The role of mythology in the collective Arab consciousness

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A mosque in Lebanon's Dinniyeh district. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Rahil Dandash

Published Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mythical thinking is alive and well in the Arab and Islamic worlds. It is even possible to say that awareness of the world for a large segment of our people remains to a large extent based on mythology, the reason for which can be explained in a variety of ways. Below is the summary of a discussion with Iraqi historian Khaz'al al-Majidi* about myths and their place in the collective Arab consciousness.

Among the most important causes that explain widespread mythical thinking in our societies, according to Iraqi historian Dr. Khaz'al Majidi, are the failure to develop and the lack of scientific innovation.

Majidi stresses that our Arab societies are still living in an extended Middle Ages, an era associated with totalitarian domination by religions (e.g. Islam and Christianity). With the start of the modern and then contemporary eras, the world modernized but the Arab world continued to hold medieval beliefs. Majidi says, “We were not able to build modern societies and states … the structures of our states were fragile, easily swept away by any Salafi storm,” in reference to the religious-cultural movement seeking a return to the norms of the Salaf, the early Muslims.

The most dangerous thing, Majidi believes, is the fact that the religious norms of the Middle Ages, including the myths and legends coming out of the dark pits of our past and collective subconscious, are metamorphosing into galvanizing slogans and imagery that fuel terrorism, conflict, and civil war, often in the name of God and holy symbols. Today, these myths are taking the form of car bombs, religious groups (sometimes charities), slogans, symbols, banners, and calls for death and martyrdom.

Although monotheistic religions fought myths, Majidi says no religion in the world can be free of mythology, to which religion has a fundamental link. In his view, myths do not exist outside religion, which – from the point of view of the humanities, including religious studies – consist of three main components: beliefs, myths, and rituals; and three secondary components: laws and ethics, holy biographies, and groups and denominations.

In other words, myths are the “backbone of every religion.” Their function is to simplify beliefs and rituals, especially for ordinary believers, so that they may understand and reinforce their faith. Ordinary people are not usually interested in the dogmas of religion, which myths make more accessible in the form of parables, icons, and so on.

Majidi explains that monotheistic religions are replete with legends that reinterpret the world and the lives of previous prophets in a new light. He says, “True, monotheistic religions have cut down the amount of myths, or linked them solely to God, but the absence of myths left people in need of intellectual and spiritual answers to fulfill their needs and curiosity regarding events in their lives and the world.”

Thus a kind of shift took place in the sacred themes of these myths towards prophets, saints, imams, and other religious symbols, who were now included in the metaphysical realm. In this way, the sacred was rearranged where the deity, the holiest of the holy, was made transcendent, while sacred tales were made to grant major religious symbols a quasi-divine status. Myths were dressed differently, and so were people, who felt that the sacred was now “protecting them, merging with them, or blessing them.”

There are many ways in which myths manifest themselves as realities in our Arab world, with endless examples, according to Majidi. The most important of these legends are the ones related to the miracles of the Prophet Mohammad for both Sunnis and Shia, the miracles of the imams for the Shia, and the miracles of the saints for the Sufis. “The biographies of all these figures are filled with supernatural and miraculous encounters, which are a type of myths,” Majidi says.

In the course of his research, the Iraqi historian concluded that the purpose of those stories was not to record actual history, as much as to teach certain lessons and give them a holy character, “to get people to believe in these figures’ strength, and forge bonds among those who believe in them.” However, Majidi continues, people over time turned the stories into historical narratives, which they then presumed to be unassailable facts.

“I am not questioning anyone's belief, and this is not my job; rather, I am only analyzing things in a scientific way,” Majidi adds. He also said that the phenomenon was not limited to Islam, but exists in all religions without exception.

Majidi calls for a cultural revolution that would expose the modern manifestations of religious mythology that he says belong to the past and ancient books. He goes as far as saying that the proponents of mythical thinking must be prosecuted criminally, as the law treasures above all civil life, while religious life should remain a “personal matter.”

*Khaz'al al-Majidi is a historian of religions and civilizations, a university professor, poet, and playwright. He lives in the Netherlands and is the author of several published works on the history of religions.


This article is a great example of the myths plaguing reactionary academia on the Middle East:
1) The myth of a linear development of history, where the western historical model is the only historical model and is loosely applied to histories of other areas of the world. This myth often argues, naively, that the Arab world is still in the middle ages (referring to the European middle ages) and that the Arab world still needs to ‘modernize’, or ‘modernize correctly’, completely ignoring the complexities of colonization and imperialism, as well as ignoring the contingency of histories.

2) The myth of Arab consciousness. Harking back to the days of orientalism, this myth, also naively, believes that there is such a thing as one, homogeneous, totalizing consciousness shared and fixed across the whole of the Arab countries in the Middle East, again completely ignoring the realities on the ground. That Arab consciousness is dated/religious/superstitious/under-developed/passive/uncritical is a common trope.

3) The myth of the objectivity and emancipatory elements of science. As Majidi points out, he is “only analyzing things in a scientific way”, and so assumes his research to free of biases. In so doing, he completely ignores the problematic narratives and notions informing his world view and so informing the initial outlook and results of his research. He ignores the power structures inherent in his research, which is power emanating from a world-view where the west is the center, and the middle east the periphery, meaning, “arab consciousness” and the rest of his results listed here are understood only in reference back to a model of western linear historical development. His “scientific way” does not induce progress/development/emancipation, rather it only subjects any conversations or practices towards change in the Middle East to be shaped in the image of the West.

"The law treasures above all civil life, while religious life should remain a “personal matter”. This is what I take from this. I distance myself from any bias towards Muslims within my own subjective interpretation. Besides, I regret the reality that the west sees others as "peripheral".

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