All it takes is "An hour in a Muslim classroom" to realize it, and all roads leads out of Mecca...
I am a university student in Morocco. I am an ex-Muslim, pursuing English studies at the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences of my city. We study a subject called “Mythologies” that deals with the ancient myths and legends of old civilizations, such as the Greek and the Roman ones. The anecdote I am about to recount happened one morning during a lesson on this subject, very recently, with Professor El M. It will shows how Muslims, even the highly educated ones, can still be unable to question their religion or hold the slightest doubts about it. Their privileged treatment of their own religion, which, at the first sight, might look like a dishonest attitude, is in fact not dishonest at all, but is purely the result of their incapacity to objectively examine their own beliefs in the same way they examines other people’s. While this article will probably look offensive to religion in general, not only Islam, it is less a criticism of religion than a demonstration, one more, of how the religious mind, here the Muslim one, can be biased to the point of intellectual blindness and apparent hypocrisy.
Pr. El M. is a highly educated woman in her late thirties. She doesn’t wear a veil; she dresses in a modern western style. When I think about it, she even has American facial features and looks, as irrelevant to the facts this last detail might be. What I want to stress here is that she has nothing to do with that dull archetypical image of the submissive veiled “good” Muslim housewife one may sometimes have in mind when imagining of a Muslim woman.
Having handed us a four-page document listing several definitions of the words “mythology” and “myth” given by various renowned authors, Pr. El M. went to explain to us how the knowledge of Mythology was not innocent among those peoples, and that those who knew used to manipulate those who knew less, exploiting their knowledge as a political tool to establish control. To make her words unquestionable to her Muslim audience, she summoned a famous Quranic verse that says “wa hal yastawi al-ladina yaalamoun wa al-ladina la yaalamoun” (Are those who know equal to those who know not? (39:09)). Making references to the Quran in such a context is, you will agree, highly risky for a Muslim, for the manipulation the Greek people might have been subject to could never equal that of the Muslim masses, but her immunity to seeing anything wrong with the Creed of Muhammad apparently makes her comfortable with “jumping” from Mythology to Quran and from Quran to Mythology.
I will skip some relatively unimportant minor details about miscellaneous remarks Professor El M. made that seem to me ironically detrimental to Religion. To her own religion! I will go directly to the core issue.
When the professor, with the contribution of the students, made her conclusions about myths and their place in the ancient world, and was about to move to something else, I raised my hand, and made a very ordinary and obvious remark about something which in three sessions, astonishingly, hadn’t been discussed yet:
“If you replace the word “mythology” or “myth” with the word “religion” in these definitions you presented us with in this document – and you can try them one by one – they all stay correct. Actually, all these definitions apply to Religion in the exact same way they apply to those imaginary tales of the Greek gods and goddesses… and it shows best in the last definition, where the author explicitly states that we – modern Men – are still concerned with Mythology and are still very influenced by it, and that some very old ways of thinking haven’t changed even in our supposedly scientific age”.
How can you, dear reader, interpret the words “supposedly scientific age”, used by that author, other than as a direct attack on Religion (superstition included, of course)?
My point was very clear, and I am sure anyone with normal critical abilities, anyone unbiased by his or her religious beliefs, anyone capable of questioning, will clearly see what I meant, as well as what that author meant. The professor, apparently, lacks those normal abilities when it comes to the Abrahamic religions. I say she lacks them because she really didn’t give me the impression of deliberately ignoring the subject, but rather looked innocently unaware of it, as will be confirmed later. Here is what she did as a response to my intervention. She turned to the other students somewhat triumphantly and said “Yes! Yes. What he is saying is very interesting, and that’s what I explained to you in the beginning: Mythology was Religion to those people, they believed it and it was sacred to them!”
Admire the unconscious mental gymnastics she had to do to come to understand my words in this way. It reminds me of a funny gesture we make, here in Morocco, to portray someone who goes looking for complicated explanations to things while the truth is simple and at hand: We make our right hand pass over our heads to touch the left ear, saying, “where’s your ear? Here it is!”
I was rather disconcerted. How could she fail to see my point? I raised my hand again and objected, as calm as ever: “This is not what I meant. What I actually meant is the opposite. Not that my remark about the definitions implies that Mythology was Religion to the ancient peoples, but that it implies that Religion is Mythology to us”. I still can’t believe that I had to clarify this point in such a simplistic manner, given the status of my interlocutor. Stories of Osiris, Dionysus or Danaë, to name only a few, should have raised her awareness concerning some religious matters to very high degrees. I have a very modest knowledge about Mythology that I collected through my readings that cannot equal hers, yet even with the little I know I can’t fail to see revelatory parallels. Whether the latter be taken seriously or not is irrelevant to the present situation. A raised awareness is a natural effect of such studies. Yet even without it, it is easy to comprehend my aim.
Now she was rather disappointed and received what I said as a surprise, as something she obviously never thought about, and presumably something which no student has ever brought to her attention in all the years she has been teaching that subject. As a professor of Mythology, you would expect her to be familiar with such conclusions. She pondered it for a while and said: “Well, this is kind of controversial…” I said: “of course it is”. And then she said a most unexpected thing, clearly at loss for a logical answer:
“Maybe the person who compiled these definitions, since that person is probably a westerner, has chosen them specifically to express his intellectual convictions about Religion, for western scholars are usually skeptical about Religion”.
She said this in a matter of fact tone, and then she digressed on how “westerners don’t respect their religion and prophets as we Muslims do” and other far related topics, as far as Russia with its Christian orthodoxy… How my remark transported her to such alien territories is as mysterious to me as Christian orthodoxy is to her, for she was utterly incapable of explaining it when asked by a student… but I digress here myself. Now here she was, using a primitive “blame it on the impious west” defense, doubting the intellectual motives of an anonymous compiler of definitions about Mythology (definitions she herself chose to print for her students), on no grounds at all, with a quasi-paranoiac inference, while she can easily look for any other definition of “myth” in books or on the Internet (I dare not suppose she hasn’t done this yet), and find that it still applies to Religion. And remember that a few moments earlier, she was happy with my contribution about those same definitions and saw it as a confirmation of her understanding of Mythology. At this point I feel that I have to remind you once again that this was a university professor of Mythology I was talking to, for I tend to forget it myself. I felt no need to point out to her that any definition of “myth” would do, for I didn’t feel I was talking to a normal person anymore, let alone a professor. I said she wore no veil, but really, the true veil Muslims wear is not on their heads, it is on their eyes. I want to make it clear that I am not denying or belittling her mastery of her domain of teaching, for I haven’t had the privilege of watching her delve into the details of Mythology yet; but her unfamiliarity with the widely alleged mythological dimension of Religion (and not the other way round as she got it from my remark), whether it be true or not, amazes me and makes me expect the worst. I kept quite for the rest of the session and calmly watched the passivity of the other students, who, far from supporting me or trying to show me wrong, were dumbly waiting for the professor to move on to more serious matters, for this was certainly of no importance to them.
Later in that same session, while professor El M. was expanding on the details of the differences between myths, legends, fables and fairy tales… and while she was talking about the language features of the myths and the legends, she said that these have a repetitive style, that “may turn out to be boring”, with a great number of descriptions and events being told over and over again, often using the exact formulas and words repeatedly, “like in the Quran” she matter-of-factly added, again completely at ease with the idea of introducing the Quran on such slippery ground. Had she only been a Jew and said “like in the Torah”, it could have accounted for Jewish humour. “In the Quran” she said, “Allah makes a lot of repetitions, in order to help us remember his words more easily”. Watch the double standards: what is boringly redundant in Greek mythological narratives is a mercy of Allah in the Quran. Perhaps the fact that the Quran keeps coming up intuitively to her mind while speaking about Mythology is not totally devoid of significance. Indeed, it is not easy to accuse her of encroaching upon other people’s field of study.
At no moment was I expecting the professor or anyone of the students to explicitly say that Islam, or Religion in general can be likened to the mythological beliefs of old times. This would be, in addition to being inaccurate, an unrealistic expectation, especially in a class where 40% of the students (65% of the girls) wear veils and rarely participate. But someone, ultimately the professor herself, could have at least pointed to the similarities between the two, and recognized that they exist. I believe that they are more than just similarities, but neutral words like “similarities” or “common grounds” would have been enough to prove the intellectual honesty, sanity, as well as the good sense of the professor and the other students, instead of arbitrarily casting doubt on those of an unknown probably respectable true scholar. I sincerely believe that any normal professor of Mythology, in any normal faculty, in any normal society, would come to class ready for the remark I made, expecting it to come by any time, having a ready-made well-oiled opinion about the question, expressing it, and checking his or her emails on mobile all the while (maybe this is a little too much), being not only used to it, but tired of it. A more admirable one would give it the lion’s share of a session, et plus si affinités.
For the last time, to make sure there is no misunderstanding, I want to repeat that I never expected the class to agree that the present religions will become sheer mythology to distant future generations; neither do I expect you, dear reader, whatever your beliefs are, to agree on this. All I wanted was to have the point discussed, even briefly, whatever the conclusion, because otherwise, it would be like trying to move on with a normal relationship with someone without first attempting to settle an old existing conflict.
A few minutes later, it was time to leave. I rushed out of the classroom without talking to anyone. I walked home, breathing in the cold fresh air of a November morning, dumbfounded to learn that such blindness (I find no other word to describe it) could be found even in such supposedly very educated people, specializing in fields as intimate with Religion as Mythology. This is only the beginning of the college year, and I will probably witness more astounding things in that same classroom, in that same subject, throughout the year, but one thing is certain, I will not let myself be involved in them, for I am convinced that with such formatted minds, it would be a total waste of time and energy to try to reason or discuss anything religious. Besides, I am not of the militant/preacher type and, in spite of my young age, hold no hopes of changing the world. This contribution I post here to share this moment I lived in that classroom is as far as I can go. And I do not even publish it out of intellectual loneliness, but only because I thought it likely to stir some smiles from the readers; sad smiles, indeed. My references to my classmates in this report may give the illusion of some animosity on my part towards them, but that is totally untrue. I keep excellent relationships with all of them. Muslims are lovely people, in their own fashion, as long as you stay away from religious discussions and never reveal that you’re an apostate. A funny thing I have noticed is that, if they think you are a Muslim just like they are, you can explicitly doubt the existence of God in front of them, or doubt the prophetic status of Muhammad, and argue against Islam without them taking offence in what you say. They’ll even laugh and find you interesting, and enjoy your company all the more. It probably has a fresh air effect on them. As long as you don’t utter the infernal words “I am not a Muslim anymore”, they never seem to assume that you really think what you say; they don’t understand the consequences of your intellectual positions; they cannot conceive the possibility of you having left Islam, and will invite you to prayer right after the debate ends, as if words and acts belonged to two totally separate planes. It reminds me of that Jewish joke perfectly adaptable to Islam. Allow me to insert it here:
Two Rabbis argued late into the night about the existence of God, and, using strong arguments from the scriptures, ended up indisputably disproving His existence. The next day, one Rabbi was surprised to see the other walking into the Shul for morning services.
“I thought we had agreed there was no God,” he said.
“Yes, what does that have to do with it?” replied the other.
I wrote a raw account of the reported events the same day I witnessed them, which makes me believe I have successfully avoided involuntarily deforming them due to memory flaws. I know that for some of you this story will be as hard to believe as a Quranic myth or a Greek legend is. One thing is sure though, it is no fairy tale.