Category Archives: God

Amadeus

There is no justice on the earth, they say.
But there is none in heaven, either.

Pushkin Mozart and Salieri

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Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1979) is constructed as an inquiry into the nature of God and God’s relationship with Man. Milos Forman’s eponymous film (1984) deals with the same subject. It is a faithful adaptation of the play whose main theme is at a juncture of art, religion and philosophy.

Shaffer is not however the first writer who turned the rivalry of Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) into a story of cosmic dimensions. Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play Mozart and Salieri in 1830. He furnished the story of a “poisonous” relationship between the two composers with a theological argument of God’s injustice to ordinary men.

O heaven, where,
Where is the justice, when the holy gift,
Immortal genius, comes not as reward
For any burning love or self-denial,
Labor, diligence or prayer, but lights
Its radiance instead in heads of folly
And frivolity?

In Pushkin’s play, Salieri is so incensed by God’s injustice that he assumes the role of the defender of all mediocre men and women, “us children of the dust”, who must be protected from God’s negligence and favouritism towards men of extraordinary qualities. The similarities between Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri and Shaffer’s Amadeus are so striking that Shaffer’s claim he was not aware of Pushkin’s play at the time of writing Amadeus is rather surprising.

The film’s narrative frame is Salieri’s confession, made in a mental asylum at the end of his life, that he killed Mozart because he could not stand his own mediocrity and Mozart’s blessedness. Ama-Deus is apparently beloved by God. Salieri initially believes that he made a pact with God. In his youth, he promised to be entirely devoted to God in exchange for being endowed with musical talent. All events in his life suggest that God agrees to the bargain and keeps his side of it. A native of a provincial town in Lombardy, Salieri is transported to Vienna, a musical capital of Europe at that time. He becomes Hofkapellmeister achieving, apparently with God’s help, all that was possible to achieve on the musical scene of the continent in the second half of the eighteenth century.

And then Mozart arrives. Salieri realises that his rival’s music is infinitely better that his own. It is now clear to him that Mozart is an instrument in God’s hands. Mozart’s music is of such beauty that it could only be created under divine inspiration. Salieri’s music is mundane, Spirit-less, Mozart’s music is miraculous, spiritual, infused by the Holy Spirit (pneumatic). The former’s music is of this world, the latter’s is outworldly – “the very voice of God! […] an absolute, inimitable beauty.” (Amadeus’s script).

Salieri feels cheated by God. He thought he did everything to be rewarded but God chose Amadeus who did not deserve this honour. Infuriated by God’s injustice, he apparently poisons Mozart in order to take revenge on God. Salieri probes into the nature of divinity and comes to conclusion that God is not on the side of ordinary men whose talents are either non-existent or limited. Disgusted with God’s injustice and frivolity, he creates a new church for mediocrities and sees himself as a pope of the masses. The film ends with his benediction and absolution to all people of modest intellect and unremarkable talents.

In the film’s final scene, Salieri talks to the camera. He is addressing the audience which he assumes is composed of people like himself – talentless mediocrities abandoned by God. Their only salvation is to replace God as an object of (self) adoration. Salieri is oblivious to the fact that he moves through a crowd of patients in a mental asylum.

I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. On their behalf I deny Him, your God of no mercy. Your God who tortures men with longings they can never fulfil. He may forgive me: I shall never forgive Him.
Mediocrities everywhere, now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen! Amen! Amen!

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Theologically speaking, Salieri is guilty of Pelagianism. Pelagius (circa AD 360 – 418) rejected the concept of grace, maintaining that salvation is attained primarily by good deeds. For Salieri, God is the “Old Bargainer” and, therefore, God is not free to bestow His favours on whoever He chooses. However, when Salieri meets Mozart, he realises that God’s sovereignty is limitless. Pushkin, Shaffer and Forman reaffirm the role of grace in salvation. Amadeus is the reaffirmation of God’s freedom.

As a historical personality, Mozart is well suited to illustrate epochal changes occurring at the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, Europe was being reshaped politically, socially and artistically. The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic era can be seen as the apogee of the Enlightenment but also as the first phase of Romanticism. Mozart belongs to Classicism in the history of music but he can also be perceived as a proto-Romantic. He lived in a period of transition, between Haydn and Beethoven. James H. Donelan writes in Poetry and the Romantic Musical Aesthetic that

Just as Kant, above all others, was the origin of the move of metaphysics toward aesthetics, so Mozart was the origin of the movement of music toward an elevated status as the highest of the arts. […] For some critics, Mozart was the quintessential Enlightenment composer, eminently reasonable, demonstrating a cool, mathematical perfection in everything he wrote. For others, Mozart was the proto-Romantic genius, erratic, uncontrollable, and destined to an early, impoverished end.

In Amadeus, three forms of transformation are occurring, namely the transformation from Classicism to Romanticism in musical aesthetics, the transformation of the concept of God as watchmaker into a God as a free creator, and the transformation of the society through the process of secularisation in politics.

In Romanticism, aesthetics is being infused with metaphysics. Music acquires religious dimension. Salvation occurs through art. E. T. A. Hoffmann writes in “Beethovens Instrumentalmusik” that music leads us out of life and into the realm of the infinite.

Music discloses to man an uncharted realm: a world that has absolutely nothing in common with the external, empirical world, a world that comprehensively encircles its empirical counterpart, a world to which the latter abandons all distinct sensations for the sake of surrendering itself to an inexpressible yearning.

Music gives us access to Being in its totality, without the mediation of Logos. The experience of Being cannot be verbalised: the truth about the Absolute and the Infinite can only be sung. Hence the role of music as as the highest of the arts. Music shows us how things really are; it is a phenomenal representation of the noumenal. The truth about the world is non-verbal. Music expresses Harmonia mundi by mystically conveying to us the meaning of the universe.

Mozart is Die Zauberflote, the flute of God. At the performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, Salieri says “I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theatre, conferring on all who sat there a perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world.”

The role of music changes in Romanticism because the concept of God is also changing. God is no longer a watchmaker who designed the universe as a giant mechanism, instituted the laws of Nature and then withdrew from the world. During the Enlightenment, God was essentially perceived as deified Necessity. Romanticism turned Him into an artist, if not a musician, who is free as a creator of the world. Feelings, not reason, permeate the world which is no longer a mechanism but a living organism. Salieri talks to God who does not answer. God uses arts in general and music in particular as a means of communion with His creation.

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Amadeus is also about politics. It represents the political and social transformation which occurred during the French Revolution when subjects of a monarch, who was anointed with divine legitimacy, emancipated themselves and became free citizens. In feudalism, earthly political arrangements were the reflection of a heavenly order where God was not unlike a monarch in heaven. When feudalism crumbles, God also is being dethroned. Linda Woodhead writes in Christianity that

the modern world comes into being when power, rather than being seen as the possession of sovereigns and monarchs (earthly and heavenly) to whom individuals must submit their lives, comes to be seen as the possession of each individual subject. Since each one is sovereign in his or her own right, power is now thought to come from below, and to be bestowed by ‘the people’ on their rulers, rather than the other way round.

There are hints of things to come in Le Nozze in Figaro and Don Giovanni, where servants are no longer satisfied with their lot. Die Zauberflote is even more subversive. Mozart was a Catholic and a Mason which was not an unusual combination at that time. He used Die Zauberflote as a platform to express his belief in the coming brotherhood of men.

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The desire of an individual to free himself from the constrains imposed by the society is arguably the main preoccupation of Forman in all his films. It is also the main subject of Shaffer’s plays.

However, the matter of social and political emancipation is more complicated. At the end of the film, Salieri heralds the advent of a world without God, without art, and without metaphysics. This will be the world of Salieris in which there will be no place for Mozarts. Strangely enough, Salieri makes his prediction in a mental asylum.

His world is meant to be a utopia but it turns out as a dystopia. Equality seems to be inherently connected with mediocrity. This connection has been examined by many thinkers including Dostoevsky (Legend of the Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov), Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) and Ortega y Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses).

Amadeus is a rare case of a successful film adaptation of a play which satisfied both the playwright and the film director. It seems that Shaffer and Forman had similar views about the world and both loved music as an art with metaphysical connotations.

The film itself is constructed as an opera. Music is not just an illustration added to a story but carries the plot and provides an interpretation of the events shown on the screen. Discontinuous editing is used by Forman to emphasise the structural role played by music. The role of fragments of Mozart’s operas is to signal different stages in Mozart’s life, from Die Entführung aus dem Serail (courtship), through Le nozze di Figaro (marriage) and Don Giovanni (Mozart’s relationship with his father), to Die Zauberflöte (Mozart’s message to the world). The film ends with the Requiem which serves as premonition of Mozart’s own death.

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According to W. H. Auden, “No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” The same can be said about Amadeus. Its story is not very sensible. There is no evidence that Salieri poisoned Mozart, Salieri was not a mediocrity, and Mozart was not a mythical artist who composed without any effort, almost an idiot-savant. Like in operas, the plot in Amadeus is subservient to music.

Formally, Amadeus is as artificial as any opera. Its meaning though is deep intellectually and engaging emotionally. Opera is a drama through music not merely a drama with music, and so is Amadeus.

Opera is an Italian invention and therefore necessarily connected with Catholicism. One can go as far as claiming a link between religion and opera. Elaborate liturgy of the Catholic mass is not unlike the spectacle of an opera whose aim is to dazzle the spectator. Seen from this perspective, opera is a secularised mass. A Baroque church is not that different from an opera stage.

Forman turned Shaffer’s cerebral play into a dazzling spectacle. He used Baroque interiors in his native Czechoslovakia to emphasise the role of visual sensitivity in Catholic Europe. Amadeus is a highly successful marriage of psychological depth of Shaffer’s play with Forman’s visual imagination. Amadeus has not lost its power since it was first shown in cinemas in 1984. It often appears on the lists of best films ever made.

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Why is the West ahead of Islam?

(this is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Beata Janowska with Professor Marek Gensler, of the University of Łódź (Poland). The interview was published in Gazeta Wyborcza on 21 March 2016. The translation and the choice of images are mine).

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Henri Bechard Interior of the Amrou mosque ca 1870

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a question arose in the Arab and Latin civilisations of what to do with philosophy. The response was different in each of these two civilisations. In your view, it was a key moment which paved the paths of the Muslim world and Europe. In the eleventh century, the Arabs were far superior to the Latins in their knowledge of philosophy.

Yes, the Arabs knew philosophy incomparably better than the Latins because they inherited ancient philosophy directly from the Greeks. When they conquered Egypt in the seventh century, the Mouseion in Alexandria was still a major intellectual institution of the ancient world. The legacy of Aristotle and Plato, or rather of the whole philosophical tradition, was very much alive in Alexandria at that time.

The Latins hardly knew Aristotle, because only a few of his minor texts were translated into Latin before the sixth century. Previously, there was no need for translations because everyone who dealt with philosophy knew the Greek language. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and the dark ages began between the sixth and tenth century, contacts with the Greek world had weakened. People no longer understood Greek and all the important texts were lost or were in Byzantium and therefore inaccessible. Nevertheless, Aristotle was still believed to be a great philosopher because he appears as such in the works of St. Augustine.

There were at that time important philosophical centres in Syria.

This is another story, they were created by refugees from Athens. In 529, the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of pagan schools, or more precisely, forbade non-Christians to teach in them. This resulted in the transfer of the Alexandrian school to Christians and that transfer occurred through an arrangement between Christians and pagans. In Athens, however, the philosophical school was closed because the Athenians did not want to negotiate with Christians and preferred to emigrate to Hellenised Syria which was then controlled by the Persians.

In Syria, they translated Neoplatonic texts first into Syriac and then, when the Arabs took over those lands, into Arabic. This work continued in Baghdad, the new capital of the Muslim empire, where a school was established at the court of the caliph. From the fifth to the eighth century, interesting things were done in philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire, of which the Latins were not aware of because of their separation from Byzantium. In contrast, the Arab conquerors of the Roman provinces in the south and east of the Mediterranean showed great interest in the philosophical thought of the conquered population.

Did the Arabs learn Greek?

They employed Greeks and Syrians as translators. Syrians were often were bilingual and, as their Semitic language is close to the Arab language, it was not particularly difficult for them to translate philosophical texts into Arabic. Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus, was a Syrian. There were schools established at the courts of Muslim rulers because the Arabs, unlike the Latins, believed that the monarch should be educated. The Arabs accepted the Greek ideal of an enlightened ruler. The sons of emirs and sultans had to learn philosophy, often from textbooks written specially for them.

In Islam, education was not associated with religion and science was secular in nature. Islam did not develop theology in the Western sense. When Muslim lawyers needed logic, they learned it from ancient thinkers, while doctors studied biology from the same source. However, most Muslims did not think that they could learn anything from pagans about God.

Why did philosophy and theology come close to each other in the West?

Unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity treats its holy texts as dictated by the Holy Spirit to specific people at a specific time. That is why they have a supernatural element, but also human. The task of the theologian is to extract the revealed truth from a text written down by a human being. The holy text must be freed from the accretions of human origin, and expressed again to be understood by a new generation. St. Augustine said that no one understands fully the message of holy books. Acculturation of the holy texts is therefore necessary for every believer.

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Tommaso da Modena Albertus Magnus 1352

Do you mean that one has to interpret Biblical texts anew in order to reconcile them with the level of knowledge and way of understanding of the world at a particular time?

Christians were aware of this from the very beginning. The first theological school was established in Alexandria by Clement at the beginning of the third century, when paganism still prevailed. Origen, who received solid philosophical and philological education at that school, distinguished three levels of interpretation of the revealed text. The first is the somatic or bodily level which involved a literal reading of the simple truths such as the Ten Commandments. The second level, which is psychic, refers to the soul. At this level, moral truths are dissected from the sacred texts for a particular time and place. For example, in the Old Testament, polygamy was allowed, and now it is not. Why? After all, it is not possible for God to change His commandments and indeed, He did not change them, only Man learned to read them differently. That’s what God allowed at the times of Abraham, it became unacceptable when mankind developed new sensitivities. People now understand that having four or five wives is a bad idea. It’s better to have one, lifelong companion. Moral progress affects the interpretation of the biblical texts whose meaning can be adapted to a particular period in the history of mankind.

The third and highest level of Origen’s scheme is called pneumatic as it involves the spirit (Gr. pneuma) and not the soul. At this level, the Bible is being interpreted allegorically to gain knowledge of Man as a creature of God and of God himself. This is the theology in the strict sense i.e. the speculative theology. This is what Christianity managed to gain through philosophy. Without philosophical conceptualisation, we would be doomed to a literal reading of the Bible.

As it is in Islam and Judaism?

In Islam and Judaism, the sacred text is treated as revealed in full, without the human element. In the Torah, which contains the Mosaic laws, there are rules governing nearly all aspects of life and there is not much room for speculation, though Judaism is still much more open than Islam. On the other hand, the Arabs believed that as long as religion does not intersect with science, everything is fine. Religious Islamic law is disconnected from ethics. Metaphysics is also absent. Muslims rejected it as a tool to know God, because there is no place in Islam for a discussion about God as the first cause.

Initially, Muslims showed great enthusiasm for philosophy and there was even a kind of speculative Muslim theology developed by scholars of the Koran, Mutazilites, but later philosophy was considered as unhelpful in spiritual development. Muslims began to wonder whether the extraction of pure knowledge from the Qur’an about God and creation is indeed necessary and whether it leads to salvation. Maybe this is an expression of arrogance of reason which leads people astray? Christians in the West also have such doubts. The eleventh century is a time of great dispute about the value of philosophy, both among Christians and Muslims.

These concerns are best expressed by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) and Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). 

Damian, a Benedictine monk, came to the conclusion that the development of philosophy went too far. Young and ambitious monks had the audacity to discuss issues such as, What it means that God is omnipotent. Is He omnipotent in such a way that even the principle of contradiction does not apply to Him? Damian was irritated by such deliberations because, being well educated, he sensed that the philosophy began to drift dangerously, freeing itself from theology, and soon it could happen that the philosophy would begin to dictate the terms to theology.

Did Damian believe that the teaching of philosophy should be forbidden?

He wanted to see theology above philosophy. This order was determined by the Augustinian concept of goods, according to which the knowledge of God is the supreme good, so that what serves this aim is also good, including philosophy. However, when philosophy ceases to be a means to this end, and sets itself other goals, it becomes evil because it distracts man from God. Damian worried that philosophy began to separate itself from theology as an autonomous discipline and to impose scientific requirements on theology. He wanted philosophy to be ancilla theologiae, a servant of theology. If philosophy does not want to play this role, it should be discarded.

Al-Ghazali rejected philosophy for slightly different reasons.

Both Damian and Al-Ghazali were scholars and long-time teachers of philosophy. Al-Ghazali studied, commented and taught philosophy until he had a kind of mystical vision that changed his life. He gave up teaching, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and travelled a lot. He abandoned teaching to venture on the mystical search for God. In his famous work The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he criticised the philosophical approach to God as erroneous and of little value. He did not say that philosophy is bad but that it is inferior to mysticism. Such views were voiced in Islam before, however, it was Al-Ghazali who triggered the loss of interest in philosophy among Muslims who gradually abandoned speculative theology which anyway was in an early stage of development. Interestingly, Al-Ghazali also distrusted the systematic study of Qu’ranic law and the emphasis on orthodoxy by its guardians. He maintained that Sufis, or mystics, are closer to God.

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Jean-Leon Gerome Prayer in Cairo 1865 

Did Al-Ghazali recommend the abandonment of philosophy for religion?

In the eleventh century, Islamic mysticism went beyond its religious frame, with eminent Sufis suggesting that God is too great to be constrained within one religion. In all religions, mystics are censored because of individualism in their approach to faith. Nowadays, Islamic fundamentalists blow up the tombs of famous Sufis because individualism makes Sufism heretical. Christianity experienced similar problems, as mysticism often leads to heresy.

In the eleventh century, philosophy and science were synonymous. For as much as one could grasp a thing scientifically, one could only describe it in the concepts of philosophy. Even medicine was in fact the practical use of natural philosophy. The emancipation of science occurred in later centuries. A major step on this road was the appearance of universities in Europe in the thirteenth century, with the autonomy of studies and research in various departments. At the faculty of liberal arts, people were free to philosophise in a secular context; they were even forbidden to deal with religious issues. They were only bound by the principles of correct reasoning and by the correspondence between thought and reality. Interestingly, students at the faculty of theology engaged in thought experiments by using the procedures of so-called secundum imaginationem, which are exercises to imagine an entirely hypothetical situation such as, for example, God commanding us to hate Him. This idea was later developed by philosophers and eventually incorporated into the study of nature as an idealisation, that is the representation of a hypothetical state of nature stripped of certain elements which are non-essential from the point of view of the hypothesis under investigation.

For the development of science, it is important to develop complicated theories and to define concepts. Without philosophy and theology, there might not be such giants of science as Newton and Leibniz.

That’s right. Theology was a discipline for pioneering a new type of scientific hypotheses, which were later tested empirically. In science, verification was carried out by experiment, while in theology it was affected by reference to the tradition of religious dogma and the examination whether new theses are consistent with it, or lead to contradictions.

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Laurentius de Voltolina

If the West rejected philosophy at that time, would science also be rejected? Was it a decisive point in the fate of Western civilisation?

Yes indeed, although it is difficult for us to accept that this is the case because for the past three centuries we got accustomed to the idea that science is the avant-garde of knowledge and theology is of little consequence. But in the Middle Ages, science found protection under the wings of theology. Regrettably, people now see the the Middle Ages in pejorative terms. Reputation of the Middle Ages suffered greatly during the Enlightenment. Most people nowadays cherish the Renaissance which supposed to be a period of the restoration of antique tradition. In fact, modern science is the legacy of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which the achievements of antiquity were enriched and developed further.

Mystical knowledge also involves intellect which is however engaged in contemplation rather than speculation. Mystical experience cannot be shared with others. Unlike philosophy, mysticism cannot be taught. Mystical knowledge does not require a conceptual apparatus because the mystical union is inexpressible.

In the West, the position of philosophy was defended by St. Anselm (1033-1109), the archbishop of Canterbury.

The authority of Anselm was instrumental in the continued duration of philosophy as an inalienable component of education. He strongly supported the autonomy of philosophy. Justifiably, Anselm is called the father of scholasticism. He claimed that philosophy is absolutely necessary as an element of education and without education one cannot acquire the knowledge of God.

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Ludwig Deutsch The Scribe 1911

In the Arab world, science was defended by Averroes (1126-1198).

Averroes was aware of the damage caused to philosophy by Al-Ghazali, and in response to it he wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence in which he provided arguments against mysticism. According to Averroes, philosophy it is the highest form of theology because only philosophy uses abstract terms, being the subtlest and most sophisticated of all possible forms of expressions as the language of the abstract. Philosophy is capable of expressing matters concerning God as the supreme cause in the fullest and most precise way. Averroes did not differ in that from Aristotle who argued that philosophy leads to the knowledge of God as the first mover. By knowing the causes of things we attain perfect knowledge.

But he failed.

Averroes could play the same role in Islam as Anselm did in Christianity but he had insufficient authority as a religious thinker. He was a kadim, or Islamic judge, a person of great importance but not important enough to save philosophy. He was accused of the lack of piety, because he claimed that philosophy, not religion, is the surest path towards God. As a result, he had to flee from his native Cordoba to Africa. Averroes was treated as a heretic. After him, the authority of philosophy crumbled to dust and even his pupil Ibn Arabi abandoned philosophy for mysticism. Averroes is the last great scholar and philosopher of the Arab world.

In the East, there were no universities in the Western sense because there was no room for autonomous faculties. The University in Cairo, founded in the tenth century, is only a religious school. Over the following centuries, only remnants of philosophy needed by medics and lawyers were preserved in Islam. It is a sad paradox that, when in the twelfth century the Latins literally rushed to the Arab philosophy, and the great Arab scholars were read with admiration in Europe, the thinkers of the Muslim world already switched to mysticism. When universities flourished in Western Europe and became institutions of higher learning in the full sense of the word, science almost completely froze in the Arab world.

We can say that in the relay race of human progress, the baton was taken by another player at the very last moment.

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Islam must modernise itself. An interview with a Muslim writer

Polish-born writer Piotr Ibrahim Kalwas lives in Alexandria, Egypt, together with his wife and son. He is a Muslim with a difference. His Islam incorporates humanism, openness, tolerance and free thinking. Kalwas explains his views in an interview published in a Polish online magazine, natemat.pl (the translation is mine).

kalwas

You converted to Islam 13 years ago and emigrated to Egypt 5 years ago. What seduced you in Islam?

It is a very private question and the answer is lost a little in the past. It was certainly a quest for the meaning of life, religion, and for a point of support in life. I has always been interested in religions. At some point, I started to read various holy books, one after another, and I was captivated by the Qur’an. I started going to the mosque in Warsaw, attended “lessons” there, and somehow slowly it all began.

People make comments in social media that the Qur’an is not a pleasant book. There is a lot of killing in it, and cutting off heads, etc.

It depends on who reads it. As with any holy book, it is a matter of interpretation. We know how the Gospels were read by Inquisitors, Crusaders and all those who sowed violence in Christianity. The same can be done with Qur’an and that’s what jihadists and Islamists are doing.

But it is also true that in the Qur’an, which is the text written in the Arabian Desert fifteen centuries ago, we find fragments that from the perspective of cultural humanism seem threatening. I’m not trying to sweep them under the carpet, as it is done by many Muslims. There are controversial verses in Qur’an and worst of all, their interpretation has not changed for centuries.

With the exception of small  modernist movements, these verses are treated literally by Muslims. They urge Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews, to kill unbelievers, to beat women and cut off the hands of thieves.  This may give rise to fear. I agree that such passages should be re-interpreted and treated symbolically and metaphorically.

So Islam should adapt to the times?

Yes, because Islam is not developing intellectually. Any attempt to change the interpretation of the Qur’an is regarded by most Muslims with suspicion, if not with rage. Qur’an has ossified. It contains archaic messages that frighten people. This must change.

Except that in Islam – in Sunnism – there is no hierarchy, as in the Catholic Church. Therefore it’s more difficult to develop one interpretation.

It is true that theoretically the clergy exists only in Shia Islam where ayatollahs decide about everything. But Sunni Islam also has its institutions, Egypt’s Al-Azhar University and universities in Mecca for example. This is also the Islamic clergy, which unfortunately has solidified into conservative and archaic thinking. All fatwas issued through the centuries by the clergy do not bring anything new. On the contrary, they move Islam backwards. When I sometimes listen to the arguments of various Arab sheikhs on TV, I feel like I’ve just listened to scholars from 100 or 200 years ago. This is a vicious circle of traditionalism.

On the other hand, the community of the faithful is also backward and cannot cope with the ever changing modern world. What does the large part of aggression of Muslims towards the West come from? From the lack of understanding, from envy, from powerlessness of the people who do not know which way to go.  Should they choose the way of modernity? But that’s the West. Religiosity? But which form of it if fundamentalism lurks everywhere. It all adds up to the image of Islam. Islam is a poorer relative of other religions, not only intellectually, but also materially.

Do you think that the greatest error of Muslims is their literal interpretation of the words from fifteen centuries ago? Is this the root of all the problems?

Yes, I think this is the main root of backwardness of the Muslim world. Its centre is the religious perception of reality. This is visible in education which is of very low quality. Someone once said that Egypt is a country that invents the most significant ideas in the Muslim world – the worst and best. In Egypt, education is really bad. And yet a thousand years ago Egypt radiated education and knowledge. Arabs often mention the wonderful time of the Caliphate which extended from Spain to India.

Maybe you just want Islam in the European version?

What counts are the facts. There is no science here, no new ideas are being invented, no significant literature is being written, there is nothing happening here intellectually. But there is terrible poverty. Not only European Muslims but also some young people in Muslim countries ponder about what is happening, whether they will always be poor, copying everything from the West, or will they participate in creating the modern world?

There has been a slippery slope here for centuries. At the same time, it is difficult to find out what people really think because many of them have an inferiority complex towards the West. When asked about their world, they are reluctant to talk, often being suspicious of foreigners. It is a characteristic of closed societies – people suspect foreign interference, which will apparently make their lives even more difficult.

You’re talking about the reform of Islam. But how do you cope yourself with the most controversial passages of the Qur’an? By ignoring them?

Yes. I’m not saying that they are not true, I do not deny the holiness of the book. I conclude that God, in his wisdom, could reveal verses that are no longer valid if they are not interpreted anew. So I ignore some of them and I reinterpret other passages on my own. Take, for example, the cutting off the hands of thieves. When asked, an Egyptian will declare his strong opposition to such practices. On the other hand, surveys show that 80 per cent of Egyptian population supports this type of punishment.  Where is the truth? It’s hidden and concealed.

There are verses in the  Qur’an, like those about marriage for example, that refer to the concrete reality of fifteen centuries ago. They were revealed in the desert. How can they be presented to someone who, for example, adopts Islam in Greenland? After all, they are completely at odds with the modern world, culturally and even geographically. These verses require continuous interpretation. And when the Qur’an is not being interpreted, it dies – just like any other book. At the moment, certain verses or hadiths are dead, empty, because they cannot be adapted to other cultures. It’s wrong to understand them literally as some converts and neophytes do.

So you don’t agree with the position of women in Islam?

Of course not. I treat women the same way as any other creature. The vision of women’s role in the society from 1500 years ago cannot be transplated to our modern world.  Everything was revealed in certain time and place. Even the Buddhists have interpreted and re-interpreted their religion or philosophy all the time through the centuries, and that’s why their religion is alive. The same happens in Christianity, although after centuries of stagnation.

You choose different things from Qur’an in such a way that really nothing is left of it.

This is only my vision, that’s just what I practice. I do not impose my vision on anyone. I am a devotee of individualism, which in Islam barely exists. Here, a community is everything, all follow the sheikh, the imam or ulema. I myself interpret Islam in my own way and as this religion has no pope or a central authority, I believe that every Muslim should act in a similar manner. Meanwhile, in Egypt 30 per cent of people cannot read or write, so what do you expect? Unfortunately, one cannot expect independent thinking and reflection.

What would be your general conclusion about Islam. Is it a good or bad religion, of peace or war?

Let’s be honest. Most Muslims follow the traditionalist and conservative interpretation of Islam. This does not mean that these people are bad. They are usually very hospitable, kind, and would not hurt even a fly. The overwhelming majority of Muslims also hate terrorism and do not want to have anything to do with it. At the same time, their thinking is traditionalist and sometimes fundamentalist.

There is also a small minority, a handful of people like me who want to change Islam. Because traditionalist thinking among Muslims will not move this world forward by even one step. The Muslim world does not need a revolution in the sense of overthrowing everything, it needs the enlightenment that can only come from Muslims themselves.

[What do you think about the critics of Islam?]

I do not pay any attention to those who write hateful comments about Islam. Mind you, some Muslims also use a similar language. One can often observe that both sides are barking at each other in social media. Often it is just hatred … but keep in mind that there are voices that criticise Islam from a legitimate position. They do not intend to offend but to stimulate a fruitful re-examination of Islam among Muslims. I read such comments with interest and often agree with them. I think that criticism and self-criticism are the basis of intellectual development.

… Islam is a religion that requires total engagement and refers to every aspect of life… It all requires deep reflection. Anyone can become either a monster with bombs in his pockets and boots, or he can follow the path of love and knowledge. For me, these are the two most important things.

(this is an abridged version of an interview which is available in Polish at http://michalgasior.natemat.pl/131929,polski-muzulmanin-z-egiptu-piotr-ibrahim-kalwas-polscy-konwertyci-przestaja-myslec-i-klepia-islamkie-pacierze)

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The meaning of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment

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Crime and Punishment is a theological treatise in a narrative form. It’s not a psychological novel and even less a crime story but a Russian theodicy. Characters are meant to embody the ideas drawn from the Gospels.

On the way to a penal settlement in Siberia, Dostoyevsky was given the New Testament by an aristocratic lady. This was the only book which he read during the four years of penal labour, even when he had a chance to read something else.  Dostoyevsky is a direct disciple of the apostles.  All the great themes he deals with in his novels come from the Gospels. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Gospels for Dostoyevsky. (Stanislaw Mackiewicz Dostojewski)

Crime and Punishment should be seen as Dostoyevsky’s reflections on the commandment “thou shall not kill”. The novel’s protagonist, Raskolnikov (raskol – schism), imagines himself to be the master of his fate and the fate of others. Dostoyevsky describes him as an atheist who wants to arrange the world according to the principles of Reason, as he is strongly convinced that Logos rules the world.

God gives him a painful lesson. Raskolnikov kills a pawnbroker in the name of humanity but circumstances made him to kill her half-sister as well. The latter victim was supposed to be one of the beneficiaries of his act. Dostoyevsky’s message is that God is not the same as Logos, as they think in Europe, and Catholics in particular. Dostoyevsky hated Catholicism in which God is benevolent, knowable and identical with the Greek concept of the Good. He sees in Catholicism a form of humanism. The papacy is therefore guilty of distorting the divine message. Catholics say that they have the power of the keys, potestas clavium, or the keys to God’s kingdom on earth. That’s why when God appears again on earth, the Great Inquisitor (in Brothers Karamazov) orders to imprison him. God of the Russian orthodoxy is inscrutable and omnipotent – and not necessarily benevolent.

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Vasily Surikov Boyarynya Morozova, 1887

Raskolnikov gradually comes to realisation that Man is weak and cannot do anything without God whose emissaries in the novel, the detective Porfiry and the prostitute Sonia, urge him to submit unconditionally to God. All Raskolnikov needs to do is to kiss the earth in the presence of the simple folk. Raskolikov’s crime is not that he killed. The title of the novel should be understood as the transgression of the divine order and its restoration. Raskolnikov sins against God rather than against fellow human beings. All what’s important in the novel happens in his mind. His crime is theological in nature and the murder is just the consequence of it. The murder is an illustration of an idea, a narrative device to make the novel more dramatic. The crime of atheism and humanism would be equally heinous without it. Homicide is used by Dostoyevsky to strengthen his argument that emancipated Reason will lead to deicide and when God is killed, everything is permitted, even murder – “Everything is permitted to the intelligent man” (Brothers Karamazov). In Brothers Karamazov, one who commits deicide in his thoughts is made morally responsible for parricide.

Dostoyevsky himself explains the meaning of his novel as follows:

[Raskolnikov’s deed] turns out to be a sin, a violation of inner moral justice. His violation of the outer law meets its lawful retribution from without in exile and penal servitude, but his inward sin of pride that has separated the strong man from humanity and has led him to commit murder – that inward sin of self-idolatry can only be redeemed by an inner moral act of self-renunciation. His boundless self-confidence must disappear in the face of that which is greater than himself, and his self-fabricated justification must humble itself. (David McDuff  Crime and Punishment in Reference Guide to World Literature, 3rd edition)

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Ilya Repin Religious Procession in Kursk Province, 1880-1883

When compared with the novels of Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens, Les Miserables and Oliver Twist in particular, Crime and Punishment seems to probe much deeper into the great questions of life. Crime and Punishment is Les Miserables a rebours. Both Jean Valjean and Raskolnikov are repentant sinners but Valjean is an accidental sinner who is pushed towards crime by circumstances and he achieves redemption through good deeds. Raskolnikov commits a crime as an act gratuit when his only motivation is to prove the validity of an idea. The sin of murder makes him realise that only faith and unconditional submission to God will save his soul. In his case, salvation is through faith only and not through deeds. The God of the Russian Orthodox Church is closer to sinners than to righteous men. In Crime and Punishment, God reveals Himself to a murderer and a prostitute.

Murder plays a central role in all of Dostoyevsky’s big novels. Apart from making a story more dramatic, it also has a religious function. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky suggests that murder is the logical consequence of the abandonment of God. Murder triggers in Raskolnikov the process of recognising God as the only sovereign and the source of all values. This is a peculiar form of Revelation through murder.

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Christ The Pantocrator
The Trinity Cathedral of the St. Sergius’ Trinity Monastery
Sergiev Posad

Dostoyevsky warns in Crime and Punishment about the consequences of nihilism but his warning can be turned against him. Russian nihilism is not what the term suggests. Nihilist Bazarov, in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, is a humanist and a believer in progress through education.  In the nineteenth century Russia, nihilists are those who assert human agency in history. One could argue that it’s those who deny the existence of human agency are true nihilists. If we accept this reasoning, it’s Dostoevsky who is a nihilist because he demands total submission to an imaginary deity.

Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest novels ever written albeit with an anti-modern, anti-Western and anti-humanist message.

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