Christ, Khayyam and the paradoxes of peace: How hatred stems from religion and literature – Andrew Kenny

In reflecting on the turmoil of the past year, particularly in the Middle East, Andrew Kenny’s thoughts wandered to poignant excerpts from two distinct voices—Jesus Christ, a Jewish carpenter from over two millennia ago, and Omar Khayyam, a Persian polymath from a millennium past. While Christ preached peace in the Sermon on the Mount, history reveals paradoxes within Christianity, from the Crusades’ violence to the evolution of the Spanish Inquisition. Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, in contrast, exudes tranquility, prompting contemplation on the origins and transformations of hatred through the ages.

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How does hatred come from religion and literature?

By Andrew Kenny

Tomorrow is the New Year, and today is a time to ponder. Has 2023 been an exceptionally horrible year? Probably not, I suppose, although it seems like it. And 2024?

For no particular reason, as I was thinking of some of the horrors of the past year, especially in the Middle East, I was reminded of bits of religion and poetry, also from the Middle East. Here are two such extracts, one from a Jewish carpenter and preacher just over two thousand years ago, one from a Persian mathematician, astronomer and philosopher just under a thousand years ago.

From the Jew:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

From the Persian:

AWAKE! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

 Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:

   And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught

 The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky

 I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,

   ‘Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup

 Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.’

 With me along some Strip of Herbage strown

 That just divides the desert from the sown,

   Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,

 And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.

 Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

 A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou

   Beside me singing in the Wilderness –

 And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

 Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

   Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

 Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The first is the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus Christ, founder of Christianity. Indeed it is probably the central message, the most holy command in all the Christian faith – and one that been enthusiastically ignored by most of Christ’s devout followers as they went to war with swords in their hands and crosses on their breasts. The second is not a message at all but a reflection. The author is said to be Omar Khayyam, 1048-1131, a great Persian mathematician, astronomer and philosopher. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam became known to the Western world because of its wonderful English translation by Edward FitzGerald, 1809-1883. FitzGerald, a modest, self-effacing man, obviously had high literary gifts, even if he did nothing to publicise them (unlike his contemporary, Alfred Tennyson).

Rather vague

The poetry in the Rubaiyat is said to come from him, not Omar Khayyam. Indeed Khayyam’s authorship of the original is rather vague. But you cannot help thinking that the peace and beauty of the lines must have come from some mood in Persia at the time, from Persia that was then Islamic, and from an era that is often referred to as the golden age of Islam, where Moslem scholars and thinkers did much to bring about the Renaissance. What then turned the rational, peaceful, tolerant Islam of 12th Century Persia into the irrational, bigoted, hate-ridden Islam of modern Iran? There is nothing religious in the Rubaiyat, no injunctions from the Koran, but surely it represents a school of Islamic thought at the time? Sufi, maybe? In my version, the full Rubaiyat comes in 105 quatrains, of which I have selected five.

The thing that has frightened me most about the Hamas attack on unarmed Israeli men, women and children, and the Israeli response, is the sheer hatred these events stirred up, not only in people directly affected but even more in people not affected at all, by people living comfortable lives thousands of miles away in Europe, America and South Africa. The hatred was against Jews, and the hatred was strongest immediately after 7 October, when Jews were victims; it was less strong when Israel retaliated, and Jews were responsible for the deaths of Palestinian women and children. (This is extraneous to the point of this article but I now feel that the best thing that Israel could have done on 8 October was for Netanyahu to have taken full responsibility for the Israeli intelligence lapse that allowed the slaughter of his people and resigned. I think his heavy-handed military invasion of Gaza was stupid, reckless and cruel, harmful to Israel’s own interests, and exactly what Hamas hoped he would do.) My big question: where did all this hatred come from? Look again at the two passages above, one from the Christian religious leader, the other from an Islamic philosopher. How could these very different messages of peace and gentleness have led to such hatred?

Christianity has a history of paradox, sometimes leading to good, sometimes to bad. Christianity began as a religion of slaves in Roman times, and some centuries later turned into a religion of slave owners, when proud Christian countries such as Portugal, Spain and England made fortunes by trading in African slaves. Then Christian England, led by Wilberforce, became the first society in history to outlaw slavery. No African leader had ever called on slavery to be ended, nor had any Moslem country. Maybe Wilberforce had been influenced by an English slave-trader, John Newton, who repented from his sin, denounced slavery and, perhaps seeking redemption, wrote a hymn, Amazing Grace.

The crusades happened at about the same time Omar Khayyam was making his great advances in astronomy and writing poetry about peace and wine. They seemed to be sparked by genuine Christian fervour throughout Europe. The idea was to take back the Holy Land from the Moslems. But as the Christian crusaders, with their crosses of peace and battleaxes of war, moved east across Europe they took time to slaughter a lot of peaceful Jews. Why? Why did they hate Jews so much? The Jews had done nothing to them.

Noblest foe

The First Crusade was successful, and in 1099 it took Jerusalem and held it until it was reconquered for Islam by the great Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (‘Saladin’), forever after celebrated as Christianity’s noblest foe. King Richard 1 of England set out on the Third Crusade to try again. He was successful in everything except Jerusalem. He and Saladin fought each other, and have been hailed as chivalrous and gracious opponents. One of Richard’s chivalrous acts, at the Massacre of Ayyadieh, was to chop off the heads of two thousand Moslem prisoners in full view of Saladin to show how cross he was with him for reneging on an agreement.

In 1618, Europe, then advancing rapidly in science and art, was cursed with the hideous Thirty Years War, when two groups of Christians, Catholics and Protestants, fell on each other with seething, blood-soaked hatred. In the same period, and probably connected with it, devout Christians were torturing and burning to death old women suspected of witchcraft. The Bible was often used to justify this pagan, superstitious evil. I suppose, if you had asked, ‘Where in the gospels does Jesus speak about witches and tell you to roast them to death?’, you yourself would have been consigned to the flames. But from the thick of the witch-burning hysteria came an extraordinary Christian hero. The vile Spanish Inquisition, begun 1478, was the most evil Christian institution of all. Its primary purpose was to persecute Moslems and Jews.

But in yet another Christian paradox, it changed over the years and became a rigorous tribunal, employing high, impartial legal standards of evidence and witness. In 1608, the Inquisition appointed a priest, Alonso de Salazar Frías, to investigate witchcraft in Spain. He did so with great legal and scientific rigour, ignoring rumours and superstition, looking only for facts and corroborated witness.

One by one the witnesses to witchcraft and demonic possession fell to pieces before his cold questioning. They had been lying and fantasising. He reported back to the Inquisition that he had found no evidence of real witchcraft anywhere. The Catholic Church then proclaimed it a sin to believe in witchcraft or to report witchcraft. The witches disappeared from Spain. Salazar Frias is my greatest hero.

How different are the thoughts and sentiments in the Rubaiyat! There is no fervour, no irrationalism, no intolerance, above all, no hate, or even reproach for anyone. Mighty rulers, such as the ‘Sultan Mahmud on his Throne’, are gently levelled, in a poetic version of the modern crudity, ‘No matter how high his throne, the king sits upon his bum.’ There is a lot about wine, including the pleasant prospect of a full glass and the happy memory of an empty one. (This from an Islamic philosopher!)

Only one we shall ever know

The Rubaiyat has been accused of hedonism and fatalism, even cynicism. This is unfair. The Rubaiyat is never gluttonous, drunk, or lecherous, and never despairing or resentful of fate. It says that this world is the only one we shall ever know, and it is not a bad one at all, so we should respect it and make the most of it, and enjoy it calmly and peacefully. It might be that the ‘thou’ in ‘A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou’ is a girlfriend rather than a wife, but that is no reason not to love her, temporarily anyway, and certainly no reason to stone her to death.

The Rubaiyat does not ask us to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ but to enjoy the setting sun with a glass of wine and perhaps ‘Thou’. There are strong passive sentiments in both Christianity and Islam, which after all means ‘submission’. Jesus asked us to ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’ This seems to me rather silly, taking passiveness too far. But much worse was an extreme version of Protestantism, Calvinism.

Calvin devised the horrid doctrine of predestination. Our fate is sealed before we are born. Some are certain to go to heaven after death, others doomed to hell, not matter what we do in our lives, no matter how good or bad we are, no matter whether we are devout or profane. We have no free will. This seems to me a doctrine of pure despair, and you would think it would turn its followers into miserable sheep. Yet another Christian paradox: it did quite the opposite. It turned them into confident, happy, highly enterprising, productive and inventive people, producing great prosperity in new lands.

The Calvinists in the early United States of America were perhaps the hardest-working and most successful people in history. They turned the USA into the richest, most powerful country the world has ever seen. I do not know whether there is such a thing as free will. I do not think anyone knows. But I do know that you can only run a civilisation on the assumption of free will, and that those who believe in free will and act on it are usually the most successful. I do not think that Omar Khayyam would attack me for saying so. He would just smile peacefully.

How does all this relate to the strange, often disembodied hatred we have seen so much of recently? Why did rich, privileged, comfortable young people chant ‘Gas the Jews’ in front of the Sydney Opera House when they heard that 1,200 Jewish civilians had been raped, murdered and desecrated on 7 October? Why has there been such an outpouring of sympathy for Gaza Palestinians from the ANC leadership and such hatred for the Israelis, when the same ANC showed absolutely no sympathy for black African people killed in systematic, government-ordered slaughter in Zimbabwe next to them and in the Sudan not too far away? Far from hating Robert Mugabe and Omar Bashir, the mass murderers of black people, the ANC just loves Mugabe and is sympathetic to Bashir.

Simple and complicated

Hatred comes in many forms, simple and complicated. The hatred that black South Africans show to black foreigners is the simple, old-fashioned hatred that has always existed between different white races and different black races at certain times of development. The hatred between similar religions, Catholics and Protestants, Sunni and Shia, is also simple but contrived; the hatred they feel over minute differences of doctrine is just an excuse for hating each other. The hatred black leaders such as Julius Malema have for whites is complex and contradictory: on the one hand he hints he might slaughter them all at some stage; on the other he is desperate for his children to have white teachers.

Hitler committed the worst racial crime in history but his hatred of the Jews seems purely ideological and opportunist. He never showed personal animosity against Jews but seemed to develop hatred for them as a political aid, as a means of winning political support, and as a way of convincing himself of a cause and of gaining power, which was the driving aim of everything he did. The worldwide hatred of Jews after 7 October seems something different again, as if the Jews are a proxy for something else that rich, spoilt children in the West and the ANC elite resent. That something is probably the successful, prosperous, tolerant, liberal, capitalist Western world. Jews are seen as an unbearably successful version of Western prosperity.

Hatred can be overcome. In most of the West, Catholics and Protestants do not hate each other anymore. In Europe, the white tribes that warred for centuries are now mainly at peace with each other. A huge problem is that hatred brings meaning to some people living comfortable but dull lives, and they would feel deprived and unsettled without it. That is a question the prophets and poets do not seem to have addressed. I began this article hoping that I should find some logical threads in what I was writing but fear I have not done so. Happy New Year!

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Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.

This article was first published Daily Friend and is republished with permission

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