Islamic Voice-Hearing

Islam, what kind of religion is it? Islam is the worship of a missing god, that is how we earlier described it. Some might consider that as unfair and dismissive to one of the world’s largest religions, but this is true to some extent for all post-bicameral religions. The difference is that Islam is among the most post-bicameral of the world religions. This is true simply in temporal terms.

The bicameral societies, according to Julian Jaynes, ended with the widespread collapse of the late Bronze Age empires and their trade networks. That happened around 1177 BCE, as the result of natural disasters and attacks by the mysterious Sea People, the latter maybe having formed out the refugees from the former. The Bronze Age continued for many centuries in various places: 700 BCE in Great Britain, Central Europe and China; 600 BCE in Northern Europe; 500 BCE in Korea and Ireland; and centuries beyond that in places like Japan.

But the Bronze Age Empires never returned. In that late lingering Bronze Age, a dark age took hold and put all of civilization onto a new footing. This was the era when, across numerous cultures, there were the endless laments about the gods, spirits, and ancestors having gone silent, having abandoned humanity. Entire cultural worldviews and psychological ways of being were utterly demolished or else irreparably diminished. This created an intense sense of loss, longing, and nostalgia that has never left humanity since.

Out of the ashes, while the Bronze Age was still holding on, the Axial Age arose around 900 BCE and continued until 200 BCE. New cultures were formed and new empires built. The result is what Jaynes described as ‘consciousness’ or what one can think of as introspective mental space, an inner world of egoic identity where the individual is separate from community and world. Consciousness and the formalized religions that accompanied it were a replacement for the loss of a world alive with voices.

By the time Rabbinic Judaism, Gnosticism, and Christianity came around, the Axial Age was already being looked back upon as a Golden Age and, other than through a few surviving myths, the Bronze Age before that was barely remembered at all. It would be nearly another 600 years after that first century monotheistic revival when Muhammad would have his visions of the angel Gabriel visiting him to speak on behalf of God. Islam is both post-bicameral and post-axial, to a far greater degree.

Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet and even he didn’t get to hear God directly for it had to come through an angel. The voice of God had long ago grown so faint that people had come to rely on oracles, channelings, and such. These rather late revelations by way of Gabriel were but a barely audible echo of the archaic bicameral voices. It is may be understandable that, as with some oracles before him, Muhammad would declare God would never speak again. So, Islam, unlike the other monothesitic religions, fully embraces God’s absence from the world.

Actually, that is not quite right. Based on the Koran, God will never speak again until the Final Judgment. Then all will hear God again when he weighs your sins and decides the fate of your immortal soul. Here is the interesting part. The witnesses God shall call upon in each person’s case will be all the bicameral voices brought back out of silence. The animals and plants will witness for or against you, as will the earth and rocks and wind. Even your own resurrected body parts will come alive again with voices to speak of what you did. Body parts speaking is something familiar to those who read Jaynesian scholarship.

Until then, God and all the voices of the world will remain mute witnesses, watching your every move and taking notes. They see all, hear all, notice all — every time you masturbate or pick your nose, every time you have a cruel or impure thought, every time you don’t follow one of the large number of divine commandments, laws, and rules spelled out in the Koran. The entire world is spying upon you and will report back to God, at the end of time. The silent world only appears to be dumb and unconscious. God is biding his time, gathering a file on you like a cosmic FBI.

This could feel paralyzing, but in another way it offers total freedom from self, total freedom through complete submission. Jaynesian consciousness is a heavy load and that was becoming increasingly apparent over time, especially in the centuries following the Axial Age. The zealous idealism of the Axial Age prophets was growing dull and tiresome. By the time that Muhammad showed up, almost two millennia had passed since the bicameral mind descended into darkness. The new consciousness was sold as something amazing, but it hadn’t fully lived up to its promises. Instead, ever more brutal regimes came into power and a sense of anxiety was overtaking society.

Muhammad had an answer and the people of that region were obviously hungry for someone to provide an answer. After forming his large army, his military campaign barely experienced any resistance. And in a short period of time while he was still alive, most of the Arabian peninsula was converted to Islam. The silence of the gods had weakened society, but Muhammad offered an explanation for why the divine could no longer be experienced. He helped normalize what had once felt like a tragedy. He told them that they didn’t need to hear God because God had already revealed all knowledge to the prophets, including himself of course. No one had to worry, just follow orders and comply with commands.

All the tiresome complications of thought were unnecessary. God had already thought out everything for humans. The Koran as the final and complete holy text would entirely and permanently replace the bicameral voices, ever receding into the shadows of the psyche. But don’t worry, all those voices are still there, waiting to speak. But the only voice that the individual needed to listen to was that of the person directly above them in the religious hierarchy, be it one’s father or an imam or whoever else with greater official authority with a line of command that goes back to the prophets and through the angels to God Himself. Everything is in the Koran and the learned priestly class would explain it all and translate it into proper theocratic governance.

Muhammad came with a different message than anyone before. The Jewish prophets and Jesus, as with many Pagans, would speak of God as Father and humanity as His children. Early Christians took this as a challenge to a slave-based society, in borrowing from the Stoics that even a slave was free in his soul. Muhammad, instead, was offering another variety of freedom. We humans, rather than children of God, are slaves of God. The entire Islamic religion is predicated upon divine slavery, absolute submission. This is freedom from the harsh taskmaster of egoic individuality, a wannabe demiurge. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad formulated a totalitarian theocracy, a totalizing system. Nothing is left to question or interpretation, that is in theory or rather in belief.

This goes back to how, with the loss of the bicameral mind and social order, something took its place. It was a different kind of authoritarianism — rigid and hierarchical, centralized and concentrated, despotic and violent. Authoritarianism of this variety didn’t emerge until the late Bronze Age when the bicameral societies were becoming too large and complex, overstrained and unstable. Suddenly, as if to presage the coming collapse, there was the appearance of written laws, harsh punishment, and cruel torture — none of which ever existed before, according to historical records and archaeological finds. As the world shifted into post-bicameralism, this authoritarianism became ever more extreme (e.g., Roman Empire).

This was always the other side of the rise of individuality, of Jaynesian consciousness. The greater potential freedom the individual possesses the more that oppressive social control is required, as the communal bonds and social norms of the bicameral mind increasingly lost their hold to organically maintain order. Muhammad must have showed up at the precise moment of crisis in this change. After the Roman Empire’s system of slavery, Europe came up with feudalism to re-create some of what had disappeared. But apparently a different kind of solution was required in the Arab world.

Maybe this offsets the draining of psychic energy that comes with consciousness. Jaynes speculated that, like the schizophrenic, bicameral humans had immense energy and stamina which allowed them to accomplish near-miraculous feats such as building the pyramids with small populations and very little technology or infrastructure. Suppression of the extremes of individualism through emphasizing absolute subordination is maybe a way of keeping in check the energy loss of maintaining egoic consciousness. In the West, we eventually overcame this weakness by using massive doses of stimulants to overpower the otherwise debilitating anxiety and to help shore up the egoic boundaries, but this has come at the cost of destroying our physical health and mental health.

Time will tell which strategy is the most effective for long-term survival of specific societies. But I’m not sure I’d bet on the Western system, considering how unsustainable it appears to be and how easily it has become crippled by a minor disease epidemic like covid-19. Muhammad might simply have been trying to cobble together some semblance of a bicameral mind, in the face of divine silence. There is a good reason for trying to do that. Those bicameral societies lasted many millennia longer than has our post-bicameral civilization. It’s not clear that modern civilization or at least Western civilization will last beyond the end of this century. We underestimate the bicameral mind and the importance it played during the single longest period of advancement of civilization.

* * *

Let us leave a small note of a more personal nature. In the previous post (linked above), we mentioned that our line of inquiry began with a conversation we had with a friend of ours who is a Muslim. He also happens to be schizophrenic, i.e., a voice-hearer. The last post was about how voice=hearing is understood within Islam. Since supposedly God no longer speaks to humans nor do his angelic intermediaries, any voice a Muslim hears is automatically interpreted as not being of divine origins. It doesn’t necessarily make the voice evil, as it could be a jinn which is a neutral entity in Islamic theology, although jinn can be dangerous. Then again, voice-hearing might also be caused by an evil magician, what I think is called a sihir.

Anyway, we had the opportunity to speak to this friend once again, as we are both in jobs that require us to continue working downtown amidst everything otherwise being locked down because of the covid-19 epidemic. In being isolated from family and other friends, we’ve been meeting with this Islamic guy on a daily basis. Just this morning, we went for a long walk together and chatted about life and religion. He had previously talked about his schizophrenia in passing, apparently unworried by the stigma of it. He is an easy person to talk to, quite direct and open about his thoughts and experiences. I asked him about voice-hearing and he explained that, prior to being medicated, he would continue to hear people speak to him after they no longer were present. And unsurprisingly, the voices were often negative.

Both his imam and his therapist told him to ignore the voices. Maybe that is a standard approach in traditionally monotheistic cultures. As we mentioned in the other post, he is from North Africa where Arabs are common. But another friend of ours lives in Ghana, in West Africa. Voice-hearing experience among people in Ghana was compared to those in the United States, in the research of Tanya M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist inspired by Julian Jaynes. She found that Ghanans, with a tradition of voice-hearing (closer to bicameralism?), had a much more positive experience of the voices they heard. Americans, like our Islamic friend, did not tend to hear voices that were kind and helpful. This is probably the expectancy effect.

If you are raised to believe that voices are demonic or their Islamic equivalent of jinn or are from witches and evil magicians, or if you simply have been told voice-hearing means your insane, well, it’s not likely to lead to happy results when you do hear voices. I doubt it decreases the rate of voice-hearing, though. In spite of Islamic theology denying God and angels speak to humans any longer, that isn’t likely to have any affect on voice-hearing itself. So, the repressed bicameral mind keeps throwing out these odd experiences, but in our post-bicameral age we have fewer resources in dealing constructively with those voices. Simply denying and ignoring them probably is less helpful.

That is the ultimate snag. The same voices that once were identified as godly or something similar are now taken as false, unreal, or dangerous. In a sense, God never stopped speaking. One could argue that we all are voice-hearers, but some of us now call the voice of God as ‘conscience’ or whatever. Others, like Muslims, put great emphasis on this voice-hearing but have tried to gag God who goes on talking. Imagine how many potential new prophets have been locked away in psychiatric wards or, much worse, killed or imprisoned as heretics. If God can’t be silenced, the prophets who hear him can. The Old Testament even describes how the authorities forbid voice-hearing and demanded that voice-hearers be killed, even by their own parents.

The bicameral mind didn’t disappear naturally because it was inferior but because, in its potency, it was deemed dangerous to those who wanted to use brute power to enforce their own voices of authorization. The bicameral mind, once central to the social order, had become enemy number one. If people could talk to God directly, religion and its claims of authority would become irrelevant. That is how our Islamic friend, a devout religious practitioner, ended up being drugged up to get the voices to stop speaking.

4 thoughts on “Islamic Voice-Hearing

  1. Fascinating. Thanks for the scholarship and clarity. In my early years I perceived that I had two ‘selfs’: the observer and the observed, but they were both me. The observer would criticize and counsel the ‘observed’, but i saw, neither then nor see now nothing pathological about this It seemed and still seems natural. This conversation has diminished almost to the vanishing point, over the years. A Jungian “integration”?

    • I suppose, in my youth, I noticed the observer and the observed. But I’m not sure it stood out to me. I remember in elementary school looking in the mirror while berating myself and crying, and the sensation of doubled consciousness. That kind of thing did interest me over time, such as with being introduced to Eastern thought with Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha in high school.

      Other things seemed more significant. I could never know anything outside of awareness. Not even awareness of awareness as the observer can escape. Worse still, our awareness is so limited, so twisted and splintered, a distinctive lack of integration or individuation. The observer was impotent.

      It really confused and irritated me, this state of the human psyche, and no one around me was of any help. At one point, during a long period of depression and meditation, I developed depersonalization and it felt like the whole world was an emptiness that could consume me. Some part of me, though, was attracted to the loss of self, the source of suffering.

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