Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Quraysh Quandary

Augustine wrote The City of God in part as a refutation to pagan arguments that a multitude of gods was vital for social and economic prosperity of the day. Augustine devoted the first five books of his famous tome toward this refutation. Like Islam, Christianity had to deal with an idolatrous milieu. But unlike the Islamic context, pagan Roman Empire was powerful and organized, while Arabia lacked a centralized cohesiveness that compares with the Romans. There were a vague set of norms (at the center of which was chivalry), but, again, nothing compared to the Roman experience. As I mentioned in a previous post, Arabia had something going for it: beneath the Arabian idolatry, the memory of Arabia was Abrahamic: the Pilgrimage, the Ka’ba, the count of months and their sacredness, and, however forlorn, a once strict belief in the oneness of God – all of which had been long stamped in the region with Abrahamic legacy, marked by monotheism.

When the Prophet of Islam began to preach publicly, he was rejected by the Quraysh oligarchy, the ruling clan of the Arabs, to whom the Prophet himself belonged. The Quraysh, like the Roman pagans of Augustine’s day, put forth argumentations that attempted to defend their way of life. But the arguments of the Quraysh were doomed from the start because they were disconnected from the core and overriding concern of the Prophet and prophesy in general: transcending truth, with an interior unaffected by the vagaries of life or context.

The Quraysh’s quandary was this: they clearly had no ability to refute the Prophet’s message on the grounds of the message itself, perhaps because of the Abrahamic memory or, more likely, because they were not only far from the Prophet on facts but on emphasis. They made some feeble attempts in the latter regard, some religious-sounding contentions, which fell indecorously dead. They included the call words: forgery, tales of the ancients, angels failing to bring down the revelation, and attacks on the very notion of the Hereafter. But the Quraysh’s main and most consistent argument was about their sense of tradition, what they bequeathed from their forefathers, to which the Quran simply and powerfully asks: even if their forebears knew nothing? Or even if they were not guided? Even if they understood nothing?

So there you have it: It was not about the “truth” for the Quraysh; it was more about a vague loyalty to the ethos of their forebears (however incongruent, conflicting, belligerent, imbalanced, and socially divisive they were). They complained that the Prophet’s message was sowing the seeds of discontent in Makkah and surroundings, and weakening the pull of caravans to their city. The Quraysh tried to make deals: you pray to your God part time and pray to our gods part time, an unacceptable compromise to the Prophet.

The obvious conflict here in logic and style is that if “forebears” had the power of tradition and the Quraysh were willing to kill for it, then why limit how far back you go in defense of ancestry and belief systems? Why not meander all the way back to their ultimate patriarch Ishmael and father, Abraham himself, and devote yourselves to Abraham’s unflinching resolve to worship God and none other? Immutable truths have to matter. To disregard the possibility of an immutable truth is to disregard the very purpose of revealed religion.

The Quraysh fought a losing battle on two counts: (1) Never did the Prophet’s followers dip in number. This is important because his followers were largely peopled by those who once equally defended the Quraysh’s sense of “forefathers” but who saw a stronger pull in the Prophet’s message. (2) The Quraysh’s overwhelming concern with their forebears presented a self-inflicted wound, for the Prophet’s message echoed something similar but far more powerful and whole: let’s go to Abraham because there you’ll find tradition and truth, inseparable and pure, which is really how any City of God can find authenticity.


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