Mircea Eliade’s A History Of Religious Ideas (Vol.3)

In my ongoing effort to better acquaint myself with religious thought, I have arrived at the final volume of Mircea Eliade’s sweeping A History Of Religious Ideas, covering not only the appearance of Islam and the inevitable clashes with Christianity, culminating in the Crusades, but the “age of reforms” inaugurated by Luther’s famous “Ninety-five Theses.” In its plenitude, the book even bursts from the confines of its subtitle, offering chapters on religious thought in Nepal up to 1960 and a “Present position of studies” addendum, surveying the work of Eliade’s contemporaries and only further reinforcing to us just how widely he had read within his field.

One of the great obstacles to a modern understanding of ancient religions is the declining role religious belief now plays in public life, at least in the city-centres of what was once thought of as Western civilization. That men would willingly kill or die over differences of scriptural interpretation now seems to us an absurdity beyond comprehension, though we might check our hubris by recalling the millions of lives lost in the 20th century alone over differences of political ideology, or the noted tendency of political movements like communism and fascism to fracture into various competing ideological factions, often over a trivial difference of interpretation – are these so unlike the schisms in Christianity or Islam?

Consider Islam, and a very recent example of murder in the name of religion: the so-called Salman Rushdie affair, precipitated by the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. Eliade’s description of Muhammad and the founding of Islam describes a pragmatic monotheist attempting to gain a foothold in the polytheistic tribes of Arabia.

In proclaiming, “There is no god but Allah!,” Muhammad did not envisage the founding of a new religion. He wished simply “to awaken” his fellow citizens, to persuade them to venerate Allah alone: they already recognized him as the creator of Heaven and Earth and the bestower of fertility.; they evoked him on the occasion of the great crises and great dangers; and they swore “by God the most earnest oaths.” Allah was, besides, the Lord of the Ka’ba. In one of the oldest suras, Muhammad asks the members of his own tribe, the Quraysh, to “serve the Lord of this House who has fed them against hunger and hath made them safe from fear.”

To whatever extent Muhammad proclaimed the divinity or the greatness of Allah, he was tolerated and even welcomed. But his attempts to preach against the other deities, some of which were favoured, brought him antagonisms that he could ill afford. And one of his earliest concessions to practicality has bedevilled the religion to the present day: verses mentioning and even glorifying three pagan goddesses, Allat, Al’Uzza and Manat. “They are sublime goddesses and their intercession is certainly desirable.” These verses, problematic for an aspiring monotheism, were later replaced by Mohammad, with the new description of the goddesses decidedly less flattering: “They are naught but names yourselves have named, and your fathers … And yet guidance has come to them from their Lord.” The original verses were said to be inspired by Satan – hence “the satanic verses.” Eliade’s description of the reaction of the pagan society demonstrates the psychological, political and spiritual stakes of Muhammad’s revelations:

For the rich oligarchs of the Quraysh to renounce “paganism” was equivalent to the loss of their privileges. Moreover, to recognize Muhammad as the true Apostle of God also implied the recognition of his political supremacy. Graver still, the revelation proclaimed by the Prophet condemned their polytheistic ancestors to perpetual Hell, an unacceptable idea for a traditional society.

For pre-modern societies, the religious and the political were largely inseparable, for the claims of the religious informed how they behaved, what they valued, and what they were and were not willing to die for.

Eliade’s treatment of Christianity, from Augustine to Luther, reveals similar doctrinal schisms, from the 5th century “Pelagian heresy” denying the doctrine of original sin (“If sin is innate, it is not voluntary; if it is voluntary, then it is not innate”) and therefore making possible the achievement of perfection on earth, without God’s intervention, to the reforms of Luther, whose relatively minor objection to indulgences ended in precipitating a sundering of Western Christianity that continues to this day. What the triad of works constituting A History Of Religious Ideas reveal, in the starkest possible terms, are the weighty stakes involved in religious thought, from the smallest tribes to the oldest and largest monotheisms. For most people, regardless of time or place, religious thought sacralized existence, simultaneously championing and reinforcing the system of values that made collective cooperation possible. These vast value systems are also not always mutually compatible, and Eliade’s treatment of the various conflicts, within a religious tradition and between religious traditions, makes this fact starkly evident. From this perspective, the nominally secular West is a grand experiment, destined either to permanently cast off the categories of religious thought or else collapse under the weight of its own ambitions. Having now followed Eliad’s whirlwind tour of religion, encompassing every continent and millennia of human history, I’m now confident I know where this experiment will end.