Imagine that three individuals were each commissioned to prepare the psychological profile of a self-appointed religious prophet who founded a tightly-knit community in Arizona in the mid-1800’s.
The prophet, soon after the death of his wife of 25 years, began having dreams about the six-year-old daughter of his best friend and persuaded the friend that God had told him to marry her. He later used the same God-told-me-so line to convince his adopted son to divorce his attractive wife so he could marry her as well. The community was polygamous, but the prophet was the only man who could have as many women as he wanted.
The community had few financial resources, so the prophet developed the idea of robbing stagecoaches and trains that passed through the area. Slavery was legal within the community, and the people who were not killed on these raids were used and sold as slaves. Male members of the community had full sexual access to the female slaves.
The prophet’s ambitions were much larger than the few hundred converts he garnered his first few years. He fully expected all the people of the area to accept his prophethood and join the community. When some refused, he turned viciously against them. Eight hundred men were killed in one day, and the rest were driven to outlying regions. When he realized that his people did not have the agricultural and industrial resources to provide for the needs of the community, he came up with a new strategy. He again attacked the people he had recently driven away, this time allowing them to live in exchange for giving him fifty percent of their produce. Shortly before his death, he stated a new ruling that they were to be driven completely from Arizona and never allowed to return.
As often happens with religious and political leaders who see themselves as chosen vessels, the prophet became more intolerant to criticism as he grew older and more powerful. Stories of the murder and assassination of his critics became increasingly common. One of his disciples bragged that he had come across a one-eyed sheep rancher who said he would never join the prophet’s group. The disciple waited until the rancher fell asleep, and then thrust a sharpened stick into the rancher’s good eye so hard it came out the back of his neck. The disciple next captured an associate of the rancher, tied his thumbs together, and led him to the prophet. The prophet laughed so hard at the sight, according to the disciple, that, “You could see his back teeth”. The prophet blessed the disciple when he heard how he had killed the one-eyed rancher.
About the same time a 100-year old poet wrote lines critical of the prophet and his followers. In reference to the many regulations the prophet had established for the community, the poet noted, “You follow someone who divides everything into ‘This is allowed’ and ‘That is forbidden’.” As soon as the prophet heard this, he sent someone to assassinate the old poet.
A second poet, the mother of five children, was courageous enough to criticize the murder of the old man. She wrote, “I despise you people….you who obey a stranger and expect good things from him after he killed all your leaders.” The prophet, realizing he was the “stranger” she was writing about, sent one of his followers to kill her. She was murdered in her bed that night with her nursing child lying by her side. Her murderer, perhaps touched with remorse by the heinousness of his crime, asked the prophet if anything bad would happen to him. The prophet replied that her death was of no more significance than two goats butting their heads together in the back yard.
Some time after the prophet’s death, it was discovered that the Arizona desert underneath his followers’ feet contained the world’s largest diamond resources. Community members became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and began to use their new-found riches to extend the prophet’s vision that the entire world come under the influence of his teachings and principles.
Now back to the first sentence, where “three individuals” are each commissioned to write a profile of the prophet. The first is a university professor who is an expert in the teachings of the prophet even though he has not joined the prophet’s community. He was recently given 25 million dollars by that community to establish a university department where the teachings of the prophet are examined. He is careful to only teach a version of community history appoved by his sponsors. His students rarely learn incidents such as the deaths of the poets and the role of the community in the slave trade as noted above. They know nothing about the world-wide political aspirations of the group.
The second individual is a fully-committed member of the community. She has been taught since her birth that the life of the prophet is the perfect model for all humankind to follow. She doesn’t even know many of the details of that life, such as his treatment of the exiles who did not accept his message. She only knows what she was taught, one side of the story, and is not interested in learning more.
The third person is an ex-member of the community. He was born and raised within it, similar to individual number two, but at a certain stage began to question the things he had always been ordered to simply believe. His questioning led to doubt, and the doubt resulted in his leaving the community. He now sees himself as free, but his former associates, including individual number two above, view him as a traitor. Even the university professor, individual number one, despises him because he is not sufficiently “academically trained”, according to the professor, to critically examine the community of which he was once a part.
Which of these three individuals might give the most objective profile of the prophet’s life? If your answer is individual number three, I recommend this book by Ali Sina.