Can Paganism Emerge in the Middle East?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 4, 2013 — 21 Comments

We’ve long known that Pagan and polytheist revival and reconstruction movements are a global phenomenon, and that has included, quietly, tentatively, the Middle East. While most countries in the Middle East are culturally, religiously, and demographically dominated by Islam, that hasn’t stopped a few adventurous souls from embracing various forms of modern Pagan religions. This isn’t safe, and in some cases it has led to deadly tragedy, but this thread persists, alongside the sorts of syncretic esotericism that have always existed on the margins of the dominant monotheisms. A recent article in Arab Times, notes that in Kuwait people are buying statues of pre-Islamic gods, much to the outrage of some local officials.

Statue of the goddess Anahita in Maragha, Iran.

Statue of the goddess Anahita in Maragha, Iran.

“MP Abdulrahman Al-Jeeran has recommended banning the sale of statues of the gods followed by idol-worshippers during the pre-Islamic times of paganism, indicating that he had discovered the sale of statues as works of art and gift items by some shops, reports Al-Rai daily. He revealed that statues representing gods believed by non-Muslim pagan worshippers during the primitive era are commonly seen at various shopping malls across the country. He added that the retailer sells these items under the pretext of selling accessories and fashion materials without considering the real meaning behind those artifacts.”

There’s been a school of thought which posits that polytheism is humanity’s default religious setting, which is why religions like Christianity and Islam must constantly be in a process of conversion, re-conversion, and solidifying power to maintain the massive numbers they currently enjoy across the globe. If they don’t, or if they are limited by secular governments, the “old” beliefs start to re-emerge. As scholar Jordan Paper put it in his book, The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology, quote:

The goddess Isis.

The goddess Isis.

“Given the history of homo sapiens, it may be that polytheism is inherent in human nature, not so much in the sense that is part of our DNA structure but that it arises from the human experience in conjunction with our nature. For unless we accept the arguments of the ur-monotheists that is contrary to  the above, monotheism is extremely recent, given the sweep of human history; arose in a tiny part of the planet; and is constantly breaking down.”

Of course, that “tiny part of the planet” happens to be the Middle East, and there are immense vested interests within all the monotheisms to ensure that the birthplace of their theology remains solidly in the hands of those who believe in the God of Abraham (though they also struggle amongst themselves for dominance). But, if religious freedoms were really guaranteed, could polytheism, Paganism, truly emerge in the Middle East? Right now, Egypt, which has been rocked by revolution, coup, internal fighting, and unrest this year, is currently trying to write a new constitution for their country that will be accepted by both Islamic hardliners, the military, non-Muslim religious groups (like the Copts), and a large secular-minded minority. A key point of contention is what form religious freedom will take in this new constitution, and by extension, this new government.

“One significant change, says committee head Amr Moussa, is that Article 3 which guarantees Christians and Jews the right to exercise their religious rites will probably be extended to include all non-Muslims. Article 3 currently states that ‘For Egyptian Christians and Jews the principles of their religious law will be the main source in regulating their personal status, matters pertaining to their religion, and the selection of their spiritual leadership.’ The amended version is expected to state that ‘for all Egyptian non-Muslims the principles of their religious laws will be the main source in regulating their personal status…etc’. The proposed change is opposed by Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, the newly-appointed representative of the ultraconservative Nour Party. In a closed meeting on Monday Mansour issued the melodramatic warning that the term ‘non-Muslims’ would open gates to ‘religious sects like worshippers of the devil’.

Expanding religious freedoms beyond the “People of the Book” is increasingly seen as necessary by religious minorities and secular Egyptians, first, because faiths like Baha’i “cannot legally marry and continue to have trouble with matters such as inheritance because the law does not properly recognize their presence.” In addition, there is a growing number Egyptians who aren’t simply secular, but have embraced atheism, despite the grave social disadvantages inherent in that choice.

“‘Atheists are all around Egypt,’ said Othman Othman, pointing to a group of young people sitting at the table next to us. The number of atheists in Egypt is not less than three million, Othman claimed, but they do not label themselves ‘atheists’ as society would disown them. Those who have come out publicly as atheists have been not only isolated by their friends and families, but also society in general. However, others who turn down their familial religion have faced many worse trials than mere isolation. Asmaa Omar, 24, who has just graduated the Faculty of Engineering, said that once she revealed her beliefs to her family, they began to physically and mentally torture her. Her father slapped her in the face and broke her jaw. She was not able to eat properly for seven months.”

Once you open the door to Baha’i and atheists, it is only a matter of time before we see a Kemetic/Egyptian polytheist revival (or even Egyptian Wiccans). After all, Egypt is already a global hotspot for seekers, New Agers, and yes, Pagans, wanting to see the many ancient treasures and wonders of the country. Once the chaos abates, Egypt will want the massive tourism revenue to return, and with it will come the exchange of ideas that results from a flood of visitors. In fact, we know that there are already Pagans in Egypt, but a more open society might spark unexpected growth.

A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex. From left to right: the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex. From left to right: the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

The question remains: can Paganism emerge in the Middle East? Will it be allowed to? If secular governments (or at least pseudo-secular hybrids) start to emerge, it could happen, and if/when it does, what happens next?

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://danielexposito.es Daniel Expósito Romero

    We just had PFI Turkey and Israel launched in the Middle East, so I would say that there’s definitely interest there – an also a community wanting to move forward!

  • Ryan Smith

    Perhaps getting blogs like this localized into Arabic would help aid that process. Knowledge is a VERY powerful thing and having it available in a form that is easily accessible goes a long way to changing the situation.

    Imagine, for example, the impact one could have with a solid Arabic-localized (MSA dialect would be best) of a half a dozen top-quality Kemetic or Hellenic blogs. Books and the like would be difficult to get over there but in the age of the Internet borders are much easier to ignore.

    • Jason Hatter
    • Morgana

      The Middle East is NOT Arabic, neither are all Moslems Arabs. Before we go and talk about western pagan traditions it is advisable to ask local people about their cultural pagan heritage. We can help and support locals but let’s not make the mistake that we are *teaching* anyone. There has been enough British & American cultural imperialism already.

      • http://danielexposito.es Daniel Expósito Romero

        Indeed… It would be nice if we could avoid falling into the “If it’s beyond Turkey or ‘brown-ish’, then it’s Arab” *sigh*

      • Ryan Smith

        Where did I say everyone in the Middle East is Arabic? I’m saying get it translated into Arabic because everyone from Morocco to the Tigris River speaks the language at the minimum as a common second language. You can’t NOT go anywhere in Egypt or along the Levant without some basic knowledge of the language regardless of the specific cultures involved; it’s one of those little facts about the region that is one of the most omnipresent features.

        Unless there’s another language that has as many speakers in the region as Arabic; MSA dialect, Shami dialect, Masri dialect, Iraqi dialect or otherwise I’d say the best shot at getting information on modern Paganism to places like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq would be by translating the information into the most commonly spoken language. MSA Arabic, being the norm for written documents, news media, and the like would be the most appropriate but if there’s another one then please say so.

    • Adon

      Hi, There’s currently an increase in publishing pagan materials in local languages. I’ve seen blogs and websites in turkish, farsi, and hebrew, and there are a couple of projects in Arabic as well, one is a facebook page

      https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Old-Religion-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%85/410737779009215

      And another is a blog that as far as i know will be reactivated soon, here’s one of its PDFs on Kemetism (arabic) :)
      http://alexandria415.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/issue-3.pdf

  • Mediena Ragana

    “There’s been a school of thought which posits that polytheism is humanity’s default religious setting..”

    No. Actually the original “religion” of this planet was ancestor worship, which evolved into polytheism, which devolved into monotheism.

    • Charles Cosimano

      There are many schools of thought which do not think.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      How do we know? We’re talking about pre-literacy situations thousands of years ago. The oldest “stuff” we find that might be religious are Neandertal ossuaries mixing their bones and those of cave bears. Perhaps animal worship was the original religion.

    • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

      How about we stop trying to apply a linear theory of religious evolution? It is counter-productive and has historically been used in academia as a reason to make winners/losers, or enlightened/unenlightened false dichotomies, whether one places atheism, monotheism, etc. on top of the heap.

      At the least it is intellectually dishonest and at the most a tool used to justify unfair/immoral policies and positions. When academia bows like this it enables others to claim a higher position, both in authority and in morality. After all, if there is a linear path of religious evolution and you insist on holding something that is wholly different, inferior, where Christianity or atheism is on top, then you are embracing a view that is ‘less evolved’ and ‘backward’.

  • Charles Cosimano

    There is a common language which is well understood in the middle east. Have your people become proficient in the use of small arms and explosives.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    If indigenous spirituality (re)surfaces in the Middle East, would it be called Paganism?

  • Rombald

    A lot depends on what you mean by “Paganism”.
    The Abrahamic religions in the ME are Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Samaritanism and Mandaeanism. There is also Zoroastrianism, which is non-Abrahamic, but prophetic, and Abrahamic-like in type.

    Other religions are Yazidism, Yarsanism and Druze. The Alawis and Alevis are also sometimes classed as non-Muslim.
    The Yazidis and Yarsanis in particular are arguably polytheist, and often considered to be “devil-worshippers” by Muslims. I once knew a Kurdish refugee in England who had rejected the Sunni Islam of his upbringing, and practised what he called “Kurdish Paganism”, which I now think was probably Yazidi-based.
    I’ve no idea how much non-Abrahamism correlates with social liberalism, however.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Yazidi/Yezidi is, to me, a form of Abrahamic polytheism, since it draws from the same pantheon.

      I personally do not feel that it is appropriate to apply the term ‘Paganism’ to every non-Abrahamic form of spirituality as it both renders the term “Paganism” meaningless (unless as a negative descriptor) and belittles the various, distinct forms of indigenous/alternative spirituality found across the world.

      I like to think that we, as a global society, have moved past the need to define religions as either Abrahamic or Pagan.

      • Rebel Druid

        Would it not be appropriate to lend the term “Paganism” (or “Neo-Paganism” depending on who you’re asking) to the revival (partial or complete) of religions or practises which were prevalent before the monotheisms took control of the people?

        I don’t think Rombald is suggesting that every non-Abrahamic religion ever is Pagan; a lot of people would dispute Buddhism and some would dispute Hinduism being Pagan.
        In my opinion the old beliefs & cults of the Levant are just as Pagan as the reviving traditions of Rome & other classical civilisations. I have often heard people say ‘Paganism is an umbrella term for many different beliefs’. I think, sometimes, that it is taken for granted the sheer number of different beliefs, cults, and practises ‘Paganism’ can cover if it is an umbrella term.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          I don’t think that Rombald was suggesting that, either.

          I would personally keep the term “Paganism” for the European inspired modern religions, notably the eclectic and syncretic systems that do not really fit any other designation.

  • Matt B

    I don’t know why, but given Egypt’s wealth of information and direct examples of how to conduct original Egyptian worship, the idea of Egyptian Pantheon using Wiccans running amok in Egypt just makes me kinda sad…

    • Deborah

      Well, that phenomenon doesn’t raise exactly the same cultural appropriation issues that arise with the worship of deities from some other cultures. The Greeks and Romans were there ahead of us, with their syncretic Serapis cult, Isian mysteries, and so forth. As long as the forms of devotion that Wiccans offer don’t include things that are abhorrent to the gods of Egypt, they will probably accept it with good grace. Wicca, the Fellowship of Isis, etc. are for some people a gateway to a more purely Egyptian form of worship.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Why wouldn’t it raise the issues of cultural appropriation that others complain of? It would be understandable if they felt that way.

        I am not saying it would be justified, but it would be easy to understand.

  • shmuel

    There’s no so thing as a universal “human nature” and monotheism does not “breakdown” into polytheism anymore than the reverse is true. Religious ideas ebb and flow throughout time and space as conditions constantly change. There’s no grand narrative at play here other than we’re all stuck on a rock hurdling through space, trying to come to terms with a world in which we, even collectively, are relatively insignificant.
    That being said, religious freedom should be championed everywhere, all the time. Also, it should be worth noting that an Islamic view of history does not allow for a “pre-Islamic” anything, as from an Islamic perspective, Islam is the urreligion, and Muhammad’s revelation is simply the final one. Bahai’sm takes this view of history one step further and makes it wholly cyclical, stating that every revelation, including its own (in the distant future) is surpassed by another which is essentially the same religion.