Sunday, January 14, 2007

Earthly Prudes and Heavenly Libertines

A bowl of heavenly houris...
(Image from Wikipedia)

In a recent religious discussion with the Korea blogger Sperwer about activist and quietist aspects of religion, among other things, I remarked that:

Every religion seems to have its quietist and world-denying side, though some tend more in that direction than others. Islam, for instance, is usually rather activist and engaged with the world, and even its world-denying tendencies (such as we're currently seeing) tend to be rather destructive.

And on the very day that I typed these words, I received from MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) a couple of reports.

In the first report (Inquiry and Analysis Series - No. 315), Nathalie Szerman presented the views of the Tunisian Reformist Abdelwahab Meddeb, author of La Maladie de l'Islam (Seuil, Paris, 2002; English version: Malady of Islam, Basic Books, New York, 2003):

"Islamic Society Today Has Become a Prudish Society with an Aversion To Sensuality"

Meddeb argues that Islam has declined over time: "Islamic society used to be a society that delighted in pleasure, [a society] based on love of life. [Today], it has become a prudish [society] with an aversion to sensuality... The tradition of exalting the [human] body seems to have [completely] vanished from certain Islamic lands, which have been devastated by the order imposed [upon them] by half-literate people afflicted with resentment...

"Today, we are witnessing a strange reversal in the attitude towards the body. The society ["cite"] advocated by Islam [is one] whose members are afflicted with nihilism and resentment, whereas the Westerners have freed their bodies from traditional constraints... Those who adhere to Islam are not aware of this curious reversal, since they are so proud of their condition that they commend it to the 'depraved Western society' as a model of a virtuous society..."(Maladie, pp. 135-139)

Meddeb is particularly critical of Wahhabi Islam, which in his view "makes [Muslims]forget their bodies, [all material] things and places, and [all things of physical] beauty." He says that "the rejection of all this inflicts the [Muslims] with general amnesia -- which is one of the aspects of their malady."(Maladie, p. 141)

This 'prudish' rejection of the sensuous body, of material things and places, and of beautiful physical things is world-denying if anything is, yet the rejection doesn't lead to quietism -- as we are too well aware -- but to activist world transformation through destruction and the subsequent 'management of savagery' explained by Abu Bakr Naji.

And the world-denying tendency of current-day Islamism is only 'prudish' about earthly things; in heavenly things, it is libertine. Allow me to interject the following quote from a book by former New York Times columnist Judith Miller, which illustrates both aspects:

Abdel Hamid Kishk, a blind [Islamist] sheikh ... had been telling his audience that Muslims who entered paradise would enjoy eternal erections.... Some of the ulema, the religious scholars at al-Azhar, the government's seat of Islamic learning had disagreed. Yes, they said, men in paradise would have erections, but merely protracted, not perpetual.... Meanwhile, Egyptian militants [i.e., Islamists] in Assyut were ordering believers not to eat eggplants and squash because of their resemblance to sexual organs. (Miller, God Has Ninety-Nine Names, Simon & Schuster, 1997, pp. 26-27)

This fascinating dichotomy also appears in an Islamist book on the women of paradise (houris), which is the second MEMRI report (Special Dispatch Series - No. 1421: Islamist Websites Monitor No. 47):

New Book Describes the Virgins of Paradise

On January 11, 2007, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) posted on Islamist websites a 20-page book titled "The Desire of the Souls for the Women of Paradise." The book, by Abu Usama Al-'Iraqi, consists mostly of excerpts from medieval Islamic sources. The text focuses on the behavior and physical characteristics of the virgins who await those who enter Paradise, with emphasis on the contrast between them and earthly women. For example, it is said that the virgins of Paradise are free of all the physical and mental impurities that characterize earthly women (e.g., menstrual blood and other bodily discharges, unclean speech, and inappropriate glances at men other than their husbands).

The book ends with the following message to the reader: "...Intelligent people do not forgo [the prospect] of the brides of Paradise for the sake of false beauty in this world. They do not prefer forbidden... lust, which dooms one to Hell, over genuine desire in Paradise."
Here, the earthly prudishness and the heavenly libertinism occur in the same text. Sex on earth is literally a dirty thing, whereas sex in heaven is pure (even if one might need a perpetual -- or at least protracted -- erection to enjoy it).

It's easy to see how the sexual desire for a sensual heavenly paradise can motivate some of the world-denying, even world-destructive attitudes of Islamists -- though I certainly wouldn't care to reduce all of Islamism to a quasi-Freudian sublimation of libido.



At 8:12 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Is this a specific criticism of Islam? Or simply a general comment on the direction of religion? Christianity has become increasingly prudish too. It has come to balance its recommendation of chastity with a perfect and sensual heaven. On a more basic note...a perpetual erection, on earth, is a medical does it become something else in Paradise? Strange, very strange!

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No, not generally of Islam. I was referring more specifically to Islamism -- which seems to emphasize sexuality in Paradise but denigrate it here on earth.

As for Christianity, my sense of its trajectory differs, at least for American Christianity (though I'd be surprised if British Christianity were so different). The sexual matters that weren't even hinted at back when I was a kid are now rather openly discussed among Christians. When I look into the Christian magazines that I pick up at my church, I see quite a lot written about sex. There's even advice of husbands and wives pleasing each other sexually -- not explicit details, mind you, but an exhortation that husbands and wives ought to please one another sexually.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:56 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

I recall reading a rather detailed article about Mohamed Atta and his "issues" with women. Wish I could find it, but there are snippets about his hangups all over the internet.

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Atta considered women impure, and he may have been excessive in his views, but we can see from the quotes in today's post that other Islamists also consider women impure -- and earthly women just can't compare to those pure women of paradise.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:50 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Which makes me wonder, as do other aspects of Islam as it is practiced: Why do women become Muslims? All the benefits seem to accrue to the men.

At 3:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, Islam is a broader religion than just the brand promoted by the Islamists, so we should keep that in mind.

I suppose that women become Muslims for a variety of reasons -- falling in love with a Muslim man, becoming enamored of Islamic culture, wanting to belong to a religious community, or even coming to believe that Islam is true.

Probably, studies have been done asking this very question (and perhaps could even be tracked down on the internet using Google).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:59 PM, Blogger Dave said...

Christianity has become increasingly prudish too.

Certainly Christianity looks like a disapproving spinster aunt on the sides where it pushes on the secular popular culture. However, I think most "conservative" Protestant Christians today, as I view them through the Christian subculture, would seem shockingly libertine to any WASP from 1960.

What has not changed, I think, is the popular theology of heaven. I don't think heavenly licentiousness was ever a tenet of Puritanism. It is still considered quite daring for a Christian to propose that heaven might entail any sensual pleasures at all, such as tasty food or a favorite pet, much less sex.

Physical rewards belong not to the redeemed soul in a Platonic heaven, but to the physically resurrected saint on the new earth during the millennial kingdom. But this is a doctrine that is not universally accepted and rarely discussed.

At 4:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dave, I do recall hearing Falwell remark in an interview that he believes that there'll be sex in heaven -- which surprised me, given the statement by Jesus in Matthew 22:30 that in the resurrection, people will be like the angels in heaven and will not marry (which I take as a euphemism for "not have sex").

But perhaps I misunderstood Falwell. I'm not very familiar with his views, and the interview was several years back, anyway.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:47 AM, Blogger Dave said...

It would be impossible to justify sex without marriage, and justifying marriage would require a Mormon theology.

Still, I think it is necessary to distinguish between existence in heaven, a Greek idea, and existence in the millenial kingdom on earth, a Jewish idea. I'm not sure that distinction is found in Matthew.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dave, I know very little about Mormonism, but you're probably right about the Millenial Kingdom vs. Heaven. Perhaps Falwell was referring to the former.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:57 AM, Blogger OL'Dog Junya said...

What we allow to do to ourselves is projected many fold in our willingness to do to others, since if we have tolerated our suppression and "thrived", becomes the excuse to impose it on others as a virtuous paradigm.

Libertinism runs in the grey area of spiritual liberation and addictive hedonism. At bests, it frees the individual to have their physical and mental expression. At worst, it provides an escapism that can slide into social nihilism. Especially when this nihilism is exhibited in a corrupt ruling class, the virtues of libertinism are undermined by the social and politically enabled excesses of the few in the face of the preachings to the masses.

Todays radical and prudish Islamic fundamentalism is as much a displace rejection of the ruling classes as it is about the acts that are prohibited to be done by the masses.

At 4:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What are "the virtues of libertinism"? The "physical and mental expression" that you note seems rather vague.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:31 AM, Blogger OL'Dog Junya said...

The virtues of libertinism are the freedom of sensual expression. The powewrs of mental and physical expression are released. The full possibilities and dimensions of the sensuous are conceive without the inhibiting social or cultural taboos stigmatizing the mental intent. The freedom of action in the physical see their full manisfestation without statutory reprecussions, as well as the social or cultural repressions placed on the individual.

At 5:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That doesn't sound like "virtues" to me. If physical and mental expression are limited neither by taboos nor by laws, what would ensure that the expression remain within virtuous bounds?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:06 AM, Blogger OL'Dog Junya said...

"Virtuous" is remaing true and consistent to oneself and not to some outside agency or principality. Yet, the potential for nihilism that is self destructive to the mission and operation of the actor is the measure of the coherence of the guiding paradigms.

Is the operation a self-sustaining and self-maintaining ongoing "mechanism" that fulfills its metaphysical algorithmic "formula", or is it a "null set" that is destructive to itself and its proximal environs.

At 6:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If "the potential for nihilism that is self destructive . . . is the measure of the coherence" of a system of virtue, then this doesn't sound like a good thing.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:23 AM, Blogger OL'Dog Junya said...

The eternal freedom of choice is the cognitive, learning choice that is the essence of the libertine experience.

At 6:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Some choices are bad, destructive of self or society, so taboos or laws restricting some of these are necessary.

But perhaps we should just agree to disagree.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:43 AM, Blogger OL'Dog Junya said...

Without a doubt, some choices are so nihilistic as to be dangerous to others, let alone the actor. There is a long spectrum between THAT region of self-destruction and the freedom of exploration and expressive action of sensuous libertinism.

The admonishments of the dangers of the slippery slope are the tests of cognitive acuity and mental discipline, that is not mutually exclusive or preclusive in being a libertine.

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Let's just agree to disagree, then.

Jeffery Hodges

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