Thursday, April 15, 2010


Historically, religion has played a major role in this process
of justification and legitimization of various social experiments
by investing social institutions with an authority
that goes beyond their experimental nature and that presents
them within a frame of reference in which they acquire both
holiness and universality. From that perspective, these institutions
are seen as a reflection and manifestation of the
structure of the universe itself. The constant circular movement
of the universe is manifested in the succession of natural
phenomena. Through this circular movement the universe
continually emerges from chaos, and man symbolically
recreates that emergence in his behavior in relation to
changes in the weather. This feature, alongside other features
of a doctrinal coloring, is what really characterizes the
most ancient forms of religion, where the essentially fragile
phenomena of human activity acquire a touch of stability
and constancy. Moreover, some characteristics which are
usually attributed to the gods are attributed to these phenomena,
allowing them to overcome the death of individuals
and groups by being embedded in a sacred time.
Although it has accompanied all religions, the process of
justification and legitimization in primitive religions initially
occurred in the context of revival and of a vision of the universe
which did not separate man from nature. That is why
these religions, in addition to adopting a number of fundamental
myths which explain existence in general, acquired an
obvious magical touch, where words uttered by a certain
qualified individual could influence the course of events, and
where collective rituals obtained a major role in preserving the
balance of life and integrating the individual into the group
The widespread phenomenon of offering sacrifices to supernatural
forces in cosmological religions belongs in this
context. The immolation of a human being—a first-born son
or a virgin—in some cases, or of a certain animal in most,
aimed not only at propitiating the gods or bringing about
fertility, but primarily at re-establishing a lost balance. Sacrifices
were regarded as necessary in the event of droughts,
floods, violent winds, earthquakes and other natural disasters,
and likewise when customs and social laws were violated.
Those who practiced rituals, including the offering of
sacrifices, were aware of the magical–religious quality of
their acts, and hoped that such behavior would maintain the
familiar forms of life. The stock of domestic animals, the
supply of game animals, the fruit on the trees, the crops in
the fields, the birth of children without deformities, the succession
of the seasons and of day and night, the regularity of
the natural phenomena in general, all depended on the
practice of rituals. If the system was disrupted for some reason
or other, man considered himself responsible for that
disruption and regarded it as his duty to perform the appropriate
rituals in order to re-establish things as they were.
This type of religious feeling continued in various forms
throughout the periods that preceded history in its usual
sense, particularly before man learned to write and before
the complex systems of advanced historical religions
emerged. It is not my intention in this context to touch upon
the Indian or Asiatic systems in general, for their influence
on the monotheistic religions that emerged in the Middle
East was quite limited. But it is definitely worth noting that
traces of doctrines rooted in antiquity remain present in the
monotheistic systems and that their effects are still obvious
in the Holy Bible of the Christians and the Jews. Examples of
such traces are the acknowledgement of the “magical” or
thaumaturgic effect of words uttered in certain special contexts,
the preservation of one of the ancient ontological features
manifested in the view that plants and animals have no
real existence until they are given names, or the idea, comTHE
mon in Sumeric beliefs, that man was created from clay.
Among the many elements surviving in the Old Testament’s
Story of Genesis, the characteristics of Paradise as portrayed
there contain visions of Mesopotamia as well as some obvious
Babylonian features. Adam eating from the tree of
knowledge, which symbolizes man’s failure to attain immortality,
recalls Gilgamesh’s failure to attain the same goal. The
Guidance (hadi) spoken of in the Torah, although it accompanied
various forms of religion rooted in antiquity and
practiced in various ways by most peoples, belongs to the
Canaanite system of endearment or requesting favors where
the sacrifices offered were considered as food for the gods.
Moreover, the stone monuments which symbolized the divine
presence were known to the Arabs of the Peninsula before
the Torah. Offerings and sacrifices were presented to
these stones, especially at the beginning of spring, in addition
to many other religious symbols and rituals which were
known in the region and subsequently retained, with new
connotations, in the Torah.
Although the new element in Judaism was the belief in
one god, the Torah does not deny the existence of many gods
as much as it emphasizes that Moses has only one God, who
insists on being one God alone. Initially the god of the Canaanites
was Baal, until the Jews confused him with Eil and
Yahweh. Eventually, all three became one god. They were
not kept apart, and the belief in Baal was not rejected until
the seventh or eighth century B.C. Moreover, Yahweh, as
portrayed in the Torah, resembles man; he loves and hates,
forgives and vindicates, etc., but he does not have the faults
of the Greek gods, and in particular he refuses to be mocked.
Nevertheless, the presence of ancient beliefs in the monotheistic
systems must not obscure the novelty of these systems
and the break they represented with what went before.
Even Yahweh’s likeness to man is nothing but one of his two
forms of manifestation. The other form is the one that does
not reflect the human condition: it is the “other” in the full
sense of the word, solitary, without family, wife or children,
but surrounded by all divine beings. Yahweh is similar to an
absolute ruler. He seems to symbolize the desire for complete
perfection and ultimate purity. Thus it is not surprising
that we find in monotheism traces of the struggle between
metaphysical forces that was familiar to many other religions,
nor that the champions of monotheism throughout the
ages have had a fanatical desire to emulate the divine traits.
Furthermore, Yahweh, unlike the Hindu gods, attributes
great value and importance to ethics and practical morality.
That is why certain historical events have, in the course of
time, gained a religious significance as divine manifestations.
Another novelty was the prohibition on eating from
the tree, which revealed a new idea unrelated to the symbolic
meaning for which it had stood before. This new idea
concerned the value of existential knowledge and the fact
that knowledge can radically change the structure of human
However, the true novelty and most important contribution
of monotheism was that of making man responsible for
his own deeds, especially the bad ones, and the absolution
granted by God. In the Torah, God addresses man for the
first time when he addresses Abraham. He demands some
things from him and promises him others, but He is not affected
by man’s subsequent behavior and He is in no way in
need of man. Man’s disobedience no longer disrupts the
balance of the universe as it did before, and the relationship
that now binds him to God is that of Faith. Those who used
to offer sacrifices were aware of their religious value,
whereas Abraham does not understand the importance of
his being asked to sacrifice his son. When he sets out to kill
Isaac, he is merely responding to the call of faith, and this
faith is what helps him—man in general—to endure the hard-ships and trials of life. Both Job and Abraham represent a
perfect model of that deep faith, which is unshakable despite
the difficult choices man faces.
Historians of religion generally reject the idea of a linear
development from polytheism to monotheism, and insist on
the unity of the human soul. However, this is not to deny
that monotheism represented, in many respects, a major and
characteristic shift in religious history. It reduced the magical
dimension, establishing a historical view of events, and
setting up a rational legislative system. The concept of
prophethood also developed. Prophecy, as a state of mental
intoxication, was familiar to the Canaanite religion around
1000 B.C. The prophets the Jews encountered in Palestine
co-existed with the “foreseers” of their Bedouin period. But
later on, the concept of the prophet and that of the “seer”
merged into one.
There were two types of prophets: those who dwelt near
places of worship and performed rituals together with
monks (and who were accused of lying), and those who
conveyed their message not as members of the foreseeing
profession, attached to the temples, but as chosen messengers
of God. They had the ability to know the unseen and to
defy the laws of nature. When they were prophesying or
receiving auguries, they were overcome by paralysis, fainting,
convulsions and other unusual states. They were especially
aware of the fact that they were not speaking of their
own accord but, rather, conveying the word of God and
transmitting His commands and prohibitions. Those individuals
who appeared in particular between the eighth and
the fifth century B.C. are the ones whose prophecies were
recorded and preserved in the Old Testament. They include
Ezekiel, Amos, Jeremiah, and others, whereas Abraham, Lot,
Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) were described as the Fathers and
not as prophets. However, what is noteworthy here is that
prophethood, in the sense of conveying a message from God,
was a Jewish phenomenon, and this explains the objections
to the prophethood of Mohammed when he appeared among
the. here, are the “Gentiles,” i.e.
the non-Jews, and not those who cannot read or write, as
many believe.

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