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February 23, 2015

Muslims' acceptance of the other in practice

The Canadian Charger

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In his travels throughout the Middle East, Gerard Russell, author of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, uncovered so many commonalities among many religions and peoples of different cultures.

His timely book addresses three issues: humanity's collective ignorance of its own past, the growing alienation between Christianity and Islam, and the way the debate about religion has become increasingly the preserve of narrow-minded people.

Mr. Russell – a former British diplomat - said that in the course of 14 years as an Arabic and Farsif-speaking diplomat, working and traveling in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, he encountered religious beliefs that he had never know before.

Because these religious beliefs are now more vulnerable than ever, Mr. Russell felt the need to give them a voice.

He said these minority religions not only connect the present to the past, they link the Middle East with European culture, showing how the two emerged from shared roots. For example, Mr. Russell makes a compelling case that Greek philosophy is not a European phenomenon, but a Mediterranean one which influenced the Middle East as much as Europe.

Moreover, Mr. Russell noted that the continued existence of minority religions such as Madaeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrian, Druze in the Middle East shows that the image of intolerance Islam has acquired in recent years is untrue. While numerous minority religions have survived under Islam, Mr. Russell said no equivalent faith survived in Christian Europe.

Unlike most places in the developed world, many minority religions in the Middle East, such as Madaeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrian, and Druze have maintained their faith and traditions for thousands of years – sometimes preserving them for many millennia under constant pressure to change.

Madaeans - found in Iraq - believe in one god, baptism, a heaven called Light-World and a revered prophet called John. Madaeans believe John the Baptist is a greater Prophet than Jesus. They believe in an evil spirit that is female and called Ruha. Their religious texts date back to at least the third century AD and they have preserved customs and traditions dating back to Babylon.

Yazidis speak the same language as Kurds (Kurmanji) and are sometimes called Ezidis. There are hundreds of thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq, and parts of Syria, Georgia, Armenia, and northwestern Iran. They believe in reincarnation, sacrifice bulls and worship an angel who takes the form of a peacock. Yazidis keep a list of 72 persecutions they've been subjected to over the centuries - in particular, the 19th century Ottoman authorities several times hunted them down as heretics. Yazidis believe Melek Sheikh Hassan was a superhuman being and vice-regent of the angels, who govern the planets and the stars.

The Yazidis faith, like the Mandaean one, is a mystery religion. Yazidis clergy want to keep its inner messages secret. Although they believe the first prophet was Abraham and the last Mohammed, they believe the four elements are more important than any prophet. Fire is the greatest element and the sun is the main intermediary between humans and the unknowable God. They regarded Greek philosophers as prophets.

Druze numbers around one million; half or more are in Syria and the remainder are split between Israel (120,000) and Lebanon (250,000).

Druze laypeople live pretty much as they choose, provided they help maintain and defend the community and marry within it. But they are not allowed to know what their religion teaches. Only the initiates – also known as sheikhs - who dedicate themselves to lives of contemplation and poverty – know the religion's teachings in full.

Sheikh al-Aqi, the official head of the Druze clergy said:  "We teach the need for good deeds. Everything forbidden in religion and international law is avoided. We respect others. Our religion is Islam. Our sect is the Muwahhidun, the Unifiers. Our title is Druze." Mr. Russell said Druze have their own revelation and philosophy that mainstream Muslims consider unorthodox.

Zoroastrian was the religion practiced by most Iranians before Islam.

Mr. Russell said it is reputed to have been founded in central Asia in 1000 BC, by a prophet named Zarathustra. Their priests are called the Magi. Early Christians often depicted the Three Wise Men who were said to have visited Jesus as Persian Zoroastrians. Although there are fewer than 100,000 Zoroastrians in the world today, they have had a significant influence on many of the world's religions. Zarathustra taught that the world was formed by the ceaseless struggle between good and evil. Loving dogs is obligatory. In the Avesta - Zoroastrian scripture - the Chinvat bridge, across which a soul must pass safely if it is to enter paradise, is said to be guarded by two dogs.

Zarathustra taught that any person who followed a certain code of conduct on earth could live forever; that the soul mattered; and that a good deity exerted power over the world.

Mr. Russell said Angra Mainyu, The Adversary (brings evil) in Zorastrian scripture, influenced both Judaism and Christianity.

In the first five books of the Torah there is no reference to Satan.  When Jews were liberated from Babylon by the Persian King Cyrus, in 530 BC, this changed. In the Book of Job, Satan is powerful, able to intervene in the world, inflicting plagues on an innocent man, the exact kind of action that Angra Mainyu undertakes in Zoroastrian belief.

Centuries later Jesus’ description of Satan resembles Angra Mainyu, in that a good God sows wheat, but God's enemy scatters weeds in the wheat field; and only at the end of time can the weeds be separated from the wheat and burned.

This is but one example – albeit one that has had a profound impact on the western world's peoples – Mr. Russell gives which shows how the different religions were influenced by one another.

In what would be quite a surprise to many people in today's' world, Mr. Russell said Muslim scholars drew on Jewish scholarship when devising the early jurisprudence of Islam, sometimes inserting Talmudic punishments in place of the less severe Koranic ones (adopting the practice of stoning for adultery, for instance).

He said that when we find ideas different from ours, it makes us reflect on what we believe and why. He asks:  Should we be pleased if a community grows rich and abandons its traditions?  But he doesn't have the answer. It is apparent though that religions are able to examine each others ideas and learn from them.

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