What is the future of the Holy of Holies?

Last week I was fortunate enough to revisit Jerusalem. It was nearly two decades since my last visit and much has changed in the interim, though equally much has not.

Previously, security was tense in the holy city. It was not possible for me to visit the Temple Mount at that time. I’m not entirely sure if it was even possible for devout Muslims to do so. This time, during one of the designated hours for non-Muslims, and via the sole route permitted to non-Muslims, I was fortunate enough to visit what is probably the most sensitive and contested site on Earth.

Temple Mount

The site itself is a plaza constructed on the top of the ancient mount Moriah. It features the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third most sacred site in Islam. It is equally the most sacred site in Judaism, having been the location of both King Solomon’s temple and the Second Temple, built by Herod and destroyed by the Romans in the first century CE.

Not to be left out, there is a Christian claim here too, somewhat less significant than those of their fellow monotheists, but real nonetheless. The Crusaders left their mark here, and while Christianity reveres the Church of the Holy Sepuchre nearby rather than Temple Mount itself, nevertheless the site retains importance for Christianity, in particular the Well of Souls, a cave located beneath the Rock, as well as the Muslim Al-Aqsa mosque, which was previously the site of a Templar church.

This one small location, approximately the size of 20 soccer pitches, is therefore highly significant to the more than half of the world’s population who adhere to one of the Abrahamic monotheisms.

One might ask, especially if one is not an adherent, why this is so? Taken in chronological order, the Jewish claim is the earliest. For Jews, it is the site where King Solomon built a temple for the Jews where they could gather regularly to be in the presence of God. For those of the Jewish faith, this site, and the subsequent second temple, was the sole location on Earth where God would descend to be present among his chosen people.

The exact site, or temenos, was known as the holy of holies, קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים in Hebrew, and access was limited to the high priest alone, on very limited occasions. This model was replicated in the second Herodian temple, which was built following the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem after their Babylonian exile. Notably, almost none of either temple remains today, and hence it is impossible to know the exact site of the holy of holies. For this reason, devout Jews refrain from setting foot on the mount, for fear of stepping inside God’s sacred space.

As if this were insufficient, the site is also traditionally believed to be the location of the binding of Isaac. Additionally, modern historians suspect that the site was chosen in part because it was likely already a sacred location for the Jebusites, whom King David displaced from Jerusalem.

Of course, the choice of location is a blend of both Bronze Age beliefs and canny realpolitik. King David’s unification of the twelve tribes of Judaism required a capital which would be acceptable to all the tribes, and not solely his own. Hence the choice of Jerusalem, an otherwise poor choice for a capital city, given its limited fresh water supply and low terrain which was difficult to defend.

We might say likewise about the Islamic claim to Temple Mount, which emerged early in the Islamic era and helped to inspire the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. According to Islamic belief, Temple Mount designates the location from which the prophet Muhammed ascended into heaven to consult the prophets, having flown there from Arabia on a flying horse as part of his night journey.

Of course, by the time of the Islamic conquest, Mount Moriah had already served as a sacred location intermittently for over a millennium. Given Islam’s descendancy from Judaic faith as an Abrahamic monotheism, it was perhaps inevitable that a claim over Jerusalem and Temple Mount in particular would emerge. Notably, it is never stated in the al-Isra sura of the Quran that this was indeed the site of Muhammed’s ascendance into heaven. This is a result of interpretation and tradition, primarily in the Hadiths, and perhaps also some realpolitik.

The Crusaders came later, and built a Templar Church on the Mount, which after the retaking of Jerusalem by Muslim forces was transformed into the Al-Aqsa mosque. The Christian claim to Temple Mount is thus much less acute than those of Islam or Judaism, but the site’s proximity to the more revered Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as its domination of the Old Jerusalem skyline, no doubt made it a critical location for the Crusaders.

The current political situation on Temple Mount is therefore hugely complex and sensitive, as one might expect. Following the Israeli capture of Jerusalem during the 1967 war, the site is now administered by a Muslim religious council, but secular power rests with the Israeli defence forces. Though this is itself a somewhat tense arrangement, it seems to work adequately on the ground, as it were. Muslim religious police will confront visitors to insure they dress and act appropriately, and will request the intervention of the Israeli soldiers if they are not obeyed.

While I was there, pondering these centuries of worship, contestation and sensitivity, I began thinking about the future of the site, and the future of sacred spaces in general. Temple Mount has passed through the hands of many polities during its existence, and perhaps the sole continuity, as buildings rose, fell or were repurposed, has been its primary role as a sacred location, perhaps the most sacred location on the planet.

In short, what is the future of the Holy of Holies, the sanctum sanctorum, the al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf?

One could speculate about any number of potential futures, from the contentious building of a third Jewish Temple, to a restoration of Islamic rule over the territory. But primarily I’m wondering about issues which are more likely to develop, and indeed are already emerging.

Some five decades into the space age, technological development continues to issue complex challenges to Bronze Age beliefs. Careful consideration had to be made, for example, to define how devout Muslims in space might pray in the direction of Mecca. The further we progress from the period of religious emergence, the more difficult it becomes to translate their behavioural proscriptions or miracle-based narratives into contemporary human experience.

Closer to home than near Earth orbit, we have the rapid emergence of the internet’s evolution into a virtual reality environment, the metaverse. How will sacred spaces emerge in such a virtual state? In what manner will they be sanctified, and how will religious devotees prevent them from being hacked or erased? How will their emergence affect existing religious practices? Already it is possible for people to attend religious services online. Is it possible to envisage a digital hajj or other pilgrimages too?

And what of the metaphysical ramifications of the metaverse? Which pixels or bytes will be sanctified by God’s presence? Could a third Temple of the Jews be constructed in cyberspace? Would a digital Mecca offer password-protected access only to the world’s growing population of Muslims?

It’s not far-fetched to consider such possibilities, as we migrate further and further into an existence bifurcated into physical and online activities. And, in an optimistic vision of mankind colonising the solar system, such as we see in The Expanse and other SF depictions of the future, where would that leave physical temenoi such as Temple Mount?

For around three millennia, the site on top of Mount Moriah has served as a physical location of worship for the ancient Jebusites, for the Jews, and for Christians and Muslims alike. Perhaps technological development might finally sever the connection between place and belief, or perhaps it might merely serve to provide additional modes of religious contestation.

The Future of the Call to Prayer

Religion is noisy. Ok, not always. Buddhists like to meditate in silence, for example. But they also like to chant mantras. Most religions have some form of collective ritual singing. And some like to advertise their wares to the public.

Christian churches have used bells to do so for many centuries. In areas with large Jewish populations, like Jerusalem or New York, a siren is sometimes used to warn devout Jews that Shabbat is about to begin, meaning they must cease certain activities. But easily the most prevalent form of religious noise pollution is the Islamic adhan, the call to prayer issued from mosques five times daily.

These days, the world’s four million or so mosques tend to use loudspeakers to project the sound of the muezzin as far as possible. This is, of course, a recent tradition, dating from the 1930s. There was obviously no amplification in the time of the prophet. In an increasingly multicultural (and in many places secularising) world, the sound of the adhan is becoming a divisive issue.

Pasha special edition, part 2: The significance of the call to prayer in  Islam

Indeed, even in religiously homogenous locations like Saudi Arabia, the issue of noise pollution has led to legal restrictions on how loud such amplification may be. In a 24/7 world where many people work non-traditional hours, and fewer people adhere to the daily timetable envisaged by traditional Islam, the call to prayer can be actively disruptive, disturbing the sleep of shift workers and irritating non-adherents who may view it as a kind of sonic religious imperialism.

But since the amplification of adhan is not Quranically prescribed, there is of course the possibility that current or future technological developments could help to resolve these issues. The question is the purpose versus the tradition of the call to prayer. If the purpose is to inform Muslims that it is time to pray, this could be done via, for example, a phone app. Sign up for the app, and the phone will recite the adhan to you at the designated times. This technology is already possible.

However, tradition dicates that the call to prayer must emanate from the mosque itself, sung by a muezzin. Of course, in reality, this doesn’t always quite happen. Very often, as the telltale bleeps at the end indicate, the adhan is a recording, transmitted from a mobile phone to the amplification system. No one is actually singing live from the minaret in most instances.

Tradition would be satisfied by a return to the pre-1930s days of live muezzins singing the adhan without amplification. Purpose could be satisfied by an adoption of modern telecommunications technology. Neither of these things are currently happening however, and instead we see the outbreak of often impassioned debate over the noise levels of amplified recordings from mosques.

Indonesian authorities, who have in the past jailed people from complaining about the noise levels of mosques, nevertheless accept that in many cases the call to prayer is significantly over-amplified in an attempt to reach as far as possible, leading to distortion as well as sound overlap when multiple mosques are broadcasting slightly out of synch.

Arguments about permission to broadcast the adhan in traditionally non-Islamic locations, or about the volume levels in many Islamic locations like Indonesia or Saudi, tend to run passionately. Allegations of Islamophobia or NIMBYism are sometimes used to drown out legitimate concerns, such as the annoyance to non-adherents and secular populations in multicultural communities, or the disruption to shift workers, infants and others who need to sleep when the call to prayer is blaring. There have been such complaints in America, Israel, Britain, Germany and many other places already.

We are likely to see more of such arguments in the future as Islam is the fastest growing religion worldwide, and is increasingly gaining footholds among communities which do not adhere to the religion.

So the question remains – if the purpose is to alert Muslims to prayer times, why not use contemporary technology to do so in a non-obtrusive manner? Or alternatively, why is it not acceptable to return to the traditional form of live unamplified singing which was the sole mode of the adhan for centuries?

The answer may be that the adhan has become in some locations a kind of proselytisation in itself, or to put it another way, an attempt to Islamise the soundscape of an area. It is this suspicion which provokes resentment and reaction among non-Islamic and secular populations. If so, it’s a self-defeating form of proselytisation. Few people are likely to be persuaded by becoming irritated, or woken in their sleep.

The future for the call to prayer is likely to remain fraught in many places until mosques start looking at the 20th century technology they currently use, and either consider how to update that technology in less obtrusive ways, or else revert to the traditional method of live unamplified singing, which is aesthetically pleasing and offensive to no one but actual Islamophobes.

Allah (PBUH) after all is unlikely to be impressed by overamplified and distorted fuzzy recordings.

Another Israel is Possible

Once again serious trouble and violence has erupted between Israel and Palestinians. Elswhere there is no end of discussion and commentariat media and social media prepared to offer their speculations and insights into why this is currently occurring.

Also prevalent are the ideas many people have about how to resolve this seemingly intractable problem. Two-state solutions, Eretz Israel solutions, walls… all these and more are being argued across the web.

I’m not intending to replicate any of that. Instead I will simply offer a solution that would work and yet at the same time will never take place, except of course, in another timeline, where it already has.

Next month at the SFRA 2021 conference, I’ll be talking about the Jewish states that Zionism pursued and failed to implement, for one reason or another, and how that has manifested in alt-history literature.

For now, though, all I can do is offer you the frontispiece from my talk:

Middle Eastern Futurism

The MOSF Journal of Science Fiction has produced a fascinating special edition volume focused on what they term Middle Eastern SF (though the inclusion of an article on Iranian ‘theory fiction’ writer Reza Negarestani suggests a somewhat expansive understanding of Middle East).

It’s not especially focused on religious futurism, despite the inclusion of a review of Jorg Determann’s book (my own review of which is pending publication in the next edition of Foundation.)

Nevertheless, there is much of interest here for those curious to know more about Arab futurism, Gulf futurism and the interactions between Israeli and Palestinian SF especially. Highly recommended.

The multiplying tensions of religion(s) and the future

Just a quick observation on religious futurism(s).

With religions, we might term revelatory knowledge, which is deemed to be eternal, of divine or suprahuman provenance and therefore unchangeable wisdom. With the scientific method, we have a progressive, though unending, search for fundamental reality, generated via the attempts to disprove hypotheses empirically.

There is clearly a potential if not actual tension between the two, and we’ve seen this in the centuries since the Enlightenment period when the scientific method first came to the fore.

What happens when we add the temporal factor of futurism to the mix? Do we add tensions or multiply them? How do they manifest?

It’s going to be different for every religion, predicated on the nature of each faith’s own sense of revelatory knowledge of course. Some will be more malleable than others, and some more malleable on certain topics than others.

It’s also dependent on two other aspects which are perhaps less immediately obvious. The first of these is the future vision embedded within a particular religion. If a faith has a designated end point, in terms of apocalypse, apotheosis or otherwise, then obviously any world view based on that faith assumes that the world is moving inexorably towards that position, perhaps at varying speed, perhaps with occasional setbacks, but overall, invariably towards a set destination point.

The second aspect which may not be so obvious is a particular religion’s comfort zone in terms of adapting to scientific developments. A more fundamentalist faith is going to struggle with this more than a less rigid one, for example. In this sense, some religions may be somewhat surprising.

Catholicism is often perceived, from outside at least, as antipathetic to science due to anti-scientist positions it occasionally assumed during the Inquisition period. Nevertheless, Catholic clerics have played significant roles in the development of a number of scientific breakthroughs – genetics to name but one – and the Vatican observatory today is one of the leading institutions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In short, Catholicism has a strong sense of futurism even if elements of its dogma are not especially malleable or open to debate.

Islam likewise has been a strong supporter and fellow traveller of science at various geographic and historical points, and has no issue with futurist concepts such as alien intelligence, or space travel.

By contrast, Buddhism, which is often understood at least by non-practitioners as one of the more rational, or less revelatory, forms of faith, has a number of points where it finds scientific rationality tricky to engage with. There are reams of books attempting to square this particular circle, some of them inspired by or even co-authored by the Dalai Lama, who is well aware of just how hidebound his own particular variant of Buddhism is.

What is the disconnect here? The answer of course is adherence to the notion of a godhead. The Abrahamic monotheisms are unapologetically attached to the concept of a creator deity. It’s their core belief. Buddhism on the other hand manifests very differently. Some forms, inspired by Hinduism, have many supernatural beings in their pantheon. Tibetan Buddhisms in particular are prone to this. Others, and one thinks of some of the more austere Theravadan forms, do not espouse gods of any kind or form.

Because of the existence of the latter, Buddhism MAY not require belief in a godhead, and therefore it has tended to be perceived by atheists who practice science (or who practice futurism, in the form of science fiction or otherwise) as potentially more acceptable. The reality on the ground and across the entirety of the belief complex, is not as clearcut of course.

As always, I do not have any simple answers here, especially as answers would require the power of prophecy. It is unknowable how religions will develop in the future alongside further scientific insights and discoveries, because it depends on the nature of the discoveries, how they relate to existing revelatory dogma in various faith forms, and how faiths respond to apparent contradictions.

But it does seem to me that the simple tension between revelatory knowledge and empirically tested knowledge leads to a much more complex relationship when we try to project any of this into the future.

And based on the study I have personally done on Anglophone SF and its relationship with Catholicism, and now Buddhism, it seems to me that the futurists are to date struggling to encompass the complexities of that potential relationship.

Defining Religious Futurism

We need a way of taxonomising religious futurisms due to the wide range of territory the term covers. There are three main strands of religious futurism, with a number of additional topics that are at least cognate or germane.

The first, and perhaps most recognisable, form of religious futurism simply describes futurisms derived from existing terrestrial religions, for example Islamofuturism. This form also includes futurised hybrids of these religions, such as the Zensunni and Orange Catholic beliefs described in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

The Orange Catholic Bible: In the Future the OCB will Unfold Reality:  Interplanetary Religion, International Council on: 9781508508724:  Amazon.com: Books

A second rich category of religious futurism relates to religious belief systems, or nascent belief systems, which are either influenced by or directly derivative of SF, for example the Church of Scientology or Jedi beliefs.

Inside the Church of Jediism, Where 'Star Wars' Gets Spiritual
Church of Jediism

An additional main strand of religious futurism, what we might term creative or speculative religious futurism, relates to invented religious faiths ascribed either to future populations or alien civilisations in SF and cognate genres, such as the Church of All Worlds in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or Bokononism, which Kurt Vonnegut invented for his novel Cat’s Cradle.

Where we get some lack of clarity is in overlaps. There is evidence, for example, that religious futurisms of this latter category can migrate into the previous one. There is some evidence, for example, of people pursuing Bokononism in reality, and clearly Jedi commenced as a created belief system depicted within the Star Wars universe, and was not originally intended to be a religious belief. Indeed, to become one, it had to be fleshed out with doctrine by fans.

Cat's Cradle - Wikipedia

But then what of something like Scientology, which emerged from L. Ron Hubbard’s work on Dianetics, and was clearly influenced by his own career as a SF author, but was presented to the world as a revelatory knowledge? Or what of Mormonism, also presented to the world as a revelation, but one which in its origin story as told by proponents clearly contains elements of fantastika, if not overt SF futurism?

There are other anomalies too. What do we make of the non-theist belief system propagated in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, where most of the population believe the universe they inhabit to be a simulation? This particular theory, first popularised by Nick Bostrum, is gaining a lot of traction among both physicists and the general public. Is it, too, a religious futurism? Is religious even the correct descriptor? Is futurism?

Simulation Theory
Simulation Theory

As we expand in focus, the anomalies proliferate in this regard. Given the fantastikal aspect of most revelatory origin stories for religions, are we to retroactively consider all religions as religious futurism at an early stage of their development? If we locate the concept of futurism as relative to now, ie the present day, does that simply create a kind of moving walkway, in which, perhaps, Jedi beliefs will at some point cease to be religious futurism and simply become religion? What, other than the passing of time, is required for it to qualify otherwise?

In my own work on SF and Catholicism, I’ve sought to identify how the Anglophone literary tradition of SF constantly depicts Catholicism of the future as a threat – oppressive, anti-science, threatening to democracy and liberty, totalitarian in many aspects.

But this Catholic futurism is not the same as describing the actual likely organic evolution of Catholicism, which has to its credit, played a significant role in a range of scientific development from genetics to astrophysics, and which in its liberation theology form in Latin America has strenuously defended liberty and democracy from totalitarian regimes.

In other words, I wasn’t attempting to predict the future of Catholicism at all, but rather to chart what future Catholicism signified to the Anglophone culture of the recent past.

Likewise, we need to distinguish Islamofuturism from actual potential futures of Islam, though again the anomalies proliferate. What are we to make of Saudi Arabia, a highly conservative Islamic state, granting citizenship to a robot, the first ever robot citizen of any nation?

Sophie the robot citizen

I don’t claim to have easy answers for such questions. What I hope is that scholars of art, culture, the future and theology can start asking them and similar ones. Only collaboratively can we hope to close in on a working definition of religious futurism.

Robert Fisk and Islamofuturism

Only two weeks after this wonderful documentary about the work of Robert Fisk was released, the man himself is dead.

TIFF 2019: Documentary on Robert Fisk highlights how the foreign  correspondent manages complex, grim realities - The Globe and Mail

He was a paragon of journalism, whose doorstop book, The Great War for Civilisation, based on his PhD taken at Trinity College Dublin, is the single best explanation for why we find ourselves in the world we are in. You really should read the book, but for a taster, here’s Fisk speaking at his alma mater about his experiences in the Middle East.

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East: Amazon.it:  Fisk, Robert: Libri in altre lingue

Fisk was a journalist of the old school, by which I mean he believed in travelling to the site of an event to explore it in person, in examining the evidence for himself, in speaking to people (directly and in their own languages ideally) to get a rounded perspective on events, and in doing careful research and taking copious notes to augment his own prodigious knowledge and memory.

In this age when the old gatekeeper media are dying out, being replaced by both the amateur hordes of opinion mongers and influencers on the one hand, and by AI algorithm reportage and platform curation on the other, Robert Fisk’s methods seem like the craftsmanship of a lost age.

His decades of reporting on the affairs of the Middle East – its conflicts, their origins and of course Western interference – stands as a testimony to how proper, factual, neutral journalism was once the norm, or at least the aspiration, before the onset of web 2.0, clickbait, alternative facts and post-truth.

Of course, all journalism is ultimately ephemeral, at best the first draft of history. Fisk however had accrued a depth of knowledge, not only of Middle Eastern cultures and politics, but of the long history which had led to the current affairs he reported on. In order to gather this information together in one place, he wrote a doctoral thesis which eventually became his magnum opus – The Great War for Civilisation.

One often feels as if one needs a doctorate in the fraught and complex history of the Middle East to comprehend why things there happen as they do. Fisk had one, and it showed in his writing. He was fully able to account for his own Westernness in his writing about Islam, Arabs and the Middle East in general, as he had spent many decades imbibing the rich, sour and often bitter history of the West’s engagement with all three. And only a Westerner of his ilk, an Englishman with a military heritage and of ultimately Norse extraction, could have been the credible voice within the West that he was.

It is a tragic sign of the times that the fraught relationship between Islam and the West has entered a deadly new phase, just as the carefully researched journalism that Fisk embodied has been jettisoned almost entirely by news outlets motivated to generate sensationalism for clickbait income. What comes next is likely to be ugly, and I’m sorry we will not have Robert Fisk to help explain it for us.

Fortunately we do have many great creators, artists, writers and filmmakers from Muslim backgrounds who are already hard at work attempting to imagine into being better futures not only for the Middle East, or for Islam, but for the world and indeed all worlds. (Allah, after all, is called God of All Worlds in the Qu’ran.) Many of these – it sometimes feels impossibly like all – are featured in a new text about Islamofuturism.

Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World has been written by Jörg Matthias Determann, and was recently published by Bloomsbury. I have written a full review which will run in Foundation in the fullness of time. But for now, and without wishing to preview that review, I would like to note that Islamofuturism may well be the ultimate resolution for the many problems between Islam and the West which Fisk spent his life exploring and reporting about.

Media of Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life

This is, of course, a somewhat utopian position to take, and I am an ardent anti-utopian. (Too many utopian visions result in gulags, thought police and death camps for my liking, no matter how well-intentioned they commence.) Nevertheless, what struck me while reading Determann’s fascinating survey of Islamofuturisms from Indonesia to Syria was the pervasive presence of two things in the multifaceted iterations of this rapidly proliferating genre and movement.

Firstly, the omnipresence of the shadow of The Thousand and One Nights. We have an ongoing origin debte among Western SF about when SF originated. Was it, as I’d argue, in the late 19th century alongside the development of professional science and industrialisation? Many, most prominently Brian Aldiss, argue for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as an origin text, and this is somewhat persuasive. Others see SF in earlier eras and texts – the voyages extraordinaires of the Age of Expansion; the lunar visitation texts of Rome, even in the automata described by Homer in the Iliad, or the “alien spaceships” of the Book of Ezekiel. But these are all from the Western tradition. From an Islamic, Middle Eastern tradition, it makes perfect sense to identify The Thousand and One Nights as a seminal SF text.

The Thousand and One Nights - Literature 114 (Spring 2014-2015) - Harvard  Wiki

Secondly, Islamofuturist cultural outputs almost entirely derive some of their animus from Western SF, according to Determann. Western forms, narrative devices and even sometimes direct lifts of scenes or characters are repurposed by Islamofuturism. Star Wars and Star Trek are huge influences, no less so than the indigenous cultures of Cairo, Istanbul or Jakarta.

What struck me, reading Determann’s book, is the sheer proliferation of Islamofuturism. His text is timely. In only a few years, the kind of survey he has conducted will no longer be possible in a single volume. Instead we will have to talk about Turkish cinematic visions of the future, Egyptian pulp SF novels, Indonesian feminist futurisms, and so on. In all of these environments and genres, Muslim dreamers are creating futures that contain Islam, centre Islam, challenge Islam, modernise Islam and most significantly, find modes of rapprochement between Islam and the West (yes, including revenge myths of total annihilation and takeover, but this is far from the norm.)

Robert Fisk and Islamofuturism thus function as two sides of one coin, or rather, as a Janus statue with one head looking back to the complex origins and sad histories of Western engagement with Islam and the Middle East, while the other looks forward, more in hope than expectation admittedly, to the future.

I hope that the Robert Fisk of a century from now has a happier narrative to write than The Great War for Civilisation. I hope he, or she, Western or Muslim or both or neither, can tell a tale of Islamofuturism and it’s reshaping of Islam and the West.