Greeks, Arabs, and stones

April 2, 2006

Throughout history, people have shown two reactions when faced with the unknown: curiosity and fear. When curiosity is predominant, the unknown object is examined, studied, and the opinion of its properties is added to the current store of human knowledge. When fear is the prime reaction, we try to propitiate the force behind the unknown by our submissiveness, by showing that we know our place, by blocking any attempt to get closer to the mystery. A taboo is placed around the mysterious object to prevent any act of intrusiveness, so as to placate the forces behind the unknown.

Fearless curiosity was a trait of the ancient Greeks, the trait they bequeathed to the western culture. When a stone from the heaven landed in a Greek river in about 467 b. c., it caused Athenian philosopher Anaxagoras to examine it and speculate that stars were made of red-hot rock. But when another one landed in the Arabian peninsula, the reaction from the local populace was markedly different – not curiosity, but awe and reverence; the stone was made a taboo, an object of worship and pilgrimage to its location in Mecca – which continues to this day.

This reverential attitude towards objects takes a grimly grotesque turn when human lives are being sacrificed to it. In the on-going Palestinian-Israeli conflict, another stone, this time in Jerusalem, is the focus of bloody strife. It is a stone from which Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven – and when Ariel Sharon visited the site of the ancient Jewish temple in September 2000, he came into its close proximity. As a result, an intifada erupted that killed over a thousand Israelis, and maimed thousands more.

While the need to kill people for standing next to a stone may be obvious to the Arabs, it is not at all clear to a Greek. His question is: what exactly happened to the stone when Sharon stood near it? Some horrible irreversible damage must have been done to it, to justify all the orgy of murder that followed. Perhaps before Sharon’s visit, Mohammed indeed ascended from this stone to heaven – but not after Sharon’s visit? Perhaps before Sharon stopped by, anyone stepping on that stone immediately found himself visiting heaven, but once Sharon stood near it, the stone lost this magical spaceship quality, understandably causing the rage of Palestinian heaven-tourists?

The bottom line is – is this stone considered holy because it is holy, or is it holy because it is considered holy? It will take a lot of explaining to prove the former – and if the latter is the case, we are dealing here with a bad case of idolatrous stone-worship of the most primitive kind – and we need to say it loud and clear.

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