Poets are followed by erring men. Behold how aimlessly they rove in every valley, preaching what they never practise. Not so the true believers, who do good works and remember God with fervour and defend themselves only when wronged. The wrongdoers will then learn what a welcome awaits them.
– The Koran (Dawood, N.J., Trans., Penguin 1997, pg 375).
Ah the “poets” … Plato expelled them from the Republic and The Koran damns them.
Of course, these are not the poets of our contemporary era — the silly horde intent on jotting down every clever turn or spilling out each mood and phase on the page. No, these are the “preachers” … those who, poets or not, use rhetoric to gain and influence their followers. The preachers (of any stripe, good and bad) are indeed “followed by [the] erring”. In this culture the protestants are the most prone to follow the rhetoricians, but every persuasion has its spokespersons … and the phenomenon is in no way limited to religious sects. Someone must keep the advertising and “public relations” industries in well-fed and (for this) the “erring” are truly well-equipped.
But, what about the “preachers” … I’m going to avoid the obvious and hopefully slip past the urge to bad-mouth the intentions of religious leaders. (That is a tiresome game in blog-land.) So, let’s just ask this question — was Muhammad a “preacher”. In practical terms, probably … I have no doubt that he exhorted his followers to be true to the message, to distinguish themselves from the unbelievers, to repent and to seek forgiveness. For believers, however, Muhammad was not a “poet”. He did not find clever ways to communicate the truth; he did not invent or imagine a new “wisdom”. Muhammad saw himself as a prophet, not a preacher. As a prophet, Muhammad served as the mouth-piece of the divine message. It was not his job to add embellishments. Nor, in the moral landscape of the Koran, was it his job to be extra persuasive … God, after all, will open the ears of those who will be saved. Those who will hear, will hear.
In fact, this passage is a perfect example of the Koran’s emphasis on orthropraxis — it’s what you do, not what you say or who you follow, that distinguishes the true disciples from the false. There are times in which Christianity (especially our dear protestants) would benefit from a good dose of orthopraxis — though it bucks hard against the ethos of grace. There are times, too, in which American culture would benefit from a similar suspicion of its “preachers”. We practice a ridiculous short-hand in this culture … one in which the disciples are judged, wholesale, on the actions of their purported “preachers”. The furor about Barak Obama‘s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is a convenient contemporary example. In this case one preacher (Obama) is judged by the “poem” of his own preacher (Wright), meanwhile the actions, the praxis, of each is virtually ignored. Praxis does not win votes, nor will it build mega-churches, nor will it solve all of one’s problems, but it will keep one rooted. And, ultimately, if we’d follow our principles and not our preachers, we’d spend less time “aimlessly … [roving] in every valley”. (May 11, 2008)