tags: religion, Iran, fundamentalism, Evangelical Christianity
Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, 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.
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 centuries 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.”