more valuable than the intellect.”
until it shone, full-bloom, on the face of the Last Prophet (not shown).
(Afterwards, it continued as the Light of Sainthood or the Saintlight.)
The Primacy of the Prophets
Let me now try to summarize Mumford’s sociological treatment of prophets, interspersed with my occasional comments. Points of special interest are highlighted in yellow:
Situated as they are in nature, human beings have their work cut out for them. The basic necessities of food, drink, breathing and reproduction constrain them just as they do the rest of the animal kingdom. Moreover, human beings are conditioned by the society they are born into or live in, whether this be a tribe, a city, or a nation. Local customs, local mores define their existence.
But at a certain moment in history, a transformation takes place: one that is as important as the invention of language. Man seeks a new self, he becomes part of a more universal society.
One can call this the birth of the true human being, the emergence of a transcendent self not bound by the customs and strictures of the society one is born into. This, in fact, has been the aim of the classic religions for three thousand years. This change is a profound one, and given to humans neither by nature nor by culture: “the glimpse of higher pinnacles of development, in and through and ultimately beyond the person.”
This is exactly how the Meccan oligarchy viewed Mohammed. They felt threatened by his mission.
The term Mumford uses, “Universal Man,” is an alternate translation for “Perfect Human” (insan al-kâmil) in Sufism. (He does not give any indication of having been acquainted with Sufism, so he obviously meant it in a more general sense.)
According to Sufis, the self progresses through seven stages of selfhood and is reborn in a different condition at the end (“Die before you die”—the Prophet). The Grand Saint Abdelqader Geylani says that birds too are twice-born: “In its first birth, the bird consists of an egg. If it is not reborn, leaving its shell behind, it can never fly.” Elsewhere, Mumford defines the divine as “that which further[s] the processes of [spiritual] growth and ma[kes] it possible for man to slough off his dead selves, as the snake sloughs off its skin” (The Condition of Man (1944), p. 55). He might almost be talking about the seven stages of the self. He also says that a radical change of attitude is needed: “an assertion of the primacy of the person, and a shift from outer circumstances to inner values.” (Ibid.)
The reason should be evident, for the greatest of all human rewards is surely not animal satiety: therefore not health, not wealth, not luxury: not a multiplicity of sexual partners or an endless procession of feasts, all followed by drowsy oblivion. The greatest reward is a sense of possibilities above this lowland existence: the inner strength that spurns security; the vision one achieves only from the heights, after the hard effort of the climb. Because the new prophet represents, in excess, the highest but weakest side of man’s nature, he exercises a peculiar fascination over his fellows. ... Even to believe in its existence, too often requires a special act of faith: [a] faith in all that gives life the sense of some more ultimate goal than the endless cycle of animal necessities.
Can Any Prophet Be Regarded as God?
The short answer, according to Mumford, is “No.”
This does not mean that a prophet can be regarded as a run-of-the-mill human being, as any other Tom, Dick or Harry:
From the Local to the Universal
How a person becomes what he pretends to be is a problem that has still not been satisfactorily explained. (In Sufism, this is called Imitation versus Realization.) Unless this is achieved, however, that is, unless the experience can be more or less replicated, the total transformation of other human beings will not be possible: “it is only by a repetition of the original experience, by incarnation and conversion, that the original change can keep from lapsing into a social stereotype, given to vain repetitions and empty rituals, incapable of producing the freedom, the autonomy, the creativity of the original person.” Although even the smallest effort has its reward, the path of least action is the way of the ordinary householder; the path of exertion, of striving for higher attainment, is the way of the saints.
Although modern man scoffs at the concept of prophethood, he is clueless when it comes to understanding its reality. (To paraphrase The Upanishads: if you think you know the truth about God and His prophets, know that you know little indeed.) Even modern scholars are helpless in dealing with this truth, unable to overcome their preconceptions and hiding their ignorance behind a pile of verbiage:
Mumford calls the actualization of a prophet’s path in society “Materialization.” Like etherealization, this too occurs in stages: “In The Condition of Man I sought to summarize the stages of this whole transformation from personality to community under the heads of Formulation, Incarnation, Incorporation, and Embodiment.”
In the case of the Prophet, I’m reminded here of the early Meccan chapters of the Koran. Brief, poetic, sublime, they speak to us of horizons not yet fathomed. Probably, after the first chapter of the Koran (the Opening), it might be best for a newcomer to read the Koran in reverse. These final chapters are certainly the ones memorized most for recitation during Formal Prayer. In fact, in the renowned Sufi Ibn Arabi’s great work, “Meccan Revelations” (Futûhât al-Makkiya), Chapters 270 through 383, 114 in all, correspond to the 114 suras of the Koran in reverse order, beginning with the last (114th) sura and ending with the first (as Michel Chodkiewicz has pointed out). One thus “ascends” to the Opening Chapter.
This corresponds to the Prophet’s time in Mecca. Such was the opposition to him that, as historian Arnold Toynbee put it, “Muhammad himself was in daily danger of meeting Jesus’s fate.” Once he emigrated to Medina he proved to be, again according to Toynbee, “not only a prophet but also a political genius.”
To give substance to this new personality, one must do more than repeat the master’s precepts, capture his gestures, imitate his voice: the whole routine and discipline of life must in time be altered.
Finally, the prophet’s doctrine and example permeate society, informing and building a civilization, like a seed that grows into a tree:
In short, if the rebirth begins as an inner private change, it must be confirmed by an outer public one, before the new self can achieve a universal nature, superimposed on the more limited secular culture. Until these processes of incorporation and embodiment have taken place, the new personality will remain unformed, inoperative, insecure, subject to early extinction. ln the end, the very environment must be made over: everything, from costume to architecture, will be re-modeled and will in some degree record and express further the inner change that has taken place.
In the act of adapting... to the existing order and its favored “way of life” [the adherents of] the new religion will, often without any conscious guile, alter the original intentions of the prophet and even contradict his demands... At many points, then, the need for adaptability, as a condition for survival, may lead to wholesale perversions and betrayals…
"A word of truth, used in the service of falsehood." —Ali (the Fourth Caliph)
The death of a Man of Knowledge is the death of the world. In the case of the Prophet, many deviations from his Path have occurred through the centuries, from the Kharijites down to the less savory present-day manifestations. These, however...
... Do Not Invalidate the Truth
As Mumford succinctly puts it:
If words alone conveyed the message of the new person, the influence of the great prophets would be hard to understand; for their affirmations and acts differ in no special way from those of many other men of genius. [N]o mere examination of the new doctrine can fully account for their impact... If scattered intuitions and insights [alone] were capable of transforming life, they are indeed present in every great literature in quantities copious enough to produce a change. But the impress of a new personality is of a different order: through him many diffused and scattered ideas unite to produce, not other new ideas, but a man. [In the sense of human being, inclusive of both genders.]
It is as if a phase transition, a crystallization occurs, first within one person, then in all society.
By loving and imitating the parental, life-nurturing image of the new person, by bowing to his wisdom, by following in his footsteps, by accepting his ideal figure as a true and central image of man, toward which all smaller figures should approximate, peoples of the most diverse backgrounds and histories achieve a common bond and pursue a common goal.
* * *
I have dwelt on Mumford’s treatment at length because, with rare insight and eloquence, he outlines a different, sympathetic picture and a better map concerning what prophethood is all about. Using an unbiased intellect and acute powers of observation, he is able to discern truths that few others have remarked upon. This means that, using the same tool, anyone can reach the same conclusions, provided s/he is as well-informed as Mumford evidently was.
Why is reason important? Because it can, like Mumford has done, discern the truth—if it can act without bias. That is why children, those who are not fully awake, and the mentally unstable are not held accountable, for they lack powers of reasoning. Those who are deprived of free will are also not responsible, for while they may be in possession of their mental faculties, they have no freedom of choice.
So here’s what I think: don’t base your judgment of a religion on the failings of its all-too-human believers. Study, investigate. If, in the end, you find the precepts of a religion to your liking, that’s fine.
If you don’t, that’s OK, too.
The Most Important Thing
Finally, we may ask ourselves: what has Mumford missed?
All through his extraordinary analysis, Mumford has not posed one crucial question: why does a prophet (and after the Last Prophet, a Sufi saint) go through that transformation? In other words, what is it that makes one worthy of receiving such a stupendous gift?
The enlightenment of the West is the enlightenment of the mind, of reason. The enlightenment of the East is spiritual illumination. We need both, for the spirit and the mind are not the same thing. Moreover, the mind has its limitations, for “the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of” (Pascal). The ideal thing is to combine the mind and the heart, to speak from a place where both have their say. That is wisdom, it is what the prophets have done. And what they all emphasize is ethics (though this is not always apparent from the Bible). Visions prove to be temporary, even when they are authentic and not delusional. (Acid (LSD) users felt transported to the highest reaches of consciousness, yet they would fall out with each other when it came to performing the simplest chores, like who was going to do the dishes.)
What is most important is that spiritual growth is predicated on morality. The Prophet makes this plain: “Do you know who is bankrupt? ‘Bankrupt’ is one who [has] Prayer, Charity, and Fasting to their credit. However, s/he has insulted this person, slandered that one, wrongfully taken another’s wealth, shed someone else’s blood, beaten up somebody else...” (Muslim 2581, Tirmidhi.) In other words, morality is the bedrock on which everything else rests, and without which none of one’s observances count for much. And conversely—if you are serious about your religion and diligently try to fulfill its precepts, a little will go a long way: “Be sincere in your religion. Then, (relatively) few works will be enough for you.” (Hâkim, Mustadrak, 8.4.306.)
The Sufis have compared spiritual development to a greased pole: no matter how high you climb, and no matter how adept you are, if you’re morally deficient, you will not be able to hold onto your achievements, but will inevitably slip to the bottom sooner or later. All one’s efforts could come to naught. For spiritual growth, the Sufis have identified a higher stage of morality. They call it “courtesy” or noble conduct (adab), which is an even more refined state of thinking and acting—with compassion, with consideration, with lovingkindness. The Prophet said: “I have come to perfect your ethics.”
And that’s the important thing: it’s ethics, it’s morality.*
*Note: Those who criticize the Prophet for his multiple marriages, thereby imputing to him a deficiency in morality, confuse polygamy with fornication and casual sex—whereas these were the very things the Prophet himself was dead set against. Anyone who has been married knows that marriage is not exactly a walk in the park. A person married to two or three spouses finds that the complications and responsibilities are more than two or three times those of being married to a single woman. That the Prophet accepted these additional burdens for the sake of an alliance, or to save a woman widowed in combat by bringing her under the legal protection of marriage, should not be held against him, especially when one considers that Solomon had hundreds of wives and even Abraham had two. As Mumford observes above, “the greatest of all human rewards is surely not... a multiplicity of sexual partners.”
(Summarized and excerpted from Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life (1951), pp. 92-107.)
(DISCLAIMER: The excerpt above is reproduced in the spirit of fair use, for educational and illustrative purposes only, and in an effort to rescue some of Mumford’s astute observations from oblivion. I’m sure Mumford himself would have approved.)