The Old Testament states:
“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (1)
The critique of pagan idolatry is held to be so important that it is the first commandment received by Moses in the Old Testament of Judaism and Christianity. The god of the “peoples of the Book,” of Jews and Christians, is also the god of Muslims. He is a jealous god who does not like competition, be it in the form of other gods or science. Islam has its origins in earlier Middle Eastern monotheism. From its religious relatives, Islam inherits the rejection of pagan idolatry. The rejection of pagan idolatry was central to Islam from the beginning and continues to be central today. For example, today, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) has demolished graves and shrines in the name of opposing idolatry. Such actions also serve their political agenda of stroking up sectarian conflicts, especially between Sunni and Shia. It was even reported that some members of the Islamic State proclaimed that if they conquered Mecca, they would demolish the Kaaba in order to put an end to the “worship of stones,” although this report has not been verified. (2) Similarly, Islamic radicals distance themselves from secular nationalism, which they see as a way of elevating the nation as as a kind of idol. This is similar to how some Christian sects refuse to salute the US flag. This line of thought is not new.
The Kaaba in Mecca traditionally housed many of the pagan-Arab religious idols prior to the rise of Islam. Prophet Muhammad made an enemy of many in Mecca when he sought to have the Kaaba dedicated only to the worship of Allah, not the various pagan gods whose images were housed within it. The Quraysh began fighting with the Islamic community over the issue. This resulted in Muhammad’s migration, hijra, to Medina in 622 AD. Years later, Muhammad returned after the Muslims had defeated their Meccan opponents around 630. When they returned to the Kaaba, they removed the pagan idols, although allowed the black stone to remain. This is reported in the Hadith literature:
“When Allah’s Apostle arrived in Mecca, he refused to enter the Ka’ba while there were idols in it. So he ordered that they be taken out. The pictures of the (Prophets) Ibrahim and Ishmael, holding arrows of divination in their hands, were carried out. The Prophet said, ‘May Allah ruin them (i.e. the nonbelievers) for they knew very well that they (i.e. Ibrahim and Ishmael) never drew lots by these (divination arrows).’ Then the Prophet entered the Ka’ba and said. ‘Allahu Akbar’ in all its directions and came out and not offer any prayer therein.” (3)
According to Islam, Muhammad’s confrontation with pagan idols is only the last in a chain of numerous previous prophets who had done the same. One of the more interesting criticisms of idolatry is found in the Koran’s story of Prophet Ibrahim addressing silent pagan idols:
“He sneaked into the temple of their gods and addressed them: ‘Why don’t you eat from these offerings before you? What is the matter with you that you don’t even speak?’ Then he fell upon them, smiting them with his right hand. The people came running to the scene. ‘Would you worship that which you have carved with your own hands…’” (4)
Silence in the face of Ibrahim’s questions lead to his rejection of the pagan idols. However, what should be obvious is just as the pagan idols do not eat food, Allah doesn’t order pizza either. Nor does Allah really speak. Why should lack of consumption of food be proof enough for Ibrahim to doubt the pagan idols, but not Allah? A materialist criticism is begun in this example, but then, instead of following the argument to its reasonable conclusion that no gods exist, Ibrahim does not apply the same criticisms to his own beliefs. The failure to follow through on the materialist critique, to apply it consistently, is seen in the example of Prophet Hud also:
“‘O my people! Why do you worship stone statues that you have made yourselves? These idols cannot give you anything or take anything away from you. You are clever people, why are doing something so foolish? Your Lord is only One, and He alone should be worshipped…” (5)
Idols are not only made from stone and earth, they also exist in the mind. The idols of stone and earth are far easier to topple that those in the mind. The most important building block of any idol are social relationships from which they originate and serve. Karl Marx stated that the secret of the holy family is the earthly family. God as creator, as father, of the universe is really a kind of social construct. It is a projection of human relationships onto the universe. Even though God’s origin is human, many fail to recognize God’s social origin. People are thus compelled by the very idol they themselves, as a society, have created. From the standpoint of truth, worshiping one idol, even if it exists only in the realm of ideas, is not fundamentally different from worshiping many idols of stone and mud. Like most religions, Islam subjects those gods that are not its own to a limited materialist critique. Islam begins a materialist analysis of pagan idols by tracing their origin to human agency, but fails to extend the materialist critique to its own idol, Allah. There is no reason to believe that the metaphysical and religious realms exist on their own. They are a product of our own activity, what Marx called “self alienation”:
“But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.” (6)
Since the origin of the religious realm is our alienation from the processes of the minds and societies that create such a realm, overcoming the religious is a process of overcoming self alienation. Knowledge of society and self though science is the key to getting beyond the religious and other metaphysical outlooks. Marxists call tracing our conceptions of the world, including religious ideas and other ideologies, to their origins in class society “historical materialism.” By the time of Islam’s rise, Christianity had moved beyond its humble origins as a small sect of Judaism to become the official ideology of the Roman and post-Roman world. By the time of the rise of Islam in the 600s, Christianity had become the state religion of some of the Arab world’s most powerful neighbors. It was the state ideology in the what remained of the Western Roman world, but more importantly, of the Eastern Roman, the Byzantine, empire. The other major superpower near the Arab world was the Persian empire with its own religion, Zoroastrianism. Just as neighboring superpowers used their religions as an imperial glue, so too did the emerging Arab empire, what would become the Umayyad and other caliphates, have Islam. Islam, from its beginning, was very much tied to a very human political order. Just as the Vedic doctrines, karma, etc. of are used to justify the caste system of the Indian society, so too is the divine used to justify gender-caste system in Islam. Judaism, Christianity, even Buddhism, are similar in this respect. All religions arise from the contradictions of their society and serve a role in the power struggle. It is important to understand the process by which religious and other illusions arise. However, even though historical materialism is extremely important, science has developed other important tools that give insights into the origin of religion.
and neuro science are also providing important epistemological insights into how people learn, how and why they develop and hold onto mistaken ideas, etc. This is not just to make the obvious point that schizophrenics who hear voices are not altogether unlike some accounts of allegedly hearing the divine. Nor is this to repeat that Muhammad receiving the Koran was accompanied by symptoms of epilepsy. Even the Catholic Church goes out of its way to consult psychologists before it performs exorcisms, thus, despite themselves, pointing to the similarities between demon possession and mental illness. The epistemological implications of contemporary cognitive and neuro science are much deeper. For example, the great philosopher and proto-cognitive scientist Immanuel Kant believed that the mind structured our experience of the world, our phenomenological field. Our minds and brains organize information a certain way. Kant called space and time “forms of intuition.” According to Kant, “transcendental categories” like that of cause and effect also structure the way information is organized and processed by our minds. For Kant, the forms of intuition and transcendental categories structure our experience of the world and place limits on how we know and what we can know. For Kant, the experience of space, especially what we perceive as the external world beyond our mind, was structured according to the laws of Euclidean geometry. Thus, according to such a view, there is a “transcendental” (or biological) fetter on the ability to conceive that two parallel lines can intersect. Such an idea was held to be as contradictory as the notion that a square triangle could exist. Thus Kant understood space as Isaac Newton did. However, in 1919, Arthur Eddington’s famous photographs during a solar eclipse showed that even lines of light bend. Physics has since recognized that space itself is curved by mass, which accounts for the gravitational effect. It may be difficult for us to wrap our heads around the idea because our brains seem to be hardwired to navigate the macroscopic world of ordinary, daily life. And, in our ordinary, daily life the world appears to us as macroscopic objects moving in a Euclidean field. However, the general rules that work well enough in ordinary circumstances break down in other circumstances. For example, they break down when examining subatomic particles. There are other examples of “mistakes” that we do not readily see. Even though we have blind spots in our vision, we do not see them without prompting. Another example: We may think we see color in our full visual field, but we really do not see color in our peripheral vision. This is why a person will not guess beyond the margin of error when trying to determine the color of random playing cards when displayed in her peripheral vision as she stares straight ahead. Another example: Our perception of temperature changes on our skin does not correspond to actual changes in a one-to-one way. Pain may work in a similar way, after a certain threshold is reached, additional infliction of violence may not be accompanied by additional experience of pain.
We know that the body is hardwired to fool itself in some contexts. Even though much of Sigmund Freud’s work is problematic, his conception of the power of the unconscious over our lives suggests this kind of conclusion. Others, most famously, Ludwig Wittgenstein, have shown that how we express claims, how human language itself, is prone to generating pseudo-problems and false conceptions about the world. Similar to Kant’s rejection of many traditional philosophic problems as a result of epistemologically overreaching, Wittgenstein showed how certain seemingly intractable philosophic questions were tied to the way language works. It is surely the case that the mistaken conceptions of the world, including religious ones, are a result of culture and power in human society, as Marx held. However, it is also surely the case that our neurology plays a role in why we make the mistakes we do. In Marx’s day, cognitive and neuro science had not advanced enough to provide much insight into the origin of religion. However, today we know much more about how the mind and brain work. Even so, even the best critique alone will not get society as a whole beyond idolatry, beyond the religious. As Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” (7) To to get beyond the realm of illusion, including the religious, once and for all, requires a reorganization of society led by the most advanced science, Leading Light Communism, in order to eliminate all the social inequalities that generate ignorance and illusion. Truth and practice are hammers that not only smash pagan gods, but all gods, including the god of Ibrahim and Muhammad. Lenin stated that there is nothing as radical as reality itself. Revolution is the doorway from the illusory to the real. Leading Light Communism is the way out of Plato’s cave, from the shadows to the light.
1. New American Standard Bible. Exodus 20:4. http://biblehub.com/exodus/20-4.htm
3. Sahih Al-Bukhari. Book 59, Hadith 584 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaaba
4. Quran Sura 37: 91-95 http://www.alim.org/library/quran/surah/english/37/MAL#sthash.UqLhDKdN.dpuf
6. Marx, Karl. Theses On Feuerbach. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm