What about that stone..?

EuropeNews February 29 2008

In all the fuss about an art exhibit, aggressive Muslims, fear and censorship, people tend to forget about the stone at the center of attention here. First a correction: The stone is not identical to the Kaaba The Kaaba is a building erected over the stone, renovated several times throughout history.

According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad himself took part in one of these reconstructions in the time before Islam, when the stone was part of the general Arabic tradition for stone worship. It might be hagiographical, but Muhammad is said to have lifted the stone into place in the Kaaba after the reconstruction.

The black stone itself, which has the characterstics of a meteorite, is broken into several pieces. According to Muhammad the stone is black due to having been handled by menstruating women, but there is no evidence to back up this slightly outlandish claim.

The best (largely only) source for knowledge about the stone is the Sirat, in which Ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari reports on the origin of the stone. It is, according to these sources, brougth from Syria by Muhammads’ 9th generation grandfather Luhayy, whom Muhammad states is dragging his intestines over the floor of Hell as a reward for his work. It might sound a litle gross, but this is Islam. Intense suffering is an integral part of The Religion of Peace.

The actual worship taking place around the stone and the Kaaba was institutionalized by Muhammads 5th generation grandfather Qusayy, who ruled unopposed over Mecca and set rules for the holy Hajj, the holy Umrah, the holy month of Ramadan, the holy well of Zamzam, the holy mount Arafat, running between holy hills, the holy prayer, etc. and most other rituals that form the core of Islam.

Now, one may wonder what all of this old stuff is doing in Islam? It is instructive to follow the Sirat in figuring out how this happened:

In the Sirat, it is fairly clear how Muhammad adopted these elements bit by bit. In AH -3, at the Satanic verses incident. Muhammad accepted to worship Allah and perform the traditional prayer at the Kaaba, in return for various benefits from the Quraeysh tribe. This deal, however, collapsed three years later, leading to Muhammad being chased out of Mecca. He escaped to Medina, entering into the pivotal 2nd pledge of Al-Aqabah in the process. After quite a few battles, peace was declared at Hudaibaya, and Muhammad accepted the oneness of Allah. Finally, when he conquered Mecca two years later, he declared the rituals there to be religious taboos not to be changed.

Common objections to these rituals and their ‘holiness’ include:

  • How can all these items be holy? According to Islamic tradition, only Allah is to be worshipped, not meteorite stones, hills, wells or buildings?
  • What benefit does it bring? Allah cannot, according to Islamic tradition, be influenced by prayer.
  • Isn’t this just a hodge-podge of arcane rituals that Muhammad happened to know, rather than a new religion?
  • Why bother with a stone god in the first place? Isn’t Allah supposed to be absolutely transcendent?

These questions are classical challenges of religions by rationalism. Each of them could – and did – trigger centuries worth of discussions and dissertations. Rationalist would claim that everything in there is hogwash designed to empty the pockets of naïve superstitious believers, while religious leaders would reject any such criticism as ‘blasphemy.

A core problem for Muslims is of course that if any or all of these rituals were to be deemed meaningless, they would not have that much of a religion left to practice, which would not be good.

History aside, that stone..?

Oh, yes, the stone…

The conflict between the artists of Surrend and the Muslims seem to concern the stupidity/cleverness of said stone, not so much the actual holiness of it. Actually, the matter could be solved in a very straightforward and rational manner.

It has often been said that we should give the Muslims the benefit of doubt, and this could certainly apply in this case as well. No reason not to. And, at the risk of turning this into a somewhat embarrasing situation (in case the stone doesn’t comply) let it hereby be proposed:

Let the stone settle the matter

If the Muslims can make the stone say something intelligent, the artists are wrong and owe the Muslisms an apology.

Conversely, if the stone happens to say something stupid, or – as would seem plausible – the stone remains silent, Muslims owe the artists an apology.

As a corollary, if the stone fails to utter anything intelligent, Muslims risk looking stupid for worshipping it and telling others to do likewise, But that’s probably incidental to the whole story.

Any further conclusions are left as excercises for the reader.

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