Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Juan Cole: Fundamentalist Pandemics

What Evangelicals Could Learn From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam

This spring, the novel coronavirus pandemic has raised the issue of the relationship between the blindest kind of religious faith and rational skepticism — this time in two countries that think of themselves as polar opposites and enemies: Supreme Leader Ali Khameini’s Iran and Donald Trump’s America.

On the U.S. side of things, New Orleans pastor Tony Spell, for instance, has twice been arrested for holding church services without a hint of social distancing, despite a ban on such gatherings. His second arrest was for preaching while wearing an ankle monitor and despite the Covid-19 death of at least one of his church members.

The publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s famed Origin of the Species, arguing as it did for natural selection (which many American evangelicals still reject), might be considered the origin point for the modern conflict between religious beliefs and science, a struggle that has shaped our culture in powerful ways. Unexpectedly, given Iran’s reputation for religious obscurantism, the science-minded in the nineteenth and twentieth century often took heart from a collection of Persian poems, the Rubáiyát, or “quatrains,” attributed to the medieval Iranian astronomer Omar Khayyam, who died in 1131.

Edward FitzGerald’s loose translation of those poems, also published in 1859, put Khayyam on the map as a medieval Muslim free-thinker and became a century-and-a-half-long sensation in the midst of heated debates about the relationship between science and faith in the West. Avowed atheist Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney at the 1925 “monkey trial” of a Tennessee educator who broke state law by teaching evolution, was typical in his love of the Rubáiyát. He often quoted it in his closing arguments, observing that for Khayyam the “mysticisms of philosophy and religion alike were hollow and bare.”

To be fair, some religious leaders, including Pope Francis and Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have followed the most up-to-date science, as Covid-19 spread globally, by supporting social-distancing measures to deal with the virus. When he still went by the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and lived in Buenos Aires, the Pope earned a high school chemical technician’s diploma and actually knows something about science. Indeed, the Catholic Church in Brazil has impressively upheld the World Health Organization’s guidelines for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, defying the secular government of far right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, that country’s Donald Trump. Brazil’s president has notoriously ignored his nation’s public-health crisis, dismissedthe coronavirus as a “little flu,” and tried to exempt churches from state government mandates that they close. The archbishop of the hard-hit city of Manaus in the Amazon region has, in fact, publicly complained that Brazilians are not taking the virus seriously enough as it runs rampant in the country. Church authorities worry about the strain government inaction is putting on Catholic hospitals and clinics, as well as the devastation the disease is wreaking in the region.

Here, we witness not a dispute between religion and science but between varieties of religion. Pope Francis’s Catholicism remains open to science, whereas Bolsonaro, although born a Catholic, became an evangelical and, in 2016, was even baptized as a pastor in the Jordan River. He now plays to the 22% of Brazilians who have adopted conservative Protestantism, as well as to Catholics who are substantially more conservative than the current pope. While some U.S. evangelicals are open to science, a Pew Charitable Trust poll found that they, too, are far more likely than the non-religious to reject the very idea of evolution, not to speak of the findings of climate science (action on which Pope Francis has supported in a big way).

Death in the Bible Belt

In the U.S., a variety of evangelical religious leaders have failed the test of reasoned public policy in outrageous ways. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, railing at “tyrannical government,” refused to close his mega-church in Florida until the local police arrested him in March. He even insisted that church members in those services of 500 or more true believers should continue to shake hands with one another because “we’re raising up revivalists, not pansies.”

As he saw it, his River Tampa Bay Church was the “safest place” around because it was the site of “salvation.” Only in early April did he finally move his services online and it probably wasn’t to protect the health of his congregation either. His insurance company had cancelled on him after his arrest and his continued defiance of local regulations.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis muddied the waters further in early April by finally issuing a statewide shelter-in-place order that exempted churches as “essential services.” Then, after only a month, he abruptly reopened the state anyway. DeSantis, who had run a Facebook group dominated by racist comments and had risen on Donald Trump’s coattails, has a sizeable evangelical constituency and, in their actions, he and Pastor Howard-Browne have hardly been alone.

It tells you all you need to know that, by early May, more than 30 evangelical pastors had diedof Covid-19 across the Bible Belt.

Two Epicenters of the Pandemic

In the Muslim equivalent of the Bible Belt, the clerical leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, stopped shaking hands and limited visits to his office in early February, but he let mass commemorations of the 41st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic go forward unimpeded. Then, on February 24th, he also allowed national parliamentary elections to proceed on hopes of entrenching yet more of his hardline fundamentalist supporters — the equivalent of America’s evangelicals — in Iran’s legislature. Meanwhile, its other religious leaders continued to resist strong Covid-19 mitigation measures until late March, even as the country was besieged by the virus. Deputy Minister of Health Iraj Harirchi caught the spirit of the moment by rejecting social-distancing measures in February while downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak in his country, only to contract Covid-19 himself and die of it.

The virus initially exploded in the holy city of Qom, said to have been settled in the eighth century by descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s filled with a myriad of religious seminaries and has a famed shrine to one of those descendants, Fatima Masoumeh. In late February, even after government officials began to urge that the shrine be closed, its clerical custodians continued to call for pilgrims to visit it. Those pilgrims typically touch the brass latticework around Fatima Masoumeh’s tomb and sometimes kiss it, a classic method for passing on the disease. Its custodians (like those American evangelical pastors) continued to believe that the holiness of the shrine would protect the pilgrims. They may also have been concerned about their loss of income if pilgrims from all over the world stopped showing up.

Despite having a theocratic government in which clerics wield disproportionate power, Iran also has a significant and powerful scientific and engineering establishment that looks at the world differently, even if some of them are also devout Shiite Muslims. In the end, as the virus gripped the country and deaths spiked, the scientists briefly won and the government of President Hassan Rouhani instituted some social-distancing measures for the public, including canceling Friday prayers and closing shrines in March, though — as in Florida — those measures did not last long.

In this way, as the U.S. emerged as the global epicenter of the pandemic, so Iran emerged as its Middle Eastern one. Call it an irony of curious affinity. Superstition was only part of the problem. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blamed the Trump administration’s sanctions and financial blockade of the country for the government’s weak response, since the Iranians had difficulty even paying for much-needed imported medical equipment like ventilators. Indeed, the U.S. government has also had Iran kicked off global banking exchanges and threatened third-party sanctions against any companies doing business with it.

President Trump, however, denied that the U.S. had blockaded medical imports to that country, a statement that was technically true, but false in any other sense. The full range of U.S. sanctions had indeed erected a formidable barrier to Iran’s importation of medical equipment, despite attempts by the European Union (which opposes Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran) to allow companies to sell medical supplies to Tehran.

Still, as with Trump’s policies in the U.S. (including essentially ignoring the virus for months), Iranian government policy must be held significantly responsible for the failure to stem the coronavirus tide, which by early May had, according to official figures, resulted in more than 100,000 cases and some 7,000 deaths (numbers which will, in the end, undoubtedly prove significant undercounts).

Rubáiyát World

Whether in America or Iran, fundamentalist religion (or, in the U.S. case, a Trumpian and Republican urge to curry favor with it) often made for dismally bad public policy during the first wave of Covid-19. Among other things, it encouraged people, whether in religious institutions in both countries or in American anti-shutdown protests, to engage in reckless behavior that endangered not just themselves but others. Ironically, the conflict in each country between defiant pastors or mullahs and scientists on this issue should bring to mind the culture wars of the early twentieth century and the place of the Iranian poetry of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam in what was then largely a Western debate.

That makes those poems worthy of reconsideration in this perilous moment of ours. As I wrote in the introduction to my new translation of the Rubáiyát:

“The message of the poems… is that life has no obvious meaning and is heartbreakingly short. Death is near and we might not live to exhale the breath we just took in. The afterlife is a fairy tale for children… The only way to get past this existential unfairness is to enjoy life, to love someone, and to get intimate with good wine. On the other hand, there is no reason to be mean-spirited to other people.”

Some of the appeal of this poetry to past millions came from the dim view it took of then (as now) robust religious obscurantism. The irreverent Mark Twain once marveled, “No poem had given me so much pleasure before… It is the only poem that I have ever carried about with me; it has not been from under my hand for 28 years.” Thomas Hardy, the British novelist and champion of Darwin, wove its themes into some of his best-known fiction. Robert Frost wrote his famous (and famously bleak) poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Night” with Khayyam’s quatrains in mind. Beat poet Jack Kerouac modeled Sal Paradise, the unconventional protagonist of his novel On the Road, on his idea of what Khayyam might have been like.

Although compilers have always attributed those poems to that great astronomer and mathematician of the Seljuk era, it’s clear that they were actually written by later Iranian figures who used Khayyam as a “frame author,” perhaps for fear of reaction to the religious skepticism deeply embedded in the poetry (in the same way that the Thousand and One Nightstales composed in Cairo, Aleppo, and Baghdad over centuries were all attributed to Scheherazade). The bulk of those verses first appeared at the time of the Mongol invasion of Iran in the 1200s, a bloody moment that threw the region into turmoil and paralysis just as Covid-19 has brought our world to an abrupt and chaotic halt.

As if the war’s urban destruction and piles of skulls weren’t enough, historians have argued that the Mongols, who opened up trade routes from Asia into the Middle East, also inadvertently facilitated the westward spread of the Yersina pestis bacillus that would cause the bubonic plague, or the Black Death, a pandemic that would wipe out nearly half of China’s population and a third of Europe’s.

A fifteenth-century scribe in the picturesque Iranian city of Shiraz would, in fact, create the first anthology of quatrains entitled The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, many composed during Mongol rule and the subsequent pandemic. The dangers of what we would now call religious fundamentalism, as opposed to an enlightened spirituality, were trumpeted throughout those poems:

In monasteries, temples, and retreats
they fear hellfire and look for paradise.
But those who know the mysteries of God
don’t let those seeds be planted in their hearts.

While some turn to theology for comfort during a disaster, those quatrains urged instead that all of us be aggressively here and now, trying to wring every last pleasure out of our worldly life before it abruptly vanishes:

A bottle of Shiraz and the lips of a lover, on the edge of a meadow —
are like cash in hand for me — and for you, credit toward paradise.
They’ve wagered that some go to heaven, and some to hell.
But whoever went to hell? And whoever came back from paradise?

The poetry ridicules some religious beliefs, using the fantasies of astrology as a proxy target for the fatalism of orthodox religion. The authors may have felt safer attacking horoscopes than directly taking on Iran’s powerful clergy. Astronomers know that the heavenly bodies, far from dictating the fate of others, revolve in orbits that make their future position easy to predict and so bear little relationship to the lives of complex and unpredictable human beings (just as, for instance, you could never have predicted that American evangelicals would opt to back a profane, womanizing, distinctly of-this-world orange-faced presidential candidate in 2016 and thereafter):

Don’t blame the stars for virtues or for faults,
or for the joy and grief decreed by fate!
For science holds the planets all to be
A thousand times more helpless than are we.

Wars and pandemics choose winners and losers and — as we’re learning all too grimly in the world of 2020 — the wealthy are generally so much better positioned to protect themselves from catastrophe than the poor. To its eternal credit, the Rubáiyát (unlike both the Trump administration and the Iranian religious leadership) took the side of the latter, pointing out that religious fatalism and superstitions like astrology are inherently supportive of a rotten status quo in which the poor are the first to be sacrificed, whether to pandemics or anything else:

Signs of the zodiac: You give something to every jackass.
You hand them fancy baths, millworks, and canals —
while noble souls must gamble, in hopes of winning their nightly bread.
Who would give a fart for such a constellation?

In our own perilous times, right-wing fundamentalist governments like those in Brazil and the United States, as well as religious fundamentalist ones as in Iran, have made the coronavirus outbreak far more virulent and dangerous by encouraging religious gatherings at a time when the pandemic’s curve could only be flattened by social distancing. Their willingness to blithely set aside reason and science out of a fatalistic and misguided faith in a supernatural providence that overrules natural law (or, in Donald Trump’s case, a fatalistic and misguided faith in his own ability to overrule natural laws, not to speak of providence) has been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths around the world. Think of it as, in spirit, a fundamentalist version of genocide.

The pecuniary motives of some of this obscurantism are clear, as many churches and mosques depend on contributions from congregants at services for the livelihood of imams and pastors. Their willingness to prey on the gullibility of their followers in a bid to keep up their income stream should be considered the height of hypocrisy and speaks to the importance of people never surrendering their capacity for independent, critical reasoning.

Though you might not have noticed it on Donald Trump’s and Ali Khameini’s planet, religion seems to be in the process of collapsing, at least in the industrialized world. A third of the French say that they have no religion at all and just 45% consider themselves Catholic (with perhaps only half of those being relatively committed to the faith), while only 5% attend church regularly. A majority of young people in 12 European countries claim that they now have no religion, pointing to a secular future for much of the continent. Even in peculiarly religious America, self-identification as Christian has plunged to 65% of the population, down 12% in the past decade, while 26% of the population now disavows having a religion at all.

In post-pandemic Iran, don’t be surprised if similar feelings spread, given how the religious leadership functionally encouraged the devastation of Covid-19. In this way, despite military threats, economic sanctions, and everything else, Donald Trump’s America and Ali Khameini’s Iran truly have something in common. In the U.S., where it’s easier to measure what’s happening, evangelicals, more than a fifth of the population when George W. Bush was first elected president in 2000, are 16% of it two decades later.

Given the unpredictable nature of our world (as the emergence of Covid-19 has made all too clear), nothing, secularization included, is a one-way street. Religion is perfectly capable of experiencing revivals. Still, there is no surer way to tip the balance toward an Omar Khayyam-style skepticism than for prominent religious leaders to guide their faithful, and all those in contact with them, into a new wave of the pandemic.


Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. His new book is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian (IB Tauris). He is also the author of Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His award-winning blog is Informed Comment.

First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.

Copyright 2020 Juan Cole.

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