Sunday, June 04, 2006

Islam and the da Vinci code craze

The Christian displeasure over the premise that Jesus was an ordinary mortal reminded me at first of the annoyance we Muslims felt when newspapers published derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammad. Yet after careful scrutiny The da Vinci Code can be seen as a deeply religious attempt to actually salvage Christianity. Americans who can no longer maintain their Christian faith while immersed in a scientific culture, showed with mega-dollar enthusiasm that they delight in the intimation that we don’t need miracles to have faith. In celebrating such an idea secular fans of The da Vinci Code have reached an essentially Islamic viewpoint.

Muslims have been saying for centuries that their prophet was just a man. He was born of the union of a man and a woman. He married, had children, got sick, and died. Yet even though Mohammad didn’t walk on water or raise the dead he inspired a major religion equal in spiritual energy to any other.

In proposing a miracle-free version of Christianity The da Vinci Code brings to mind the same challenges we Muslims faced early in our history. Fourteen hundred years ago Islam pried our psyches away from belief in miracles. Even then some new Moslems immediately grabbed onto a surrogate: the belief that the bloodline of the Prophet is special. The da Vinci Code offers the same shelter to a Christianity orphaned by modern rationalism. The allure of Code is the thrill of discovering that Jesus may have left descendents, and that they may still be among us. Shiite Muslims understand this sentiment well. Even though Mohammad was mortal, Shiites believe he and his descendents are unique in a way that you and I aren’t. Muslim Sunnis on the other hand scratch their heads at the thought that God would play favorites with bloodlines. I was raised Shiite, but I can appreciate the Sunni insistence that God looks upon all of us as equals. Yet the popularity of Code demonstrates that the Shiite point of view also has a powerful aesthetic rightness.

To illustrate, the late Harvard scholar, Stephen Jay Gould, relates the story of the Spirit of St. Louis display at the Smithsonian. A scale model of the historic airplane was to be placed low enough it could be touched. When the advocacy group for the visually impaired was contacted for feedback, they commented that the model should be placed underneath and as close to the original as possible. In this anecdote Gould observes how essential it is for humans to feel the presence of the real thing even if we have no way of ascertaining that presence. The Shiite claim that genetic proximity to the Prophet’s blood is meaningful expresses the universal human preference for touch over abstractions. The idea that there are special people among us who physically carry Jesus’ blood will have mass appeal in the Christian West. The biological resurrection of Jesus is a message of hope for many who are culturally Christian, but whose rational minds can no longer accommodate a religion of miracles.

The parallel between Islam’s Shiism and The da Vinci Code version of Christianity extends to the emphasis on the female as a divine vessel . In The da Vinci Code Mary Magdalene is this vessel, the Holy Grail. The heroine of the story is her direct modern day descendant. In Shiism the lineage of Mohammad is carried through his daughter Fatemeh. The wife of the first Shiite Imam, Ali, and the female ancestor of all subsequent imams. Fatemeh is described in these terms by Ayatollah Khomeini: “Fatemeh is the full truth of humanity. She is a being from the realm of the angels that has appeared in the shape of a human with the face of a woman.” Of course Islam and The da Vinci Code part ways as to how to honor the female connection with the divine. In Islam the tendency has been to venerate through extreme segregation, whereas The da Vinci Code continues the modern Western penchant to venerate through extreme sexuality.

Are there historical lessons from Shiism that modern “da Vinci Code Christians” could learn from? Yes, we Shiites were ultimately unable to accept a miracle-free spiritual diet. Many of us still wait for our last Imam to reappear like a messiah to reestablish justice in the world. So if you are culturally Christian and were fascinated by the book or the movie, whether Jesus was God or mortal is ultimately irrelevant to your experience. If you were drawn in by a sense of deep mystery over Jesus’ biological descendents, then The da Vinci Code has succeeded in putting religion back into you.


Anonymous said...

Ari Siletz, a muslim?

Ari Siletz said...

In reply to anonymous:
The old saying goes, if you have a hundred sons name them all Mohammad. My father fell 98 sons short of a 100 so he felt free to name them both after Greek luminaries. Ari is short for Aristotle. Siletz is the name of a small native American tribe. It is a surname I adopted to honor the original host to all of America's immigrants.
Thanks for your readership and for taking the time to comment.

Anonymous said...

My relationship with Christ Jesus is unconditional. It doesn't matter what anybody says about Him because I know Jesus for myself.

Something that made me laugh is when people suggest that Jesus had a "special" bloodline, but can they not see we are all the bloodline of Christ? We are all God's children.

The bottom line really boils down to who do you trust. It can't be a little bit of this, little bit of that; there is no middle ground on any kind of judgement day. If you can't come up with an answer I suggest try asking God. You can give God a try and if you don't like Him, hey, the devil will always take you back.


Anonymous said...

Faulty argument my friend. First there is a major difference in response of the two groups. The European Muslims burning down different countries while Mullahs in the Islamic world cry for blood all this versus Christian theologian and historian pointing out the inaccuracies and those objecting not going to spend their money.

Secondly, your point that this was an attempt to bring more people to Jesus was surely not the original intent. Money was the leading cause, not spirituality.

Finally, the causal comparison of Modern Christianity to Shiism is objectionable. Christian from the beginning detail how women were essential elements of the history of Jesus as well as subsequent Saints. Significant difference with active participation versus being an attractive vessel of a bloodline.


Ari Siletz said...

In reply to Roberto,

Thanks for your thoughts, Roberto.

Why was there so much money to be made in the da Vinci Code? What deep psychological chord did this work strike? My essay explores a possible answer in a way that brings cultures together. The original intent of the author, if that matters, was to make money, as you say.

As far as women and Christianity is concerned, there is much feminist literature with which to argue that the trend towards gender equality is recent. However it is not in the spirit of this website to cast blame or engage in tit for tat religious oneupsmanship. I do hope that just as the European Christian culture has suceeded in modernizing its misogynistic traditions, so will the Islamic world. I believe the potential is there, and they need our compassionate help.

I agree with you that the Muslim reaction to the cartoons were extreme, though no countries were burned down as you have indicated. At any rate my guess is that the boycott of Danish farm products in Muslim countries did far more damage than any of the violent protests. A more impactful economic boycott by OPEC in the 70s created economic havoc in the West. I was in the United States at the time and frankly everyone would have been happier if the Muslim countries had satisfied themselves with just noisy protests.

Anonymous said...

First, as one who is personally somewhat familiar with Opus Dei, I am put off by its misrepresentation, and anything else Dan Brown is impugned. I have heard that art experts generally scoff at Dan Brown’s mis-representation of famous paintings. But it is fiction, and the standards for accuracy are loose. Entertainment is one thing, belief is another.

It seems to me that all of the great religions of the world share a sense of the supernatural, or God, with various understanding of the nature of God.

Somewhere between knowing nothing and knowing everything is a comfortable, balanced way of life: we really can know some things, besides just opinions. And most of us can discern between a miracle and a mystery.

To be semantically exact, we are surrounded by mysteries and miracles, depending on our perceptions. To say that things are only the way they must be is to deny that they could be any other way. To say that something you don’t understand is a miracle assumes something that you would not mean in saying it is a mystery.

The burden of proof then shifts to those who claim there is no God. One can not prove that God does not exist. No great religion even tries.

As for Jesus, he either was a fake, or he was not. There are too many grandiose claims in the scriptures (both before and after His birth) about his divinity to be dismissed outright. The divinity of Christ seems to be an all-or-nothing-story, in which the entire text of old and New Testament would need to be re-written to interpret it otherwise.


L.C.McCabe said...


That was an interesting take on the whole controversy. I don't know why it should be considered so blasphemous for Jesus to have been human and exhibit human feelings and experience love with a woman.

However, those thoughts run counter to the teachings of the Church and therefore it is considered heresy. Because followers are not to question, you are only supposed to accept. Once you start questioning underlying assumptions that are presented to you, there is a chance you will come up with different conclusions. And that is not acceptable when you are to take things "on faith."

Which is why discussions about religion are so fascinating, especially when put things into an historical context. And yes, I question a lot of things...

Frankly, I have a hard time with organized religions and prefer disorganized religion. Less dogma, more spirituality.

I had a question for you that was sparked by your essay.

I know from some of my readings that according to Islamic teachings, Jesus lived many years after he was put on the cross. Do you know if there is any suggestion of him marrying and having children?

I was just wondering if according to the Islamic accounts if Jesus spent his last years as a celebate bachelor or if he was like most men of the time and took a wife.

If he did, it could lead to a sequel: The Da Vinci Code in India.

And you know how Hollywood loves sequels! ;-)


Ari Siletz said...

In reply to Linda,
Muslim tradition denies Jesus' dying on the cross, but does little to assure us that he was just a man. He is always cast as an extreme ascetic. The following story from al-Ghazali makes it unlikely Jesus was married:
Jesus owned nothing but a comb and a cup. He once saw a man combing his beard with his fingers, so he threw away the comb. He saw another drinking from a river with his hands cupped, so Jesus threw away the cup.
On the other hand the Muslim Jesus was savvy enough about conjugal affairs to give advice to married couples: Here's one story: Jesus heard a couple arguing. "What is the problem," he asked. "I want a divorce because my wife's face has wrinkled prematurely," said the husband. Jesus said to the wife, "Stop eating so much. When food piles up in the stomach you lose your complexion." Apparently the Jesus of Muslim fables was quite modern in his preference for thin women with fair complexions.

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