Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Of Violence and Magicians

It is funny how Pope Benedict XVI did not mention the atrocities masterminded by his 11th century predecessor (Pope Urban II during the First Crusade) when giving a speech about how Islam was spread by the sword. It is even funnier to witness the ever so predictable reactions Muslims worldwide have given since the controversial remarks took place. All in all, it all adds up to yet another continuation in the vicious cycle of conflict involving the two most influential religions on earth, a conflict that has persisted for over a millennium primarily due to misunderstanding and ignorance.

Amidst this conflict lies the fact that all monotheistic and scriptural religions were, at the time of their revelation, pure and unadulterated. Over time, there were bound to be innovations and corrupt practices incorporated into them. The original teachings were supplanted by misguided ones, their original message altered and the true essence buried forever. While we Muslims believe that Judaism and Christianity have suffered that fate long ago, many of us do not realize that Islam is gradually sinking into the same abyss of corruption. Part of the problem stems from our misunderstanding of other religions and lack of knowledge about their history. If we were to avoid the same fate, it only makes sense for us to learn more about these religions and the factors that brought about their degradation. One such religion from which much can be learned is Zoroastrianism.

Background and History

Contrary to popular beliefs, Zoroastrianism, or is better known as Majusi in the Muslim world, is not a fire-worshipping pagan religion. In fact, it is considered to be the first monotheistic religion that predates the three Abrahamaic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). It arose from the teachings of Prophet Zoroaster, the Persian prophet who lived around 1500BC.

Like Muslims, Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians believe in one unbegotten God (Ahura Mazda) from which everything in the universe originates. They believe in Creation, Judgment Day, heaven and hell, the soul's afterlife and the appearance of a savior before the end of time, just like we Muslims do. And unlike what we have learned from traditional Islamic sources, Zoroastrians are not fire worshippers. Rather, fire is simply a symbol of Ahura Mazda, much as the cross is the symbol of Christianity. Therefore, claiming that Zoroastrians worship fire is as absurd as saying that Christians worship the cross.

However, it is important to note that fire did not become part of Zoroastrianism until the arrival of Jesus 1500 years later, the details of which will be explained later in this article.

Cyrus the Great and the Spread of Zoroastrianism

Another common misconception that Muslims have is regarding the real identity of Zulkarnain. More and more Islamic scholars have come to the conclusion that Alexander the Great is not the Zulkarnain mentioned in the Quran. Of all the conquerors who reigned before the advent of the Quran, there is no one to whom the attributes of Zulkarnain are most fitting other than the Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great.

Cyrus the Great was the one responsible for the spread of Zoroastrianism through out his empire until its emergence as the de facto religion of the Kingdom of Persia. Being a fervent believer in the oneness of God (tauhid), not only did he rule Persia justly but he also freed the Israelites who were living in captivity in Babylon and ordered the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem so that God could once more be worshipped in place of pagan gods. His success as the uniter of the kingdoms of Persia and Media afforded him the title the "two-horned one", or Zulkarnain.

People of the Book

While orthodox Muslims (with the exception of Malays due to reasons beyond yours truly) believe that Jews, Christians and Sabians constitute the People of the Book, some Muslim scholars argue that Zoroastrians should also be included. This argument stems from Surah Al-Hajj verse 17, in which Allah says:

Those who believe (in the Qur-an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists, Allah will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for Allah is witness of all things.

The Magians (or Majusi), during the advent of Islam, were in fact followers of Zoroastrianism. Even Imam Malik himself had argued that since the Magians are specifically mentioned alongside the Jews and Christians, they are in fact among the People of the Book. Although the holy scripture of Zoroastrianism, Avesta, is not among Islam's four holy books, the fact that Zoroastrianism is the monotheistic precursor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam certainly earns it our reconsideration.

Magians and the Fire Temple

The Magians were an ancient Persian tribe who prior to Cyrus the Great's era, were the people responsible for religious and funerary practices. The word "Magi" is the origin of the English word "magic", which explains why some people in the English speaking world refer to the Magians as sorcerers and wizards. After the formation of the united Kingdom of Persia by Cyrus the Great and the eventual eminence of Zoroastrianism, the Magians were driven into obscurity due to their pagan beliefs and practices. Even though they would eventually embrace Zoroastrianism later on, they did not do so without altering its original teachings, as described in one of Marco Polo's writings:

"He [the infant Jesus] presented to them [the Magi] a closed box, desiring them not to open it till their return home. After having traveled a number of days, however, they were curious to see what was in the box, and opened it, when they found only a stone, which was meant to express that they should remain firm in the faith which they had received. They did not understand this meaning, and, despising the gift, threw it into a well, when immediately a great fire came down from heaven, and began to burn brightly. When they saw this wonder, they were quite astonished, and repented that they had thrown away the stone. They, however, took a portion of the fire, carried it to their country, and placed it in their church, where they kept it continually burning. They revere it as a god, and use it for burning all their sacrifices; and when at any time it goes out, they repair to that well, where the fire is never extinguished, and from it bring a fresh supply. This is what all the people of that country tell, and Messer Marco was assured of it by those of the castle, and therefore it is truth."
- Marco Polo, Travels

The text above clearly explains how the Magians, much like their Jewish and Christian counterparts, went astray from their original religion by incorporating a paganistic element into it. Although fire was regarded as a mere manifestation of God, there were bound to be misguided followers who would soon return to their pagan roots and mistake fire as the son of God.


Whether it is Saint Paul's idea of the divinity of Jesus, Emperor Constantine I's introduction of the paganistic concept of Holy Trinity, or the triumph of the Talmuds over Torah and Psalms, much can be learned from our Abrahamaic and Zoroastrian counterparts in the hope that we Muslims can avoid the same pitfall. This is especially relevant in this day and age where Islam has become synonymous with barbarism and violence, while more and more false practices have become more or less part of its new fabric.

And in our overzealous denunciation of other religions, much more can be studied about them so that we do not make unwarranted and uninformed statements. Not only will this further solidify our faith in Islam but it will also help us live in harmony along side Christians and Jews, much like our Muslim ancestors did during the times of Saladin and the great Ottoman Empire.

And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit.
- Al-'Ankabut, verse 46

Monday, September 11, 2006

The West's Whipping Boys

Amidst the backdrop of the fifth anniversary of September 11 and the recent developments surrounding Iran and Iraq, I decided to conduct a research on the Iran-Iraq War in the hopes of finding a parallelism between the current events and those of two decades ago. Interestingly enough, I came across some startling facts which for some strange reason had previously eluded me.

Fact 1
While it is no secret that the United States and Israel were the main arm suppliers to Iran during Reza Pahlavi's era, what struck me as extremely odd was the fact that the two "love birds" managed to maintain a similar relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. In spite of its open "marriage" with Iraq, the United States and its sidekick (read: Israel) secretly kept a mistress (read: Iran) while supplying her with jet fighters, ammunitions and air-to-air missiles just to name a few.

Imagine Batman (and Robin) being in a relationship with Batwoman, who is feuding with Catwoman, who in turn is having a secret affair with Batman. While the two femme fatale neighbors are too busy being in a catfight, Batman and Robin break into their houses, steal their belongings, escape undetected and finally laugh their collective butt off. Now if you think that would make a stupid Batman installment, think again.

Fact 2
Iran and Iraq cumulatively spent an estimated US$1.2 trillion during the whole course of the war. And what was the return on invesment (ROI) you may ask? Close to two million people dead, thousands of war survivors suffering from the "Gulf War Syndrome" caused by the widespread use of chemical weapons, extremely devastated economies and totally indescribable mutually assured destruction, either infrastructurally, psychologically or physiologically. Oh, did I mention that at the same time, the West had an extra US$1.2 trillion bonanza to add to their already bulging coffers?

Now imagine what both nations could have achieved with US$1.2 trillion if they were to work with each other. For starters, they could have launched the Muslim version of the War on Terror against the ultimate terrorist state, Israel. Or they could have bought all the gold bars in the world and start exclusively trading in it, effectively kicking the American dollar and economy in the butt once and for all. Or they could have flooded Hollywood with countless movies depicting the atrocities committed by Christian, Jewish and godless infidels alike in which Muslims were the victims (read: the Crusade, the Bosnian War and some made up massacre horrifying enough to rival the Holocaust).

So much could have been achieved with US$1.2 trillion, but instead they chose to kill each other, in their own backyard nonetheless.

Fact 3
Interestingly enough, three of Israel's most high ranking Israeli officials are of Persian descent. They are Moshe Katsav (the current President of Israel), Shaul Mofaz (the current Deputy Prime Minister of Israel) and Dan Halutz (the current Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff). While their origin may have just been a pure coincidence (Persia is one of the Diasporas), it is still an interesting fact to note, especially since they have a lot in common. All of them were born into Iranian-Jewish families in Iran. All of them emigrated to Israel in the 1950's. All are directly involved in the Middle East conflict, either through the military or the government.

Now bring on the conspiracy theories.

Fact 4
Although not directly related to the Iran-Iraq War, this last fact concerns all of us Muslims. As if we have not learned from the stupidity of the Iraqis and Iranians, we Muslims are still carrying on their fine tradition of stupidity up to this day. In Malaysia, PAS and UMNO are still bent on each other's destruction with no end in sight. In Pakistan and Iraq, Sunnis are still slaughtering Shiites for breakfast. While in Sudan, Arab Janjaweed are still slaughtering black Muslims for lunch, dinner and supper.

If there is one thing I have learned from the Iran-Iraq War, it is this; if we Muslims really want to stop being the whipping boys of the West, we should start by putting an end to all the infightings that are beleaguring the Muslim world once and for all. Imagine the amount of money and time we can save, the number of innocent lives we can spare and the amount of progress we can achieve, if only we all try to get along with each other.