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Children of burning stars
Declaring a new faith: Old faith, new clothes

By Ramin Tork
December 9, 2002
The Iranian

My parent's tastes in clothing have always been awful. As a kid, I recall every New Year I was given these horrendous jackets and trousers that matched the flowery carpets in our house and did not fit me. They were always too long on the sleeves and too tight round the thighs, but somehow wearing those new clothes and sitting around Haft Seen table is something that makes up who we were as a family.

It wasn't their fault that they had no taste, they were what they were and they had not bothered to be anything more. I would not want to be a kid again and I certainly would not want to wear those jackets that made me look like a golf player in the U.S. Open, but I do cherish the nostalgia, and certainly love my parents, and my parents' parents no matter what bad choices they made. It isn't that my taste is perfect but at least what I wear today fits me.

It is the same with my faith.

To me Islam was eating rice pudding in the month of Ramadan, TV programmes changing to prayers resulting in cartoons being cancelled, a picture of Imam Ali (with a radiating glow behind his head), reading the Koran in Arabic in theology classes, and not understanding a word, stories about how one should be good to the poor and the orphans and that other Muslims are like our brothers, praying for myself, and praying for others and the good of the world.

Come Tasooa-Ashoora, my Mum would start behaving very strangely in her piety that switched on and off by those special calendar months. We elevated early Islamic founders to almost the same level as God and dared not see these sanctified individuals in the light of history or the true message.

I would see armies of men wearing the same colour shirts, and beating themselves with chains senselessly if in Tehran, villagers wearing mud on their bodies if in Kermanshah, and if in the Bushehr mosque that I once visited with a cousin, it would be men rotating round a circle and doing a rhythmic self-beating that rivalled the sound from a Brazilian percussion group. It was all very strange, but good or bad it was all very Iranian.

Then came the Islamic Republic and most of us started to ask questions about faith, God and Islam. For some, Islam somehow did not fit our Iranian culture but I knew that as a child I held onto it with ignorance and pride, and I had to find out more.

In a search for some meaning to what was happening around us I started to read and nibbled my way on a diet of Islamic history, Persian mystic poetry, the old and New testament and Buddhism, and cosmology. After all, I remembered in my childhood theology classes that we had a responsibility to search for the truth for ourselves.

I promised several things on this quest, I would use my brain and if convinced follow it with my heart, and be brave enough to question everything including the sanctities, and swallow the dish of truth no matter how cold it turned out to be.

The quest for Faith had become my sincere principle in life for I wanted to find an ethical core of belief that I could apply to my life and that could be passed to my children; so I could say: here you are, this is your heritage, now go and find your own way in life. It did not take me long to realise that the literal way, or life of early Islamic life is simply not compatible with modern life.

You could not use the literal wording of Koran and not overlook the charter of human rights, or apply its teaching and have a society free from discrimination between men and women and finally you could not take the life of Mohammad or what he did as a template for your life for he was acting within his own culture and time as you have to act in yours.

This is not a question of interpretation; discrimination between sexes in terms of social and individual freedom is very clearly there within Koranic text. Treatment of prisoners of war, assassination of enemies of Islam and hell fire by a very tough, scary God against those who would apply their judgement against these rules is clearly there in the books for everyone to read.

I am not making a judgement on how early Muslims lived, and no religion has been free from bloodshed but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that you would be trapped in a primitive time capsule if you were to take these rules literally.

I could see that there was a lot of good but there was a lot of bad that put me off what I was reading. I could not read Arabic so reading the text did not get across the beautiful poetry that was meant to be harmonising those immortal words, instead I found chapters like The Cow that jumped from Adam to Moses and back to sinners in hell in a few verses.

Perhaps I was not doing justice to the Holy book that is so miraculous that no man could produce it but hey, if God wanted me to read Arabic to get closer to Him, He should had made me an Arab speaker or hardwire the lingo in my head. Oh, I forgot. He almost made us Arab speakers, but He must have changed His mind.

Very clearly, this was the wrong approach, and we had the Islamic Republic and Taliban to prove how costly some of the literal interpretations can be. Here I would also dispute what some people say which is that what these fundamentalists are doing is not Islam, and that the Mullahs got Islam wrong.

I take their point on corruption and double standards from which the founders were meant to be free from, after all they are seen as saints by Muslims, but if you take off the rosy coloured glasses of blind faith and think about what happened in early Islamic history then you might change your mind.

I have listed some web sites that point out these issues, without making any judgement and going into the nitty-gritty of some of the gruesome details, I would invite you to read the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of faith.

It makes you wonder how it was possible for our mystics and philosophers to reach the highest degrees of human understanding, and form a sophisticated civilisation based on these principles, but if you read their poetry carefully you would realise that some of our great thinkers were having the same difficulty that we are having today and they tried to get round it.

Islamic Protestantism is nothing new, it's just that it had to be hidden away in verse or the ignorant fundamentalists would have the book burnt. The war against ignorance still goes on. In the early days of Islam, some of these great thinkers were free to roam around and apply what they had learnt from other great religions and schools of philosophy such as Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Greek philosophy.

This was more happening in the early Islamic world, because the ideology control-freaks had not entered the realm of intellectuals. These great men took the essence of various systems and developed the mystic path, which is almost a completely different way of life from the conventional, and realising that they could not take away people's primitive faith, they went out to enlighten the few who were good candidates for travelling the path.

It wasn't that they wanted a gentlemen's club, the system worked on the basis of a teacher and student and the readiness of the student that made mysticism secretive and not everyone's cup of tea.

For one thing, in the process of breaking your idols and developing a bond with a creator you could end up being very blasphemous or appear mad. The mystics reflected what they had learnt or experericed in their wonderful poetry and build this on top of Islam because at the foundation level the actual religion, or its symbolic ceremonies though useful, were not that important.

A lot of them did however, take the core religious doctrine very seriously and became more orthodox than the orthodox. So, not all of Sufism is full of pearls of wisdom, some of it is dogmatic faith to the most extreme. The mystic path was not always free of danger, for every enlightened teacher there must had been many who were counting angles that balanced on a needle or inviting disciples in the act of self worship, or those who were after their own militia of murids who did not question the master.

Today, we recognise the struggle of some of these great men as part of Islamic history rather than the path of misbelievers or heretics. The book that gave me some understanding of Iranian brand of mysticism is the The Conference of the Birds by Attar. This book uses the analogy of birds, which represent men from different walks of life that look for their true king (God).

After a long journey that ends up getting their numbers low, thirty birds reach the throne of See-Morgh, giving up their ego to become one See-Morgh. The path that they took, and found has no resemblance to the heaven of Koran. These people did not seek rewards of heaven, nor did they take action out of the fear of hell, they had broken their idols and found that the answer lied within their hearts.

In their ecstasy, they were not afraid to be seen blasphemous, one of the greatest stories is that of a great teacher who renounces all for the love of a Christian pig farmer girl. Similar stories of Rumi who gave up his high post as a teacher and saw the light of Shams radiating like a Sun inspires our spirits to this day.

Today, as a highly spiritual agnostic, I have meditated in a church, in a Hindu and Buddhist temple, I have prayed -- or should I say wished for a better future for man -- in a Pakistani mosque, in a Khanaghah or sitting on a bench watching humanity go by. I have learnt many things from Tibetan Buddhist lammas, from Peer Moghan, from Hindu seekers, children, the old, the rich, the poor how to live.

When our Arab conquerors burnt our Iranian libraries and said that there is no need for this knowledge and there is one sacred book that can replace these, they were wrong, there are libraries of good wisdom just waiting for all of humanity, but there is no single book that can really tells you how to live, you have to figure that out for yourself. Perhaps as Iranians we have to go back and rebuild our metaphorical burnt libraries. If we do I would want to avoid replacing blind nationalism with blind faith.

How could an agnostic worship God, you might wonder. It isn't that I am hedging my chances with God. It is very simple, if there is a single conscious being that created this universe, then I am connected to that creature by being the created, and if not then I am the child of the dusty universe that made me a conscious being, and I feel the sense of affinity with all that exists around me.

We are all children of burning stars. I have realised that being limited by my senses, and lacking wisdom, I could never find out the true nature of reality. So I decided to stick with what could be used to observe the universe i.e. science. It is limited but if I want to take a trip down spirituality lane I remind myself that man is the measure of all things and that the world of creation is a beautiful place with or without a creator.

In my opinion, at the end, it does not matter that much what your religion is. What really matter is the love you give, and the faith that makes you a better person. This faith does not have to be religious faith it can be the faith in man or in the future of your children. If you cannot give love then at least do not harm others. How do you achieve that, figure it out for yourself that is all!

In this day and age, you can read anything you like, and you can still learn from Islam even if you have decided that it is no longer your religion. You are not being a religion tourist, or changing your faith like last year's fashion, you are a human being who asks questions, uses the brain and makes the life experience richer.

So, if you are thinking about taking out a sword against Islam, think again and instead just teach your children well, and make sure they wear clothing that does not make them disappear in your living room carpet! You can't change people's faith, but you can change yourself. Do not fight symbolic ceremonies, fight ignorance.

I have been reading the articles on Aghajari and although I find Aghajari's attempts at modernising Islam very noble I can see the trappings of a future with Protestant Islam. Instead of cloaked clergy, you will end up Mullahs with ties instead of turbans who would in a hundred years time be debating on allowing gay Mullahs, and women clergy to teach a unisex audience but would still be out of date as far as the rest of humanity is concerned.

The paradox of the human spirit is that in an attempt for finding immortality and a sense of belonging, it tries to establish faith that end up being cast in concrete. Then we get off shoots every fifty years from one cast faith to another. To this very day, we get modern Sufi followers who inherited the Greek philosophy, that turned into alchemy and then Sufism and they say that the world is made out of the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire; well never mind the elements charts that we all have in our classrooms.

I do feel that with the Islamic Republic perhaps making its way out, and with the hope that we would have a secular society that there would also be room for people such as myself i.e. agnostics, atheist, humanist or those who do not set their feet in the concrete boots of one faith and see religious philosophy in the light of philosophy as a branch of arts and humanities.

Such a vision may be very far, but I am willing to take the first step and create a fraternity for those who are interested in such an organisation. Perhaps we can take these beliefs home one day. The rules can be very simple:

1. The organisation is for serving man, and saving the environment.

2. It recognises that with or without a creator man is noble.

3. The foundation of beliefs is the charter of human rights so there is no discrimination between sexes, race, and faith outside the fraternity or even between members and non-members.

4. All are welcome, even those who want to hold on to a faith but no one member's vote is above the rest even with knowledge and experience.

5. Activists organise talks, lectures and education. Funding is based on voluntary donations.

6. The organisation also acts as a political lobby for those issues that it feels concerned about out there in the society. It keeps away from acts of aggression; violence but is not blindly pacifist.

7. The basis of understanding the universe is modern science; such knowledge is promoted amongst the members and is ever changing.

8. The organisation even provides knowledge in spiritual development that enhance the human spirit such as Yoga, meditation, self-denial, but these techniques are taught without relying on any divinity, or deity other than your own humanity.

9. There are no deities, and no one individual who would be promoted to a level of Sainthood.

10. The basis of human ethics is the best of what we already find within the human global society, but since the emphasis is for the individual to find his/her path there is no core ethical foundation set.

The sort of issues that such a society would be concerned about, starting with our own country would be:

1. Dealing with hunger, and poverty.

2. Saving the environment.

3. Education for the under privileged.

4. Emancipation of women in the third world countries, dealing with domestic violence and abuse.

5. Having an organised platform to promote the positive feminine-individualistic aspects of culture along side masculine-collective ones.

6. Promotion of good health care for all, dealing with the spread of mass killer diseases such as Aids etc.

7. Promotion of culture, and arts...

I can see my list becoming bigger, and bigger and more and more idealistic. I cannot even envision a reformed mainstream faith having the same manifesto without some trappings, so perhaps it is time to declare a new faith, one in yourself rather than a supernatural creatures. This would be a faith that makes man an elevated Darwinian monkey again and lets him deal with the saving of the world in a practical rather than a pie in the sky sort of way!

By the way, I am very serious in creating such a group, there are enough political groups around, and perhaps we should try to change ourselves at a spiritual level. So do email me and if I get enough positive emails I will go head and start by setting up a web site. Here are some web sites that might take you on your own crossroad:


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By Ramin Tork



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