In Fred Astren’s article, “Depaganizing Death: Aspect of Mourning in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Islam,” the complicated relationship between the old and new practices of emergent religion is again highlighted. Through the course so far we have discussed in depth how aspects of folk religion are either adopted or rejected in the eyes of the formal religious structure, however, we have not yet discussed the rational behind which practices are allowed to continue and which are condemned. In the Astren reading, paganism comes to the center of debates over which rituals became accepted in Judaism and Islam. Naming the polytheistic practice of paganism as the antithesis to the rising monotheistic faiths of Islam and Judaism, any practices that could be linked to pagan ritual were expressly prohibited from the new religious order.
Viewing paganism as the indefinite “other,” the religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity created a binary between polytheism and monotheism by adopting religious doctrines that set up boundaries between the ancient practices of folk religion and what would be accepted by the new concrete religious order. Evident in the Astren article, the divisions made up between paganism and monotheism were created on a rather arbitrary basis. The rules around the ritual of death in Judaism were created strictly to combat their association with the pagan cult of death. Viewing “excessive grief” as a practice of paganism, the Jewish ritual was constructed to limit the outward expression of grief delineating the length of accepted “weeping” time in line with the experience of human compassion. In this, there is a strange divide between what is conceived as mourning for the sake of the person and seeing mourning as a celebration of death. By limiting the time periods that is acceptable to show outright emotion, rabbinic law sought to reinforce the focus on appreciating life rather than wallowing in death. Creating a psychological dimension to the mourning process, enforced religious code in Judaism not only worked away from the pagan cult of death, but also serves a functional purpose for mourners reminding them of the continuance of life.
In Islam, excessive mourning is also considered “idolatrous.” Astren writes, “The new instructions for mourning and grieving create a boundary in time between the jahiliyyah and the time of Islam” (189). In this, the creation of rules for the Islamic death ritual sets up the functional division in the timeline of the development of Islam. In Islam, the breaking away from idolatry practices marked the definitive emergence of Islam as a new religion. Making the “abandonment of shirk [idolatry practices],” a vital step in becoming Muslim, the Islamic faith directly addresses the need to condemn the pagan practices of past folk religion. Viewing mourning as a direct violation of accepting God’s will, adopting rules for the death ritual that require the individual to show little emotion fundamentally redefines the human experience with death. Similar to the Jewish practices, the Islamic measures taken to remove pagan associations from death create new psychological experiences with mourning, “prohibiting against wailing instructs a new reaction to the shock of loss due to death” (189).
The social practice of mourning and adopted rituals of death can be seen across religious boundaries, however, in this article we see the creation of laws and boundaries surrounding specific death rituals as mechanisms to assert the validity of individual monotheistic practices. Drawing lines between how the mourner experiences the death of a loved one creates the need to restructure the psychological reactions of the individual. In this, the rules made around the personal experience with mourning are used to validate and assert the dominance of religion in the life of the individual. In modern American culture, mourning is viewed as a very personal experience, allowing for expressions of grief in many different ways. While codifying the expression of mourning seems strange in the context of modern American worldviews, from Astren’s article it seems that these practices have very practical values. By limiting the time period that a mourning person can focus on the death of their loved one, these practices promote a sense of hope to help the individual deal with loss. Rather then enabling the mourning to fall into a state of depression over death, using the will of God as rational for the death, religion becomes a sort of coping mechanism. Using the pagan idea of the cult of death to signify for the crippling effects of depression due to death, the rules of Islam and Judaism effectively help to counsel the mourner through the experience of loss.