Wednesday
Sep052012

Politics and the Origins of Religious Rituals  

The culture hypothesis, as we dubbed it in Why Nations Fail, is partly based on the presumption that there are certain beliefs, values, attitudes and traditional practices that are not only important for economic activities but also unchanging, or very slow changing, and largely exogenous. What better example than religious rituals?

For example, Muslims, as part of their religious duties, pray facing Mecca, fast during the month of Ramadan, do not eat pork and circumcise their male children. These seem tailor-made for illustrating these exogenous, unchanging rituals.

But several religious historians have argued that the origins of these rituals are also endogenous and related to the political alliances that Muhammed was trying to build.

Muhammed was born in Mecca, an important trading town Arabia at the time dominated by a tribe called the Quraysh. In Mecca he got a dedicated but small following, and in the year 622, after his relationship with the leading families of the Quraysh became almost untenable, he was forced to leave Mecca for the oasis settlement of Yathrib, which would later come to be known as Medina, about 200 miles north of Mecca. It was in Medina that many key parts of Islam got formulated and Muhammed became both politically and religiously stronger, with a much greater following.

Robert Wright in The Evolution of God, in part following Montgomery Watt’s classic Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman and Jonathan Berkey’s The Formation of Islam, argues that key rituals, such as fasting, ban on pork and circumcision, all rituals common with Judaism, were adopted because Muhammed was trying to attract, or perhaps develop friendly relations with, the Jewish tribes of Medina. What’s more, Muhammad instructed his followers during this period that Muslims must pray facing Jerusalem, just like the Jews did.

Political alliances were again key.

Overall, there seems to be little doubt that throughout this period, Muhammed preached friendly relations with other Abrahamic religions, and particularly with Jews. 

More interestingly, later in the Medina period, Muhammed took a much harder line against the Jews, after certain Jewish tribes supported the enemy in the wars with the Quraysh of Mecca. Thereafter, Muhammed abandoned the project of converting Jews, violently expelled some of them from Medina, in the process killing scores of them, and his teachings became less friendly to Judaism. It is during this period that Muslims stopped praying facing Jerusalem and instead started facing Mecca. Of course there is some debate on all of this, and Robert Wright even questions whether the break with the Jews really happened in this form, though this seems to be a minority view.

What seems more certain is that even religious rituals that appear so exogenous and unchanging are as much an outcome of political struggles, of political alliances, successful or unsuccessful, and of one group using all aspects of all institutions in society to achieve their objectives.

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