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The Old and the New: Acceptable and Reprehensible
Feb 26th, 2012 by Kate Good

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.

The Belief in Jinn
Feb 22nd, 2012 by Kate Good

After Monday’s discussion about jinn in the Muslim religion, I was particularly interested in how the idea of jinn falls into both categories of folk and traditional religion. The idea of the jinn world appears in both Jewish and Muslim religion and can be understood as an invisible world that is parallel to our own. In the Jewish faith, jinn interact with human beings in the form of possession, meaning if a human were to come into contact with a jinn and in someway anger the spirit it would then possess that human. In the Muslim religion, human interactions with jinn are a bit different. In Islam, jinn are used to explain human illnesses and other unexplainable phenomenon. The jinn in Islam are part of the formal structure of the religion as they are written into the Qur’an, however, they are more a part of folk religion in Judaism.

In The Jinn and Human Sickness, Dr. Abu’l-Mundhir Khaleel ibn Ibraaheem Ameen, discuss the level of credit that should be given to Islamic stories that describe human interactions with jinn. In the Qur’an, Allah states that he created the jinn from “smokeless fire” making the belief in jinn an essential aspect of the Islamic faith. In class we discussed jinn as a functionalist belief, meaning that the rules constructed that predicate how humans should interact with jinn have a base in societal code. So in other words, jinn may be the cause of river pollution that would prevent believers from drinking contaminated water. Viewing jinn in terms of the Evil Eye, the idea of jinn becomes a method to explain human experience. According to The Jinn and Human Sickness, belief in the jinn, “stem from primitive beliefs that grew from people’s fear of natural forces,” while other beliefs in jinn come from “teachings of Islam, or distortions there of,” making the line between what is considered a traditional and what is considered a folk practice blurred and complicated.

Viewing the idea of jinn as a functionalist belief different conceptions of how jinn interact with humans could be defined as an aspect of folk or traditional religion. While there is a strict set of explanations presented in Khaleel’s piece about how the jinn are understood in Islam, it seems that the distinctions between folk and tradition are not mutually exclusive. After reading this piece I wondered how religious leaders within Islam could effectively decide what interactions with jinn can be considered part of conventional Islam as compared to folk practices. As Islam emerged as an established religion it was necessary to centralize practices to gain legitimacy. By nature jinn exist in a world that is unseen to humans, making the rules dictating how they interact with humans and which stories can be considered creditable difficult to establish.

Religion as the Dividing Factor Between the Jews and Arabs
Feb 9th, 2012 by Kate Good

Reading the Firestone article, I found his description of the nonexistent difference between the Arabs and the Jews to be very interesting. Firestone writes, “the Jews of sixth- and seventh-century Arabia appear so highly integrated economically, ethically, and geographically into the local culture that they must be considered culturally or ethically Arab” (269). From this Firestone furthers explains that both the Jews and the Arabs would have defined themselves in terms of geographical location, rather than by means of cultural differences.  Firestone paints the picture of these two civilizations as coexisting harmoniously, mutually influencing the traditions of one another.

From this depiction, I found the split between the Arabs and the Jews to be rather shocking with the rise of Islam. Firestone writes that the Arabian Jews resisted Muhammad’s initial attempts at conversion, detailing his failure in Arabia. However, after the conquest of the Arabs, Islam began to take hold as a popularized religion. In this, I wondered if the new power dynamic between the Arabs and Jews was what sparked the large-scale Arab conversion to Islam. Firestone describes Islam as “one of the powerful motivators” for a “huge movement of peoples,” which would imply the social/cultural implications that a new religion had within the Arabic world (271). In class we discussed how under Muslim rules, the Jews had much freedom to continue their religious practices and to pursue economic ventures; however, with the solidification of Islam as a religion this began to change.

Elaborating on Muhammad’s development of Islam, Firestone writes, “Muhammad knew that he was a prophet of God sent to the Arab people,” and despite the close proximity of the two cultures, as the Jews began to openly reject Islam, a distinct line is drawn between the two peoples (283). It is interesting to note how religion was not used to define either culture pre-Islam, however, once a new religion arises it suddenly becomes the defining and dividing factor of their relationship. In this, I found how influential conflicts of faith can be in creating boundaries between cultures.

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