Everything I Need to Know about Islam I Learned from Comic Books

I originally wrote this about Islam, but the same principles are evident in Mormonism as well.

Super heroes, like all mythology, have always shared similarities with religion. I don’t just mean similarities in the narrative, like the Judeo-Christian undertones of Superman (sent by his father from the heavens to earth to perform miracles, die, and be resurrected), the Greco-Roman mythology intertwined in the Wonder Woman mythos, or the Norse mythology in the Mighty Thor. In a monthly, serialized format, super hero comic books demonstrate an accelerated model of the evolution of all myths and religious figures, doing in less than 75 years of the medium’s history what normally takes centuries of scriptural and parabolic evolution. The way comics are written, edited, and even interpreted is analogous to the formation of new religious traditions. A fundamental continuity device in serialized fiction is retroactive continuity, or retcon for short. Retconning is absolutely necessary in long-running comics like Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, who have been in continuous publication since the 1930’s and 40’s. Wonder Woman, for example, had a consistent history until the death of her creator in 1947, after which subsequent writers disregarded her established continuity to varying degrees. The combination of these textual discrepancies and the passage of too much time since the World War II origin required a full reboot of the series in 1986, in which writers and editors attempted to recognize an official canon and reconcile the contradictions into a single, coherent narrative. One of the major retcons in this process was changing Wonder Woman’s primary antagonist from the more popular name Mars of the Roman pantheon to the more historically accurate Greek version, Ares. This is remarkable not only as a retcon in the Wonder Woman comics, but also because the transition from the Greek gods to the Roman gods is itself an obvious example of a retcon in a religion. Religious retcons result more or less from the same causes that affect serialized fiction: over the passage of time, as new works are in production, there is a departure from the original source material that persists until some event causes an editor to reboot and/or reconcile the narrative. There is no better example of this process than in Islam, which purports to be based on its predecessors Judaism and Christianity, while agreeing with very little in either religion, not even in details of the narratives. If anybody thought the teachings of Christ were a departure from Judaism, Islam would prove the two are completely compatible by comparison. The characteristic effects of the passage of time in serialized fiction are imprinted in the utter lack of chronological definition: Jesus’ mother Mary is the sister of Aaron, the brother of Moses, who encounters Hamaan (from the book of Esther) in Pharaoh’s court. Muhammad’s revision of the Bible is essentially 2,000 compressed years of Jewish history all taking place simultaneously. When looking at the retcon of Judeo-Christian history in the Qur’an, it is first important to understand that the earlier Biblical stories of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were constantly being retold and embellished in the centuries after Christ, just like serialized fiction. Along the trade routes on the Arabian peninsula, far removed from the epicenter of Christian orthodoxy, Muhammad would most likely encounter the exiled heretics and rejected theologians traveling in caravans. This limited exposure to Christianity would be comparable to developing a religion based solely on what one overheard at truck stops. When looking at the Qur’an’s source material, then, it is less insightful to look at the original canon of Scriptures, that remain intact and unchanged, and instead focus on the writings that followed, like the pseudepigrapha, Jewish commentaries and traditions, heretical Christian writings, and even Zoroastrian sacred texts, all of which have more in common with the Qur’an than the Qur’an has with the Biblical accounts. Just like in a comic book retcon, there was no problem with the first edition of the stories, the inconsistencies came about later from writers with either little knowledge of or little regard for the original books, which polluted the overall continuity. Thus, when it came time to make a reboot in the form of the Qur’an, it was flawed from the start because it was weighted with source material that was flawed. Sometimes retcons are received favorably by the fans, but other times they are rejected even if they succeed in their goal to reconcile conflicting stories together. In a business sense, however, a retcon can be considered commercially successful if it attracts new readers. When this happens, fan communities split into two camps: the newbies, who will never read the original stories and don’t know or care about the changes; and the purists, fans of the original stories who, for whatever reasons, dislike the changes. Ultimately, the Qur’an is symptomatic of a commercially successful yet largely unpopular retcon, where purists can rightfully argue that no change was ever needed except to abandon the stories that were unfaithful to the narrative in the first place. The newbies, on the other hand, just don’t care.

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