Why Can’t Jordan Peterson Understand Islam

I’m a fan of Jordan Peterson. I find him illuminating and undoubtedly life-changing in many ways. When I got his monumental book Maps of Meaning, I felt both excited and burdened by the intellectual effort it will take to enjoy it. In Maps of Meaning, Peterson explores the vast territory of human religious mythology. The book explores the experience of the human spirit through the examination of Near Eastern and Far Eastern religions, myths, and symbols. Yet I was shocked to find despite the book delving into the depth of Jewish, Greek, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist mythology, there was no mention of Islam. Could it be Peterson couldn’t find anything relatable or worthy? Not a single spark of wisdom? Not a single note in the symphony of human knowledge?!

I started to search if Peterson had said anything on the issue. It turned out he had,

I had spent a lot of time, when I was writing Maps of Meaning, for example, looking for commonalities among religious viewpoints and I was able to find deep commonalities between Buddhism and Christianity, and Daoism and Christianity, and Hinduism and Christianity for that matter, but it was a lot harder when it came to Islam. It is not a faith that opened itself up to me. I don’t understand it well.

For a man the caliber of Jordan Peterson to feel he can’t understand Islam and can’t comment on it is not to be taken lightly. But this is not due to a failure on Peterson’s part, but a testimony to the particularism of the Muslim faith. In Maps of Meaning, Peterson wanted to explore the abstract territoriality of human metaphysical belief and to explore the individual’s reasoning for his belief system through mythology. In other words, the subject of the book is the interrelation between the individual and the drama. The problem is, Islam lacks both.

THE AUSTERE FAITH

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Like the stark desert it emerged from, Islam does not permit drama, and there is no room for symbolism. The Quran retelling of Biblical stories is so simple, unmediated, unidimensional, plainspoken, and direct it doesn’t penetrate beyond the layer of narration. There is no cross-referencing, and there is no foreshadowing.

Peterson uses art in his explanatory models as one of the primary vehicles of mythology, but in Islam, there is no imagery. There is no Islamic iconography for him to examine, no paintings to ponder, and no statues. There are no Muslim Raphaels or Michelangelos. There is no Sistine Madonna or Creation of Adam. For Muslims to have an outlet for the human desire for artistic expression and the urge of creativity, they had to turn to the definiteness of geometry. Islam is not abstract, but it is a real concrete and material explanation of the world, and it even takes to explaining natural phenomena.

Muslim worship is austere. Mosques are barren and naked of imagery.

 Muslim worship is very austere. Mosques are barren and empty buildings with nothing but carpet. There is no artwork, no murals, no painted ceilings, no music, no hymns, and no dramatic representation. Unlike Christian, Jewish, or Hindu worship houses, which are filled with both imagery and musical symbolisms and a flowing sense of tragic grandeur capable of making a human soul tremble, mosques make Muslim souls tremble for the exact opposite reason; the barrenness, the nakedness, the directness, and the straightforwardness of it all. There is no obscurity or ambiguity, and nothing left for imagination. This is why Muslims treat the Quran with such literalism.

Since the emergence of Islamic radicalism as a global issue, the subject of Quranic interpretations became widely debated even in western circles. Using their own Judeo-Christian model, westerners assumed the problem must be Muslims take their scriptures literally, and the solution must be a different reading for the Quran. Yet, many find it hard to talk about the inherent literalism of the Quran. Islam doesn’t claim there is more beyond the letter. Since there is no drama and no symbols, a phrase such as “the hand of God” won’t pass peacefully in the Muslim world, but instigates a whole world of debates and questions. “How many hands does God have? Do they have fingers? Does this mean God has a body? Etc.” Phrases such as “having a relationship with God” is so alien and heretical to the Muslim mind it is often met with ire. This is why the Quran, as the literal word of God, is understood to be the literal word of God. Not inspired by God and not written by men, but the actual word of the supreme. Jihad is understood to be killing and dying; Allah’s commands for women to be modest are understood as women hiding. Virgins in paradise are assumed to be heavily whores. Allah describing some Jews are apes and pigs is understood as apes and pigs.

For Muslims to have an outlet for the human desire for artistic expression and the urge of creativity, they had to turn to the definiteness of geometry.

THE ABSENT INDIVIDUAL

In the world of Jordan Peterson, the individual is the epicenter of the human experience. The Judeo-Christian tradition laid the foundations of the discovery of the individual. The Ten Commandments, a foundational document of the Western Canon and the chief representation of the law and of individual responsibility, is addressed in the singular second-person thou. There is nothing in Islamic texts which resembles such an affirmation of the individual self. The Quran exclusively addresses believers in their plurality. For Allah, the believer is the collective. Individuality is discouraged and frowned upon. The act of prayer is not an individual bond but a collective act of submission and surrender. Praying alone is forbidden, condemned, and at best frowned upon unless one has an excuse.

A Prayer is a collective act of submission.

The Quran leaves no place for individual believers but only for believers as a collective. In Islam, the human experience is a deeply collectivist one. The only singular second person addressed is the prophet Muhammad, and that is why Muhammad is worshipped and revered above all else. His name is the best name (the most common male name in the world), and his character is the best example. Only Muhammad is the individual, and the rest of the believers are the herd. Islam dictates the believers be unified in vision, aspirations, beliefs, emotions, action, and even outer appearance.

Elevating the individual and diminishing the collective, Peterson’s own ethos is profoundly antithetical to Islam. He wrote in Maps of Meaning, “The hero rejects identification with the group as the ideal of life, preferring to follow the dictates of his conscience and his heart. His identification with meaning—and his refusal to sacrifice meaning for security—renders existence acceptable, despite its tragedy.” The Muslim faith is in no way commensurate with the principles on which Peterson bases his worldview. In Islam, to reject identification with the group is an act of fitna, a rebellion against God and an act of mutiny on cosmic order. Such a fitna is “greater than murder.”

THE MYSTICS

Islam did leave us a significant heritage of Sufi mysticism. Poets such as Rumi remain loved and revered by people across cultures. How can the intense love of mysticism occur in such a barren and stark territory? How can Sufi poetry happen without drama? The rise of the Sufi tradition is rooted in the mystical thinking predating Islam. The first Muslim mystics pondered the divine mysteries more than Islam required or indeed permitted. In its early stages, Sufism was heavily influenced by Christianity as Christian asceticism and monasticism were essential features of the terrain in which Sufism rose. Scholar Fazlur Rahman suggested Sufism wasn’t just influenced by Christianity but also by Judaism, Gnosticism, and Zoroastrianism.

Sufist practices are a leap from Muslim worship, which left Sufism vulnerable to the charge of being heretical and anti-Islamic. Al-Halaj, a tenth-century Sufi poet, angered the Muslim community when he declared his ‘burning love of God,’ a phrase so disturbing to Muslims it caused him to get executed. Even today, what is left of the Muslim Sufis in constantly dismissed by Muslim orthodoxy. In countries such as Pakistan, Sufi mosques are much of a target for jihadists just as churches are. For Muslim orthodoxy, the mystic drama is un-Islamic.

With no art, no imagery, no symbols, no drama, and no individuals, no wonder a man so immersed and rooted in his western tradition such as Jordan Peterson couldn’t understand Islam. By failing to understand Islam, he unintentionally pointed out the severe and inherent shortcomings of Islam, which makes it so resistant to reformation and the values of human liberty. The absence of individuals and radical collectivism is what is responsible for a world continually policing its members and their speech. The absence of multilayered drama is what is responsible for hyper irrationality and chaining the Muslim mind in the prison of literalism.

About the Author
Hussein Aboubakr was born in 1989 to an Arab Muslim family in Cairo, Egypt. Hussein studied Jewish and Middle Eastern history and Hebrew literature at the Faculty of Arts and Oriental Studies Department at Cairo University. Persecuted by state police for his research at the Israeli Academic Center of Cairo, Hussein participated in the Egyptian revolution until he was forced to depart Egypt as a political refugee. He now lives in the United States. He is a member of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa an organization based in San Francisco.
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