Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Meaning and Context

Is it morally wrong to shoot a gun? The question is obviously unanswerable with so little information. It is morally wrong to shoot a gun if it is aimed at an innocent victim. It is morally neutral to shoot a gun at a target in a rifle range. The moral worth of that action derives entirely from the context in which it is performed.

Those who believe that sacred texts can be followed literally are ignoring this distinction. They assume that because an action performed at a certain time was commanded by that text, that this same action will have the same moral worth whenever and wherever it is performed. Some actions such as murder and theft, have fairly rigid moral values regardless of when they are performed. But over thousands of years contexts can shift, and change the moral worth of actions. We have not only a right, but an obligation, to take these shifts into context when we make new moral decisions.

Some might think that this argument is just a convenient way of escaping moral responsibility, and there's no denying that sometimes this is true. A blanket statement of "Times are different now, we don't have to follow the old rules anymore", can be a lazy excuse for selfishness and lasciviousness. But fundamentalist literalists are guilty of another kind of laziness, which puts them in equal danger of violating the principles they claim to be defending. There are hard questions that need to be asked when making moral decisions, and refusing to think about them is every bit as lazy and morally dangerous. The example I will be using in this post comes from the Islamic tradition, but there are plenty of examples in other traditions as well.

As almost everyone knows these days, Muhammad forbade his followers to make pictures of him. There were two reasons for this. First of all, he was a genuinely modest man, and did not want people to treat him like a star. But far more importantly, he was deeply concerned that his followers would treat him as an intermediary between them and God, the way Jesus mediated between people and God for the Christians. He did not want to have people wander into a mosque someday and see a huge mosaic image of him staring down from the ceiling, the way Jesus looks down from Byzantine Cathedrals, or to carry lockets with his picture in them, the way Catholics carry pictures of Mary, Jesus and the saints. The most important principle of Islam is "There is no God but God", and each Muslim should have a direct relationship with God that is not mediated through any priest or Idol. God is, as the Koran says, as close to you as your jugular vein, and relying on intermediaries takes you away from him.

I think almost all Muslims agree that this was Muhammad's intention behind the banning of pictures of him. Is that intention being fulfilled by the current ban? I would argue that it is not. First of all, there is no reason to assume that this ban should apply to non-believers given the reasons it was made. Muhammad issued this command to his own followers. He did not tell them to go out and destroy pictures of him that were made by other people. There is no danger that non-believers would worship those pictures, so there is no reason to be concerned about them.

Furthermore, Muslims who protest cartoons and caricatures of Muhammad are doing exactly the opposite of what Muhammad intended with the original ban. Muhammad is now being treated as someone who is so special and holy that no one should ever make pictures of him. I realize that some of these protests may be made with the best of intentions. But I would suggest that Muslims who are worried about those cartoons are dangerously close to treating Muhammad as something like a God, rather than just the messenger of God. This is exactly the frame of mind that the original ban on pictures of him was designed to prevent. This change is very close to the difference between a bullet fired on a target range and one fired at an innocent person. Muhammad should be respected and admired, of course. He was an extraordinary human being. But banning pictures of him in the modern context seems uncomfortably like comparing him to the Old Testament God, whose face no one was aloud to see.

The difference between worship and admiration is one of state of mind, and I cannot see into the minds of other people. I would ask my Muslim friends, however, to look into their own souls and ask themselves this question. Is there a spiritual danger in the admiration of Muhammad? If so what are the best ways of guarding against it?

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