. Even secular despots see an advantage to fostering Islamism, as long as it is focused on outside enemies.

The Religious Motivations of Failed Suicide Bombers

INTERVIEWS WITH failed suicide bombers against Israel show that notions of the heavenly rewards for the martyrs are important motivators to violence. But they are not the only ones. Indeed, there are others that are just as significant, so much so that some scholars can credibly claim that religion is not important in the motivation of suicide bombers.68 The agents of ḥamas and Hizballah subtly change personal feelings of inadequacy into political motivations that the youth equally associate with Muslim martyrdom. The young, imprisoned, failed mujahidin do mention the dark-eyed maidens (ḥur) as motivators (and they are mentioned in recruitment tapes too) but the potential martyrdom recruits noticeably warm to a modern addition to the tradition: The martyr’s ability to get a special heavenly dispensation for family and friends is a much greater motivator in today’s Palestine, though this is by no means a traditional reward to the martyrs, since Muḥammad explicitly ruled out intermediaries as affecting salvation. The potential martyr is attracted by the power he will gain in providing for his family in heaven, in contrast to the power-lessness to protect or earn for his family on earth.

Scott Atran has something important to add to this sketch. He denigrates educational or economic deprivation as explanations but stresses the fictive brotherhood created by the mostly unmarried men who become martyrs. While I think that many of the variables he discounts-deprivation, political organization of the sodalities, and religious faith-are critical for understanding the motivation of bombers, he still makes an important point about the way in which kinship responsibilities activate motivations for revenge in a society where notions of revenge play a dominant role in family pride.

Though it is not justified by the Quran, the shahid becomes a kind of intermediary between God and his family and friends. Lacking the ability to perform the traditional role of economic supporter, the young unemployed men substitute the notion of heavenly family provider for earthly self-sufficiency. The belief structure supplied by fundamentalist extremist Islam gives them the key ideology to equalize themselves in spiritual terms with their oppressors and even the economic score on a higher plane. Instead of losing their lives, they actually earn back their dignity in the heavenly sphere. There is a great relationship between this motivation and those we saw previously in ancient millennialist groups. But here the class of people who are affected by the motivation is much wider. Indeed, those who volunteer are apt to have achieved higher education than the norm, albeit in religiously sponsored schools. Their inability to find a position equal to their educational level is also a precipitating factor.

Thanks to the generosity of various foreign governments and charities, the martyrs do earn an earthly reward for their families. The actual monetary payment which the families of suicide bombers receive is also mentioned quite prominently in the interviews.69 The sum itself varies, though $10,000 is often mentioned as the standard payment to the family of a suicide bomber. Payments totalling many thousand dollars have been received by the families of the Palestinian martyrs. A few, very public martyrs have received up to $35,000, as did the suicide bomber who killed four American soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A public square in Jenin was also named for him, showing Palestinian support for any action against the United States.

This is a significant sum for young Palestinians or Iraqis, many times higher than most could hope to earn in many a year. The payments come from Iran, from wealthy Saudi Arabians, and most recently also from Iraq-in short, from the sworn enemies of Israel and the United States. Within Palestine, teenagers are actively recruited by older young men who work for the much admired religious organizations of Hizballah and ḥamas. Since these meetings are sometimes videotaped, a few have fallen into Israeli hands so we can actually see the dynamics at work with horrifying results.

The confirming society is not just the family. Family support is mirrored by national support. Newspapers and TV stations, which are usually instruments of state policy in Arab countries, have been equally passionate in their support of suicide bombers.70 Together with the adulation that the volunteers receive before performing their act of self-immolation, the path to martyrdom has been hard to resist for young, unemployed, though often highly educated Palestinian Muslims. Though we do not know the personal histories of all the suicide terrorists who crashed into the World Trade Center, we can assume that they became fervent Muslims after suffering from the entire range of anomie, as well as social and economic dysfunction, which infects young Muslim men, both in Muslim countries and in the West. We can also suspect that their families were paid by persons anxious to hurt the United States.71

Fundamentalist Education Produces Fundamentalist Extremism

BUT NONE OF IT would be possible, were not religious extremist schooling the main source of education in these communities today. The secular schools in Palestine and many other Arab countries are in total shambles. Many have simply ceased to exist. Fundamentalist madrassas and colleges have filled in the gaps. They turn fundamentalism into fundamentalist extremism. There, the young learn unreformed Islam in which religious martyrdom and religious justification for jihad warfare are much praised, praised higher than finding an occupation and becoming a householder. When asked for help from the wealthy, Saudi Arabian donors are far more likely to donate a new mosque and madrassa than a vocational school or even give direct support for the needy. Secular schools are not even much in the interest of the secular dictators who rule many Arab countries, still less the religious leadership of the ’awqaf (religious, charitable trusts, sing. waqf). Secular schools are expensive to maintain and they tend to teach democratic values. While Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not produce the same fundamentalism, a strong fundamentalist education and atmosphere seem to be one of the indicators of the rise of extremist political radicalism and violence.

The relationship between fundamentalist and parochial education is strongest in Jihadi (extremist) Islam but it is true everywhere. Tariq ’Ali emphasizes that it is one of the strongest reasons why fundamentalism has flowered in Muslim countries. Here is his description of the fundamentalist madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan:

Together with verses from the Koran (learned by rote) and the necessity to lead a devout life, these children were taught to banish all doubts. The only truth was divine truth, the only code of conduct was that written in Koran and the Hadiths, virtue lay in unthinking obedience. Anyone who rebelled against the imam rebelled against Allah. The aim was clear. These madrassas had a single function. They were indoctrination nurseries designed to produce fanatics. The primers, for example, stated that the Urdu letter jeem stood for jihad; tay for tope (cannon); kaaf for kalashnikov and khay for khoon (blood).

As they grew older the pupils were instucted in the use of sophistcated hand weapons and taught how to make and plant bombs. ISI agents provided training and supervision. They could also observe the development of the more promising students or Taliban, who were later picked out and sent for more specialized training at secret army camps, the better to fight the “holy war” against the unbelievers in Afghanistan….

The dragon seeds sown in 2,500 madrasas produced a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and to die for their faith when ordered to do so by their religious leaders.72

The result of the upsurge in fundamentalist extremism has been a tragic polarization of public opinion in the democracies which have been targeted. Public opinion is one area in which terrorism has had a major and tragic effect. The majority of the Israeli electorate went from actively supporting the peace process (to the extent of trading back all the land) to desultory support for the continued occupation of Palestine simply because of the enormous upsurge in violence, starting with the second intifada (not a grassroots revolt) followed by waves of equally well-planned suicide bombing encouraged by the World Trade Center attack. The architects of this policy were the Palestinian radicals who did not support the existence of Israel in any form. And Israel got the message, perhaps too strongly, as did the United States when the Twin Towers fell, and as will any democracy that is attacked in this way. It will be a while before the folly of this policy is perceived on both sides.

One result is public justification in the US for a new crusade against the evildoers. To move from these responses to a true settlement of the issues-a just settlement of the Palestine issue and the establishment of economic and political progress in the Arab world-will take more than a change of public opinion in the United States and Israel. It will take a new voice in the Arab world as well, one that firmly rejects the absurd commitments of the fundamentalist extremists. Fouad Ajami sums up what is needed in his book The Dream Palace of the Arabs: “But there arises too the recognition that it is time for the imagination to steal away from Israel and to look at the Arab reality, to behold its own view of the kind of world the Arabs want for themselves.”73 He points out that the intellectual leadership of the Arabs has built a dream-palace and allowed itself to be seduced by hatred of Israel when it should just get on with the development of the Arab world.

The Original Fundamentalism: An American Phenomenon

FUNDAMENTALISM per se is not the same as millenialism or fundamentalist extremism. There are many perfectly law-abiding members of society everywhere who consider themselves fundamentalist.74 Indeed, we as Americans are very familiar with fundamentalism. The term in its original usage was a self-designation of a conservative, American, Christian movement. Originally, it referred to a series of twelve volumes written by conservative theologians of the 1910s, all of whom espoused no compromise with a scientific worldview or any version of modern life that depended on it.75 Actually, it demonstrated that the technology of science could be used to defeat any “demonic” scientific theory. It was not violent in its religious expression, though sporadic acts of intolerance (especially racist intolerance) were committed in its name. It had its own view of heaven and the apocalypse that involved heavy emphasis on “the tribulation” and the “rapture,” two American concerns from earlier missionary and revivalist groups but that were clear innovations in Christian tradition, based on tendentious readings of Paul and Revelation. It is interesting that one of the characteristics of fundamentalist thinking is always that it innovates most just where it says it is returning to Scriptures to simplify and cleanse religious tradition of accretions.

The most important early victory of fundamentalist forces in the United States was the Scopes Trial of 1925. A young biology teacher, John T. Scopes, was put on trial in Tennessee because he used a text containing references to Darwin’s work on the evolution of species. This was a violation of state law, enacted by fundamentalists, which prohibited the teaching of any theory that denied the divine creation of man. It did not matter that Darwin himself recognized the role of the creator in his writings or that neither the teacher nor his lawyer denied the divine creation of man, only the details of the creation account. The fact that the law of the country was seen to protect their religious premises was a clear example of how the technology of the state could be seen to defeat a scientific world-view.

Although the rest of the country roundly ridiculed these notions, the fundamentalists won the courtroom battle and that was the whole point for them. The ridicule of the sophisticated intellectuals made the courtroom victory even sweeter. From the perspective of northern intellectuals, “The Monkey Trial” became another small example of what made the South outdated and decadent. But that was its very importance for the fundamentalists, who saw it as a huge victory of their values against their patronizing superiors in the north. In some ways, The Monkey Trial represents the revenge of the believers against modernists, even southerners against northerners, because it simply prevents modern notions from having legal standing. Like Islamic fundamentalism, it is riddled with willful denial. As well, there is more than a whiff of American Civil War animosity behind the battle. It is the use of modern methods to defeat the modern powerstructure which most connects American fundamentalism with the postcolonial Muslim phenomenon.

Fundamentalism represents those in Christianity who intepret Scripture literally and, by so doing, turn back the clock to an idealized Christian community of the past, based on Scripture. At the same time, it has a political agenda to reclaim and retain power for those like-minded religious brethren who object to liberal northern patronization and exploitation. Nancy Ammerman says that in the 1970s and 1980s no two words better captured its reemerged fundamentalist image and agenda than the “moral majority.”76 One did not need to be a fundamentalist Christian to be a member of the moral majority in 1979, but the converse was surely true: Fundamentalists universally identified themselves as members of the moral majority. This means that they rejected the democratic northern federal government but, unlike millenarian movements, relied on their political clout to change it. It was an early expression of what has come to be known as “the southern strategy,” the realization that the US population, hence political power, is shifting to the Sunbelt. But the demographics of power in the South are in the modern, urban, manufacturing and service sector, not in the farm belt. The genius of the “moral majority” is that it falsely suggests that these conservatives are moral, in the majority, and that they were heretofore silent. Actually statistics show that they are a very vocal minority and whether they are moral or not depends on one’s religious assumptions. The new power of the South is not now primarily expressed as religion but in ordinary political terms.

Christian fundamentalists are largely Protestant; the clergy is not often in possession of the kinds of seminary education characteristic of the normative and mainline churches and certainly not characteristic of the long schooling that Catholic priests receive. The authority of the fundamentalist clergy tends to flow from a charismatic source. Some clergy receive their authority on the basis of their ability to receive spiritual gifts themselves (speaking in tongues, singing, dancing, etc.) and inspire others to receive them. These are characteristic of the pentecostal and charismatic churches, who are like fundamentalists in some ways but often in conflict with them as well.

Many kinds of charismatic or pentecostal Christianity are viewed with deep suspicion by fundamentalists, who trust no charismatic authority because it competes with their own. Far more characteristic of strictly defined fundamentalist clergymen, however, is their ability to speak and exegete the New Testament text. Their abilities are often ascribed to divine inspiration. Effective speaking and command of Scripture are themselves understood as divine gifts. Their authority essentially comes from their ability to gather crowds of followers, instead of from the church itself. So they are even freer to indulge in religious innovation, even while they claim that they are actually returning to the original message of Scripture.

The fact that Christian fundamentalists mostly work within the political system suggests an important distinction between American Christian fundamentalists and the word “fundamentalism” when used of Muslim extremists. In point of fact, few Arab countries contain any democratic mechanisms; so there is only limited fundamentalist access to political power, driving fundamentalists to extremism (violent actions to overthrow the political system). On the other hand, no dictatorship has been able totally to quell dissent in mosques, so that Islam represents a valued symbol system which still is able to express some political messages. In moderate Muslim countries like Egypt, the mosques become effective political forces. After prayer is over on Fridays, quite often the assembly is taken over by young, vociferous, political activists who attempt to convince the worshipers to stay for a more political message.

In some ways, the French word for Muslim fundamentalism, l’intégrisme, better suggests what Muslim and Christian fundamentalists have in common: the denial of the two spheres of secular and religious life and the total integration of religious values into every aspect of life. In the US, far more people have access to the political process than in Muslim countries, so fundamentalism can espouse the democratic values of the state and still make progress towards its religious agenda. The state for American fundamentalists need not be an evil in itself. But, by rejecting everything else but its own absolutes, Christian fundamentalism can also set the stage for violent extremism where access to political power is absent. And though it masquerades as a “majority,” it is not by nature democratic and it is rarely a majority. Rather, it provides a supernatural justification for the work of militias in the US and for the work of the extremist Muslim brotherhoods and movements in the Arab world. The militancy of the position, however, in its opposition to modern life and its sometimes violent extremism is what characterizes the violent wing in all the various groups.77 It turns political action into a religious crusade.

Jewish Fundamentalism

EXACTLY WHAT should be called Jewish fundamentalism has been debated strongly. More elastic Rabbinic traditions of scriptural interpretation make strict, univocal interpretation of Scripture a less obvious guide to Jewish fundamentalist community. Ian Lustick, for example, denies that ultra-orthodox (“Ḥaredi”)78 Judaism is fundamentalism at all because it has relatively elastic views of Scripture, allowing only that the extremist group, Gush Emunim, qualifies for the title of fundamentalism in Israel.79 Many scholars follow Lustick in saying that even if there is a Jewish fundamentalism, it is so small a group that it has no effect on the political process anywhere else than Israel.80

This probably needs correction for the United States, especially the New York area, where relatively small groups of very religious Jews have occasionally been able to influence local religious life with their voting power.81 And in Israel, Ḥaredi Jews have been able often to influence the course of elections and influence the civil life of the country in countless ways. It is also significant that the successful plot to assassinate Izhak Rabin, as well as the unsuccessful plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, came from conspirators in Ḥaredi Yeshivas.82 With these two significant exceptions, most Israeli fundamentalists prefer to work “from the bottom up,” converting the mass of Jews to their form of Judaism, rather than “from the top down,” in doing acts of terrorism designed to force their agenda on everyone else. On the other hand, they do sponsor the vast majority of the new settlements in the occupied areas.

But the privileging of early Rabbinic interpretations which one finds in most contemporary varieties of contemporary Hasidism and Ḥaredi Judaism has the same effect as scriptural fundamentalism in other religious communities. Or, to put it another way, Jewish fundamentalists do evince scripturalism because Rabbinic writings are part of Jewish Scripture in Jewish fundamentalist groups, as they are in all Rabbinic Judaism. Thus, with a wider view of Scripture, Ḥaredi Judaism can be seen as fundamentalist. The strict scripturalism in fundamentalist Judaism resides in its rigid interpretation of a certain few Rabbinic rulings, not Biblical writ itself, together with innovations in the tradition, which are then viewed as its original intent.

This, it shares with all the other forms of fundamentalism. One views the same characteristics of suspicion of the secular state and xenophobia in Ḥaredi Judaism that one sees in the other varieties of fundamentalism. In the Jewish case, fundamentalist ire is turned against gentiles, all viewed as potential or actual anti-Semites, all capable of another Holocaust, and the modern secular state of Israel, which has forgotten its religious constitution. This seems another variation on the theme of fundamentalist opposition to modern secular states, which is also strong in Islam and Christianity.83 It is also a dualism that drives group definition and, sometimes, missionary activity to convert other Jews to their group.

One key that ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel is fundamentalist is that Ḥaredi Jews justify their opposition to the modern state and modern Zionism on religious rather than political grounds: The modern Israeli state was the result of a political action and not brought about by the coming of the Messiah.84 Therefore, it is to be shunned, though one may accept all its social services. Like other fundamentalisms, there is no possible interim position. When forced by political life to barter, the ultra Orthodox are willing to trade their support on virtually any issue for continued civil support for the laws of Judaism. So while they do not accept the validity of the state, they constantly pressure the state for more special rulings which agree with their interpretation of Rabbinic Judaism. The Jewish variety of fundamentalism relies on different justifications in history and Scripture than those of Christianity and Islam but the effect is pretty much the same. The ulta-Orthodox notions of the afterlife are suited for Talmud study. Traditionally the great scholars are those who are called to the heavenly Yeshivas, but even ordinary members of the movement are so rewarded when they die settling the Holy Land.

Both Christianity and Islam promote Scripture as their authority (just the plain meaning of Scripture). Both depend on tendentious univocal interpretations that come from their respective interpretive traditions rather than Scripture itself. So the big difference between Jewish fundamentalism and the other two is that the former can sometimes acknowledge that their beliefs are Rabbinic interpretations rather than Scripture itself because they also posit that that interpretation is part of the canon and divinely ordained. But this is not a complete contrast either because fundamentalist Islam makes frequent use of dubious hadiths (traditions from the prophet but not texted in the Quran), and fundamentalist Christianity quite often enshrines the Biblical exegesis of its founder figures and preachers.

The Bellwether Role of Women

FUNDAMENTALISM all over the world calls for a return to traditional roles for women. Perhaps this is partly because women often find work more easily than men in colonial states, usually in the service industry; this normally undercuts native notions of the value and dignity of men’s work. The religious motivation provides a no-compromise way to deal with male feelings of inadequacy which come from an educated and competent group of women in the workforce.85 And, as many perceptive scholars have shown, return to a traditional role for women is an aspect of fundamentalism throughout the world, though there is no exact analogy between fundamentalism in Christianity, where it was born, and associated notions of critiquing modern secularist Western society elsewhere in the world. From this one might easily reason that fundamentalism appeals to men specifically, who feel that their traditional role as head of household and breadwinner is endangered by modern, secular life. But women join fundamentalist groups as well, probably out of the converse argument that it validates their traditional roles in religious terms. As always, comparative study can give us helpful models but history itself provides each movement with its own special qualities and characteristics that affect its character and outcomes.


AGREAT MANY things need to happen before an extremist group arises out of a fundamentalist environment. Once it does arise, it has a number of interesting relationships to millenarian movements, which fundamentalism does not, even though the ideology may be a mixture of religion and politics and the group will by definition be activist rather than passive in regard to political and military actions. The shocking events of September 11 brought the phenomenon of the extremist Islamist movement to the forefront of American concerns. It was only the last in a series of terrorist assaults perpetrated by Osama bin Laden through his Al-Qa’ida network.

Al-Qa’ida was founded by Osama bin Laden, a modern, Western-educated, wealthy, Saudi-Yemeni businessman, who was, reportedly, often ridiculed by his brothers and more adroit partners in business. He has, however, become much more pious than they, doing an end-run around their critique of his financial abilities. Al-Qa’ida uses modern technology in partnership with extreme piety to try to defeat the modern Western world.

In some ways, Bin Laden’s ideology is not only fundamentalist but apocalyptic because it seeks to foment a war of Islam against the West which will end in the total victory of Islam and the reestablishment of the true Caliphate, as a prelude eventually for “the day of judgment” (Yawm al-Din). This is quite obviously an analogue to Messianism in Judaism and Christianity. His previous attacks on the United States had included the bombing of the Khobar Airbase and the US warship Cole, killing many soldiers, which belatedly alerted the world to his destructive potential.

But the fact that he has political targets does not mean that his efforts or motivations are wholly political. In his first post-9/11, well-publicized speech to the West, broadcast in its entirety by al-Jazeera News Service of Doha, Qatar, his powerful, religious oratory was much in evidence. Anyone who knows any Arabic knows the enormous, charismatic power of his Quranic syntax, calm delivery, and Saudi accent. His charisma is understandable in the exegetical tradition to which he belongs, though it may be totally alien to Western notions of political leadership. And, though it has political consequences, Bin Laden’s message is distinctly religious: “The martyrs of the World Trade Center are among the stars on their way to paradise…. The Western nations will soon be expelled from the land of the two sanctuaries [Saudi Arabia].” He averred that his biggest worry was that the secret plan was in danger of being revealed inadvertently to the West by the enormous number of people who prophetically dreamt about it. But this destruction of the symbol of American commerce (far beyond his expectations) is the prelude to the coming worldwide Islamic revival. These are not political statements, though they may hope for the conquest of the West.

This hope has much in common with the earlier millenarian groups studied by anthropologists. The difference is that these Islamic groups are incredibly well financed and well armed by rich Saudi and other fundamentalist Muslims. Even so, they are not political movements, strictly speaking, though many nurse the notion that Osama bin Laden is the true Caliph (Khalifa). The dream of conquest is surely mistaken but the immediate effect of this rhetoric was not only to stir up fundamentalist sentiment in Islam but also the corresponding, opposing fundamentalist sentiment in Jews and Christians.86 The danger in his deed is that it might turn his agenda into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The murder of Daniel Pearl illustrates the extent to which these movements are fueled by Islamic fundamentalist extremism, which posits that every problem can be answered by casting out the mythic scapegoat, the Jew. Just as in Christianity, the Jew is an emblem for doubt because Jews are viewed as explicitly rejecting the message of Islam and of being agents for the Satanic Israel. By hating Jews, fundamentalists are exorcising doubt from within themselves as well. The unfortunate reporter for the Wall Street Journal had no direct contacts with Israel; he was, instead, offering his services to publicize the demands of the extremist group. Nevertheless, the group could not discern the political utility of giving the correspondent an interview and, instead, responded with murder, justified by mythologically-motivated religious hatred. It is another example of what Scott Atran calls a “counter-intuitive world” created by extremist commitments.87

The informative book by Gilles Kepel, recently translated from French as Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam makes a strong (and optimistic) case that the forces of Islamist terrorism are in retreat in all the major Islamic countries, not only because of their military defeat in Afghanistan but because many ordinary, rank-and-file Muslims recoil from this particular interpretation of Islam.88 Let us hope that this assessment is correct; but it will depend on whether young, restless, educated Muslims can be given enough of a stake in a flourishing middle class in the Arab Middle East. So far, the situation does not look good. Nor is it yet clear how an unpopular American war in Iraq will improve the situation of the Arab world, even after it has succeeded in dislodging Saddam Hussein, who created one of the most reprehensible regimes in world history. One can hope that the sophisticated Iraqi people, with their taste of democracy in the twentieth century, will eventually manage on their own to recreate their nation in a very troubled and fractious neighborhood.

Martyrdom as Consolation

NORMALLY MARTYRDOM is not an offensive weapon but a defensive one protecting the worldview of a persecuted minority. As such, it is a consolation to the faithful. Sometimes offensive suicide martyrdom serves the same purpose. For instance, no one really knows why Baruch Goldstein killed so many people in the mosque in Hebron. Most Israelis are convinced that Baruch Goldstein suffered a psychotic break because they see the act as a senseless aggravator to an already tense situation. Most Israelis do not acknowledge martyrdom as religious motivation in their lives. Most do not accept the religious assumptions that appear to be part of Goldstein’s and his fellow-settlers’ worldview.

Within the settlers’ community, a different motivation is expressed. Goldstein’s actions are seen as grief and despair, due to his religious conviction that God favors his settlement activities, in danger of disconfirmation by the many casualties which the settlers have taken. While none of the settlers actually praise the murder of Arabs, many sympathetic reports excuse it as temporary derangement. They speak of his condition just before his actions, stressing his grief and despair over the recent deaths of neighboring settlers.

After he gunned down dozens of innocent worshipers and was himself killed, a small minority started a martyr’s cult around his grave. While the rest of Israel was appalled at his behavior, and was even more scandalized by the few settlers’ celebration of his terrible deeds, his supporters and sympathizers labeled his death as a martyrdom. Although ordinary Israelis can treat their victims of Arab terrorism as martyrs, they normally do not. They are normally seen as civilian casualities in a tragic war for the preservation of Israel. Furthermore, there is normally no incentive for suicidal bombing, especially if it includes killing innocent civilians, because those behaviors are contrary to the morals being affirmed in the formation of the Israeli state. In the minds of the vast majority of Israelis, there is no moral equivalency between the actions of suicide bombers and the Israeli army’s occupation, even those who oppose the army’s reoccupation of Palestinian territories.

In her interesting book on martyrdom, Elizabeth Castelli analyzes the deaths of early Christian martyrs Perpetua and Thecla and then compares them with the modern American martyr, Cassie Bernall, who died at the hands of two teenage misfits in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999.89According to the popular memoir of the incident, She Said “Yes,”90 Cassie was asked if she believed in God and, when she answered “Yes,” she was killed. As a result, her parents and a large part of the evangelical world have proclaimed her a martyr because she died for her faith. This story, however, is factually inaccurate. Journalists interviewing several witnesses have demonstrated that it was another girl who made that remark and that she luckily survived the attack to confirm the story.

But the facts are not the only important aspect of the story. As Cassie Bernall was surely a tragic victim, grieving parents seek the religious solace of martyrdom as a way to understand the death of their daughter, taken from them by such horrible and senseless circumstances. In a way, it makes the claim that this tragically murdered youth is a kind of saint. Though the historian may critique the events, no one really blames the parents for seeking a solace in religious terminology when the martyr is truly a victim. Such is the power of martyrdom to inform our lives and help us come to terms with such terrifying intrusions of violence in our otherwise well-ordered society. But the religious motivation behind these sympathies can also be used to blind us to more practical ways of dealing with the violence: meaningful reform of gun-control laws, for instance, which has led to less violence in every modern country.

Very likely, the same sympathies are in the minds of the parents of Palestinian suicide bombers who praise their martyred children and profess no grief over their loss, though we might want to make a very large distinction between Cassie’s victimhood and acts of war against civilians.

One might, in fact, want to point out the injustices done to to the teenage attackers of Columbine High School, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were clearly victimized by their own classmates. One might sympathize with the plight of intelligent, unathletic youth in an American high school where only athletics and popularity are valued. Similarly, one might sympathize with the terrible plight of the Palestinians in the political climate of the Middle East. Neither sympathy justifies deliberate killing of innocent civilians. The judgment seems simple enough, but it has never emerged publicly in Palestine and it does not seem clear to Americans opposed to gun control either. In fact, the closest Palestinian intellectuals have come to condemning suicide bombing is to say that it has not proven effective as a tactic. This only points out how these acts of carnage are never simply the acts of individuals; they are representations of the attitudes of the community. One might almost make the case that Palestinian national ideology is seeking to convince youngsters that they should seek to be transformed into popular Muslim saints. It is especially tragic when a viable Palestinian state seems possible now in a way that was never before true.

Cultural Pluralism and Religious Life

ISLAM HAS universalist and particularist voices, just like Judaism and Christianity. It is wrong to think that liberals in mainline religious institutions, those who eschew fundamentalist views of Scripture, are the only true cultural pluralists in a society. Liberal churches, synagogues, and Islamic communities have more at stake in promoting tolerance and even cultural pluralism, as their members normally also have a strong structure of interreligious interaction in their everyday life-including business and trade and sometimes even social relationships. But there are also many examples of conservative religious communities where tolerance and pluralism are valued.

Where the cultural conditions exist for these interactions, we can expect notions of toleration and even multiculturalism to emerge. For example, one thinks immediately of medieval Moorish Spain and Moghul India as two places where Islam was the protector of multicultural societies. It is important not to idealize these societies; they contained many episodes of intolerance and frequent patronization as well as very high degrees of toleration for the medieval period.

One thing they shared is lack of emphasis on traditional notions of conversion. We have already noted that religions which seek converts very often are quite articulate on the horrors awaiting sinners in the afterlife, as well as the pleasures awaiting the faithful. In both Moorish Spain and Moghul India, there was often a kind of moratorium on missionary activity. The conditions that produced the moratorium were partly similar and partly different. In both Moorish Spain and Moghul India, Muslim rulers found themselves ruling a large population of non-Muslims who had considerable relations with coreligionists in neighboring populations. Similarly the Moors had to rule amidst continuously changing political situations with large subject populations of Christians and Jews. The Moors were sometimes able to encounter Jews and Christians with significant degrees of sympathy and tolerance.

The notion of the afterlife adjusted to these social circumstances. In Muslim Spain, the high philosophical tradition covertly admitted that the universalists, the true philosophers of all religions, all had a place in eternity. Indeed Aristotelianism even banished personal afterlife as a logical possibility. It is hard not to think that the expression of these notions, if not their dominance in the society, was parallel to the toleration that sometimes developed in Moorish Spain.

In Moghul India, which had a different kind of problem because Hindus were not obviously categorizable to Islam as “a people of the book,” notions of the afterlife began to fade in importance completely. For instance, Babur, founder of the Moghul Dynasty and legendarily the descendant of Tamerlane the Conqueror, wrote a Persian poetic couplet in which he stated that the faithful should enjoy the pleasures of this world for another world does not exist. Also Sufi mystics were active in the area, explicitly linking their mystic experience with that achieved by Hindus. This discussion of the afterlife fits a society that needs to develop toleration for its fellow members of different religions.

The Afterlife and Cultural Pluralism

THE VERY economic lack of development that causes Arabs to migrate to the West also contains some promising innovations. Islam is truly a world religion, fully as much as Christianity. It is the majority religion in the Arab world and its immediate neighbors but it is also a significant minority in India and a number of South Asian countries, as well as a growing vocal minority in Europe and the United states.91 Styles of tolerant Islam have reemerged in some European countries, an Islam better equipped to deal with a more culturally plural world. Tariq Ramadan, for example, outlines new theological developments that emerge in Islam as it lives in Western countries.92 A new book called Taking Back Islam asks why Islam is driven to these defensive postures when it can just as easily assert a moderate and more constructive voice. Many of the moderate voices are coming from Diaspora Islam.93 These are promising developments for American Muslims as well as for Islam generally, and for non-Muslims.

This merely underlines the fact that religion can both shore up the ideology of states as well as undermine it. Where toleration is the goal, religion can help give that goal transcendent legitimacy, helping by redefining its afterlife to fit the society. This has the effect of making a tolerant model transcendent for the society. But of all the goals of states, toleration, and its rarer cousin cultural pluralism, are probably the most precious. They help foster religiously and ethnically complex democratic states like the United States or Canada, and some European states, in spite of the conservative and intolerant forces always arrayed against them.

The hallmark of cultural pluralism is the forthright admission that religious truths can be doubted. It seems an odd perception given the nature of religious life. But the most obvious distinction betweenfundamentalism and temperate religion in the West is the extent to which one allows doubt to enter one’s religious consciousness. Fundamentalists have completely banished all doubt; every victory is really a victory of surety over doubt. Non-fundamentalists, by comparison, are willing to encounter the possibility that religioustruths are relative and that others’ truths may be equivalent in value and beauty. Without the presence of doubt, religious faith can justify any crime or violation of human rights. Religious faith, in short includes doubt while fundamentalism, insofar as it represses doubt, is merely fanaticism.

The majority of contemporary American culture has taken this to its logical extension. Most Americans are optimistic about life and grateful for the standard of living and political freedom and stability that have existed here. And so they have banished hell and given heaven to all as a kind of entitlement, regardless of religious allegiance. This suggests, perhaps, that whether the religion is liberal or conservative, the strategy that leads to cultural pluralism is two-fold: limiting conversion to members of one’s own religion and imagining oneself globally as the member of a minority. The result of this revisioning should therefore yield a world in which everyone acknowledges each other’s rights as a way of safeguarding one’s own.

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