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A Most Dangerous Idea

Religious scholars tell us that the notion of heaven or paradise is a relatively recent human idea.

Heaven was largely unknown to the characters of the Old Testament. They did not seem to aspire to eternal life in a paradise with God, but in a rather early acknowledgement of Richard Dawkins and “The Selfish Gene” seemed to desire no more than a long life being subsequently succeeded by numerous offspring.

Paradise has its roots in the word pairidaeza which in the language of the Persian priesthood meant “walled garden”.

It becomes readily apparent why the Jews and early Christians, eking out a subsistence existence in an arid, barren landscape would imagine paradise as a bountiful garden in a fertile well-watered location! And of course in many ways these early notions of heaven were a yearning to return to the mythical “Garden of Eden” where men and women could again walk with God in a fertile, verdant place. (I do not know if the Inuit have a concept of heaven but if they do I’ll bet it’s a warm place!)


It is speculated that the notion of Heaven began to take hold among the Jews during their period in Babylon. (For those of you not familiar with biblical history Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 and many Jews as a consequence had been forcibly exiled into the nation of their conquerors.) It seems the early Jews, like their neighbours the Canaanites, had been ancestor worshippers. It had been the custom to build their houses over burial sites where the bones of their ancestors were housed. They made offerings to these ancestors lest their spirits bring bad fortune on them. However about this time, as the Judaic laws were beginning to be codified, ancestor worship was forbidden. If they could no longer rely on the care of their ancestors it was comforting to have a belief that after death they would remove to a pleasant place where they no longer needed such nurturing. Heaven seemed a convenient solution.


Of course at this time (the sixth century BC) the Babylonians were overrun by the armies of Cyrus the Great. The Jews were thus subsumed into the Persian Empire. Many of the Persians were Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrians had a concept of a Heaven whose inhabitants were non-aging, immortal and forever prospering. It seems then that this Zoroastrian concept was gradually assimilated into the beliefs of the Jews. (As we saw earlier the word paradise is drawn from Persian roots.)


The notion that there was a special place remote from men where the gods lived seems first to have occurred in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is among the first known pieces of written literature. It comes from ancient Mesopotamia and appears to have been developed from Sumerian legends. In this ancient story, purported to have been written 4,000 years ago, Gilgamesh travels to the glittering gardens of the gods seeking the secret of immortality, only to learn that for humans there is no such secret.


Biblical scholar Father Daniel J Harrington, points out that the first explicit description of the resurrection of dead persons in Judaism occurs in the book of Daniel. Here it is written that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Consensus among biblical scholars suggests that this was written in the second century BC. And this of course raises the question that if the dead (and in particular the good) were to be resurrected to everlasting life, where was such life to be lived? Heaven was an obvious answer.


The idea of Heaven was taken up with even more gusto in the New Testament. Jesus made many references (although often ambiguous) to Heaven.

Obviously a belief in heaven or paradise is a salve to our existential angst. Once we became acutely aware of our mortality it was natural that we should look for escape clauses!

Nowhere is the idea of Heaven as a paradise garden more important than in Islam. This religious tradition was established in the seventh century in one of the hottest, driest, most inhospitable areas in the world. No wonder then that the Koran, Islam’s holy book, promises that after death the faithful will go to a garden. And the garden described is a wondrous one with fruits that won’t spoil in the heat, with rivers not only of water but also of honey, wine and milk.


(It is interesting that there is a river of wine in the Islamic paradise, because wine is forbidden to Muslims on earth but apparently the wine of this heavenly river doesn’t make you drunk!)


The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are really pretty vague about what we should expect in heaven, but the Koran is not! It is quite explicit in its description of paradise. It indicates, as religious journalist and author, Lisa Miller interprets “that sensual pleasures of every sort will be granted in Paradise, not least among them the attention of the houris – dark-eyed, full-breasted spirit women, who live confined to pavilions undefiled before them by humans or Jinn”.(Mind you, I have never seen a description of Paradise that seems to cater for providing sensual pleasure for women! But of course Islam, in general, is misogynistic.)

Without wanting to bore you with the details of the many heavenly delights, some verses of the Koran and, more importantly, various passages of the Hadith (a compendium of sayings dubiously attributed to Muhammad), which was laid down far later and obviously subject to interpretation and selective attribution, described the Muslim version of paradise in such a way as to portray a place obviously desirable to those who had been deprived of many of the world’s earthly pleasures.

Bearing this in mind, it was obviously of great importance to believers to know how they might access such delights.

Religions that reach great stature have a tendency to rewrite their history in the process. They eschew the likely narrative of their creation from antecedent belief systems. They find an epoch-making figure – a Moses, a Jesus or a Muhammad – and attribute the underlying principles to the revelations received by such an iconic personage.

However, with respect to Islam, the message propagated in this way by Muhammad is wrought by many contradictions. Many students of Islam have observed, for example, that those parts of the Koran attributed to Muhammad’s early period in Mecca, before he had consolidated his power, are more accommodating and benign than those parts attributed to his latter period in Medina when he had grown more powerful.

There are many instances of contradictory statements in the Koran and adherents to Islam have adopted the protocol that where contradictions occur, later passages of the Koran must take precedence over earlier passages.

In any event the Koran seems to have been consolidated into a single book purportedly reporting the revelations to Muhammad as translated by the archangel Gabriel long after Muhammad’s death. Just like the New Testament, it seems to be a rather arbitrary collection of verses from different sources but allegedly initially received by Muhammad.

Adding to the confusion, the Koran is written in Arabic. Indeed Islamic traditionalists believe that the Koran should only be quoted and taught in the original language of the Prophet. This seems to mitigate against its claims of being a universal religion. But this is not surprising because the Koran in many ways is a parochial document purporting to depict a history and the spiritual awakening of warring tribes located in a geographically confined part of the Arabian Peninsula.

Now being written in Arabic presents problems of its own. The written Arabic language of Muhammad’s time has two confusing features. To begin with it uses dots to distinguish consonants like “b” and “t” and these are easily confused in the original texts. As well in its original form it had no sign or symbol for short vowels. The Arabic script was standardized in the later part of the ninth century. In the meantime the undotted and oddly vowelled Koran was generating wildly different interpretations of its contents. So much for its claim to be the inviolable and unalterable word of Allah! These contradictions are played out even today where some Muslims like to emphasize the Prophet’s belligerence whilst others like to insist that Islam is a religion of peace.

But, obviously a devout Muslim, above anything else, wishes to be granted access to Paradise. And that is the source of the dangerous idea.

In modern times some of the more fundamentalist believers of Islam have asserted that those that martyr themselves in Jihad will automatically be accepted into paradise. “Jihad” is supposed to mean struggle but if you read the Koran it is evident that it was meant to encompass the efforts of believers in waging holy war. Most Muslim jurists insisted that holy war was only justified when a Muslim nation had been attacked. And this response is heightened by the fact in traditional Muslim countries, because there is no separation between church and state, an attack on the state is interpreted as an attack on Allah himself!

However the traditional notion of Jihad was to be radically redefined by an extremist middle-aged Egyptian Muslim, Sayyid Qutb. Sayyid Qutb was a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. He had been a literary critic and became radicalized because of a visit to the United States in the late 1940’s. He was appalled for example by the sight of young people dancing together, holding each other tightly. He was equally dismayed by the liberal education children received there. In 1965 he published a book titled Ma’aallim Fittareek (Milestones).

In his book Sayyid Qutb decried the lack of belligerence in the Muslim world. It was not enough, he said, to wage Jihad to defend the Islamic world against attack, but Jihad should also be used as an offensive weapon to bring people to the worship of Allah. Jihad should be used to bring people out of the servitude of others to become servants of Allah.

The Egyptian government had Qutb executed in 1966. But his ideas lived on and influenced, among others, Osama Bin Laden.

Despite the fact that the Koran has little to say about Jihad (some commentators say the word only occurs four times and is usually interpreted as “striving in the way of Allah”) in recent decades thanks to Qutb, Bin Laden and others, it has become a central theme for those seeking to promote Islam by forcible measures.

So let us now unwrap this dangerous idea.

The notion that these latter day Islamic evangelists have successfully promoted is that:

  • Any act undertaken to progress the cause of Islam, no matter how brutal, should be interpreted as Jihad.
  • Any Jihadist who might be killed in executing such an abhorrent act will be granted the status of martyr.
  • Any such martyr will automatically gain entrance to Paradise and be able to avail themselves of all the sensual pleasures awaiting them there.

Now, if you are simple-minded enough to believe in such a religious charade, and you undertake what is now called Jihad, you should have no fear. In fact Paradise might seem so attractive you might feel miffed if you weren’t killed in progressing your particular Jihadist enterprise! (Recent newspaper reports suggest that an Australian jihadist who seems likely to be the subject of a drone strike, actually welcomed such an outcome, because it would deliver him to Paradise.)

It is an amazing development that we, living in the beginning of the twenty-first century are being seriously threatened by the radical proponents of Islam, a parochial, archaic religion conceived in the seventh century by an illiterate Arab trader. Even worse that we should be assailed by people with such simplistic views that they believe in a literal paradise that they can access by offering up their lives to promote or defend the Muslim faith no matter how distorted their views might be regarding those beliefs.

When Jihadists in their religious zeal take the lives of innocent people, the members of the press and other commentators are often inclined to describe their acts as cowardly. This is altogether wrong. To give one’s life to a cause is not cowardly it is immensely brave. This misguided courage is the reason that the Jihadists are so difficult to defend against. That is why the notion of Jihad, martyrdom and Paradise conjoin to become such a dangerous idea!

The good Dr Phil assures me that there are no bad people, only bad ideas. What I have described above seems to me a particularly bad idea which has caused, and is destined to cause much more suffering in the world!

[And I guess this dangerous idea is bad enough, but its impact is made worse by the contribution of another bad idea. The second bad idea, held by many in the Middle-East and reinforced by many of the Left in the West, is that Islam’s problems arise from Western persecution. The intersection of these two dangerous ideas is the principal cause of the fundamentalist Islamic terrorism scourge now afflicting Western societies.]

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