Perhaps you’ve noticed that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was opposed in the recent election by a man with rather bold and outspoken followers who had a particular fondness for green. In fact, you may have observed that there’s a lot of green-wearing in the Muslim world generally, and many green flags.
How come? Is it that the majority of people in Muslim countries are unusually enthusiastic fans of Kermit the Frog? Or might they be worshipers (like Americans) of American dollars? Or perhaps many Muslims have seen An Inconvenient Truth and are Al Gore environmentalists!
Alas, no, no, and no.
The reason, according to Slate today, is—surprise!—Mohammad.
Not Mohammad Ali, but the seventh century Mohammad. It turns out that the seventh century Mohammad liked green, so naturally everybody who follows him in the 21st century is keen on green:
The Islamic prophet is said to have worn a green cloak and turban, and his writings are full of references to the color. A passage from the Quran describes paradise as a place where people “will wear green garments of fine silk.” One hadith, or teaching, says, “When Allah’s Apostle died, he was covered with a Hibra Burd,” which is a green square garment. As a result, you’ll see green used to color the binding of Qurans, the domes of mosques, and, yes, campaign materials.
Isn’t it curious how seemingly small contingencies can, over time, turn into huge system effects, impacting culture and history? What if Mohammad had, for example, expressed an off-handed distaste for coffee, and was into drinking gallons of prune juice?
No coffee in the Muslim world; lots of prune juice bars.
And what if it was learned that the Buddha had not sat under a bodhi tree, as is now thought, but stood, in fact, on his head at the shore of an ocean?
Suddenly, headstand beach meditation would be all the rage among skinny models in Malibu.
And how about Jesus if he had multiplied—camels?
Well, you get the picture. Lots of American cars with the “sign of the camel” on the back of them.
Mohammad’s favorite color, Buddha’s bodhi tree, and Jesus’s fish multiplication are lessons in contingency. You never know what your words or deeds might lead to.
So watch out!
I myself, in briefly contemplating the nature of contingency here, am now utterly confused and indecisive as to my next move. Dare I eat a peach (to echo T.S. Eliot)? And shall I post this post?
If you’re reading this, the answer I returned to myself was, yes, I will post this post, and obviously I did. But maybe I shouldn’t have.
Susan Neiman, in her brilliant book, Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton 2002), offers this anecdote from Kant about the power of contingency to produce surprising effects (and so render the ultimate outcomes of our choices indiscernible by us):
Your innocent friend took refuge in your cellar from a murderer pursuing him. When the murderer arrives at your doorstep demanding to know his whereabouts, should you tell a lie? Kant says you should not, and his reason will puzzle. It is possible that if you lie and tell the murderer your friend is elsewhere, he will leave the house to continue his pursuit, thereby running straight into your friend, who just managed to slip out the basement window to what he thought was safety.
Kant’s point here is a moral one. Maintain your good intentions, and do not tell lies. Since you can’t really know the ultimate outcomes of your choices, you might as well uphold the moral law.
Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, runs on a similar theme, but turns the Kantian imperative on its head. In The Idiot, a Christ-like protagonist imagines himself doing good, but generates enormous harm at every turn in his “do-gooding.”
So do good or do ill. Act with large ambitions or little tiny ones. Still, you never know what will ultimately come of them. Maybe your good intentions will bring about evil; your ill actions, good; your largest life ambition, a ripple in the fabric of nothingness; your tiniest gesture, the destruction of kings. For want of a horse . . .
Another example: Hitler’s gross Antisemitic evil perpetrated upon the Jews during World War II was certainly a decisive factor, after World War II, in the creation of the State of Israel. What would Hitler have thought of that? Obviously, you can’t really know much of anything with certainty in this life.
Now choose anyway.