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How the Concept of Mosaic Authorship Developed

How the Concept of Mosaic
Authorship Developed
In the Persian period, the Torah, which is made up of various law collections, was ascribed to Moses as revealed by YHWH. A parallel development was taking place in Achaemenid Persia that sheds light on this process: The sacred texts called the Avesta, that contain the law​​ (dāta) and tradition (daēnā) of Zoroastrianism​, were being collectively ascribed to Zarathustra (Zoroaster) as revealed by Ahuramazdā.
Dr. Yishai Kiel
Zarathustra, the Persian prophet. By Nicholas Roerich 1931  State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow, Russia. Wikiart
The Pentateuch never claims divine origin or Mosaic authorship.[1] While exactly how this became the authoritative view in rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity is uncertain, some evidence regarding this process can be gleaned from the semantic unfolding of the term torahin the Bible.
The Semantic Development of the Term Torah
The term torah means “teaching” or “instruction.” Often, it refers to a specific instruction, such as the decisions given by a judge (Exod 18:16; Deut 17:11) or the instructions given by God to Abraham (Gen 26:5). In P, the term torah generally refers to a body of instructions pertaining to a certain ritual or rite. This usage of torah is likely rooted in a reality of priestly ritual instructions recorded in short scrolls, each carrying a specific body of instructions pertaining to a particular topic and marked by a colophon.    
D, in contrast, applies the term torah more broadly, encompassing a “code” or collection of laws. The term there refers specifically to the legal part of Deuteronomy (some form of chs. 12-26), which is said to have been delivered by Moses to the Israelites on the plains of Moab. It is in this context that the term torah reflects a more central religious conception and comes to refer to what ultimately becomes a canonical composition.
It is mainly in Deuteronomy that the term torah is applied to a written document in particular, as reflected in the frequent use of the phrases ספר התורה (“the book of the torah”) and ספר הברית (“the book of the covenant”) as well as various instructions relating to writing.[2]   
The Deuteronomistic History sometimes uses phrases such as תורת משה  (“the torah of Moses”), ספר תורת משה (“the book of the torah of Moses”), and ספר התורה (“the book of the torah”) to refer not merely to the laws of Deuteronomy 12-26, but to the entire literary book of Deuteronomy, including its historical and rhetorical introductions.[3] For example, Joshua 8:31 describes the building of the altar on Mount ʽEbal as follows: “as Moses, the servant of YHWH, had commanded the Israelites, as is written in the book of the torah of Moses (בספר תורת משה),” a reference to Deuteronomy 27:2-8.
“The Torah of Moses” in Postexilic Biblical Books
In the postexilic works (mainly in Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles), the term torah assumes a broader semantic range encompassing most, if not all, of the Pentateuch as it alludes to laws found, at the very least, in the Deuteronomic and Priestly law collections (including the Holiness legislation). Thus, when referring to תורת משה, “the Torah of Moses,” these works are envisioning what we call the Pentateuch, or at least a relatively mature version of it.[4]
The implications of this semantic shift are far-reaching: this innovative conceptualization of torah contributes to the perception of the textual unity of the Pentateuch as revealed legislation. The figure of Moses to whom the torah is emphatically ascribed is likewise transformed in this framework, in the sense that Moses is no longer the mediator of a single law code, but also the personal authority justifying the authorial fusion of distinct Pentateuchal codes into a textual and legal unity.[5]
The authors of Ezra-Nehemiah projected the consolidation of the torah onto the figure of Moses, with Ezra as the mediating official chosen by both the Persian king and YHWH to bring this Torah to Judea and ensure its central position among the Jews: 
עזרא ז:ו הוּא עֶזְרָא עָלָה מִבָּבֶל וְהוּא סֹפֵר מָהִיר בְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ כְּיַד יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהָיו עָלָיו כֹּל בַּקָּשָׁתוֹ.
Ezra 7:6 that Ezra came up from Babylon, a scribe expert in the Torah of Moses which YHWH God of Israel had given, whose request the king had granted in its entirety, thanks to the benevolence of YHWH toward him. 
A central conception of Ezra-Nehemiah is that YHWH gave His laws as the written Torah to Moses, and Ezra’s job was to promulgate this Torah, ensuring that it is fulfilled by the Jews.
YHWH’s Torah and Ahura-Mazda’s Dāta
A similar conception is found in Zoroastrian thinking during this period. The law (dāta) is set down by Ahura Mazdā,[6] the supreme deity in Zoroastrianism. In fact, the book of Ezra explicitly makes this parallel by having King Artaxerxes I (r. 465–424 BC) use the Persian word as a synonym for Torah in his proclamation appointing Ezra as leader:
עזרא ז:כה וְאַנְתְּ עֶזְרָא כְּחָכְמַת אֱלָהָךְ דִּי בִידָךְ מֶנִּי שָׁפְטִין וְדַיָּנִין דִּי לֶהֱו‍ֹן דאנין [דָּאיְנִין] לְכָל עַמָּה דִּי בַּעֲבַר נַהֲרָה לְכָל יָדְעֵי דָּתֵי אֱלָהָךְ וְדִי לָא יָדַע תְּהוֹדְעוּן. ז:כו וְכָל דִּי לָא לֶהֱוֵא עָבֵד דָּתָא דִי אֱלָהָךְ וְדָתָא דִּי מַלְכָּא אָסְפַּרְנָא דִּינָה לֶהֱוֵא מִתְעֲבֵד מִנֵּהּ הֵן לְמוֹת הֵן לשרשו [לִשְׁרֹשִׁי] הֵן לַעֲנָשׁ נִכְסִין וְלֶאֱסוּרִין.
Ezra 7:25 And you, Ezra, by the divine wisdom you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to judge all the people in the province of Beyond the River who know the laws of your God, and to teach those who do not know them. 7:26 Let anyone who does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king be punished with dispatch, whether by death, corporal punishment, confiscation of possessions, or imprisonment.[7]
While the term דת\דתא is attested elsewhere in the Bible in a more general sense of “law, custom,”[8] Ezra 7:26 is using it as a reference to Torah, i.e., God’s laws. This reflects the term’s usage in the Avesta (the collection of the Zoroastrian sacred texts), which commonly uses dāta to designate divinely revealed law.
While there is no consensus regarding the date of the Avesta, many scholars believe that Avestan works crystalized orally between the late second and early first millennium B.C.E, before the advent of the Achaemenids—in other words before the period of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The Law of Ahura Mazdā as Revealed to Zarathustra
A number of phrases found in the Young Avesta[9] solidify the connection between the law set by Ahura Mazdā and the revelation to Zarathustra.
The Dāta of Zarathustra – The Avesta contains a parallel phrase to Ezra’s “Torah of Moses,” namely, “the law of Zarathustra” (dāta zaraθuštri),[10] which seems to designate a manifestation of the Zoroastrian Tradition. The personal attribution to the “prophet” Zarathustra, as the authoritative recipient and mediator of the law set down by Ahura Mazdā, serves to unify the various components of the religious tradition and justify their inclusion in a single coherent notion of textual unity and scriptural revelation.
The Daēnā[11] of Ahura Mazdā and Zarathustra – In Young Avestan passages, daēnārefers, among other things, to the totality of traditions and instructions revealed by Ahura Mazdā to Zarathustra (Videvdad 2.1-2):[12]
Zarathustra asked Ahura Mazdā: “O Ahura Mazdā, most Life-giving Spirit, Orderly creator of all things in the world of the living with bones, with whom among men did you first converse, you, Ahura Mazdā, other than me, Zarathustra? To whom did you exhibit the daēnā, the one of Ahura Mazdā and Zarathustra?”[13]
“Taught by Ahura Mazdā, spoken by Zarathustra” (mazdō.frasāsta zaraθuštrō.fraoxta) – This expression appears in a number of Young Avestan passages.
Beyond All Other Words – In another Young Avestan text (Videvdad 5.23), the “law of Zarathustra” is praised as being above and beyond all other “words,” presumably due to its divine origin:  
Then Ahura Mazdā said: “Well, Spitama Zarathustra, it is like this, this law (dātəm), the one discarding the old gods (vīdōiiūm), in the Tradition of Zarathustra, (is) above and beyond other words in greatness, goodness, and beauty, like the Vourukasha Sea is above and beyond other waters.”
The Avesta is the law of Zarathustra – A later Pahlavi (Middle Persian) gloss, from the Sasanian period or perhaps earlier, but which is probably based on the earlier evidence surveyed, explicitly identifies the “law of Zarathustra” and the “sacred word” with the Avesta.[14]
In sum, the dāta and daēnā of Zarathustra were linked to the Avesta, as representing the totality of the Zoroastrian Tradition as revealed to Zarathustra by Ahura Mazdā.
Moses and Zarathustra
The Avestan construction of the “law of Zarathustra” subsumes under its wings a variety of sacred utterances and manifestations of divine revelation. The personal authority of Zarathustra, as the recipient and mediator of the law set down by Ahura Mazdā, serves to unify and consolidate the various components of the Zoroastrian Tradition as well as justify their inclusion in a single coherent framework of textual unity and scriptural authority.
Similarly, Moses functions in Ezra-Nehemiah not merely as a mediator of a single law code revealed by God (as in the pre-exilic and exilic accounts), but as the scarlet thread unifying and consolidating the various law codes of the Pentateuch. In addition to Ezra 7:6 quoted above, this formulation appears in a number of passages in Ezra-Nehemiah, such as Nehemiah 8:1 and 10:30:
נחמיה ח:א …וַיֹּאמְרוּ לְעֶזְרָא הַסֹּפֵר לְהָבִיא אֶת סֵפֶר תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הוָה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Neh 8:1 … and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which YHWH had charged Israel.
נחמיה י:ל …וּבָאִים בְּאָלָה וּבִשְׁבוּעָה לָלֶכֶת בְּתוֹרַת הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר נִתְּנָה בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד הָאֱלֹהִים וְלִשְׁמוֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל מִצְו‍ֹת יְ-הוָה אֲדֹנֵינוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקָּיו.
Neh 10:30 …and take an oath with sanctions to follow the Teaching of God, given through Moses the servant of God, and to observe carefully all the commandments of YHWH our Lord, His rules and laws.[15]
In fact, it is this novel and inclusive construal of Mosaic Torah that serves to justify the weaving of discrete law codes into a single unity, an undertaking inherent in the Pentateuch and reflected in Ezra-Nehemiah’s quotations from the torah.
The related concepts of “the Torah of YHWH through Moses” and “the dāta and daēnā of Ahura Mazdā through Zarathustra” allowed each culture to construct an unprecedented comprehensive scriptural unity by the weaving of discrete elements known through divine revelation, thus creating the Jewish Torah and the Zoroastrian Avesta. Part of giving these projects’ authority was projecting these undertakings back onto the authoritative and authorial figures of Moses and Zarathustra. This seems to have occurred in both cultures at roughly the same time, namely the Achaemenid Period.
Xerxes Invokes the Dāta which Ahuramazdā Set Down
In the Achaemenid period, well after the Avesta consolidated orally, Xerxes I (r. 486-465 B.C.E.) mentions the “law set down by Ahuramazdā” in one of his inscriptions (XPh 46-56):[16]
The man who behaves according to the law (dāta)[17] which Ahuramazdā set down and sacrifices to Ahuramazdā according to the Order (rtāvā) up on high, he will both be blessed while alive and one with Order when dead.[18]
Xerxes’ allusion to “the law set down by Ahuramazdā” is likely referring to the “law of Zarathustra” revealed and taught by Ahura Mazdā according to the Avestan Tradition.[19] This differs from the standard ANE concept of law legislated by the king and authorized by a god, as we see, for example, in the preamble to Hammurabi’s Laws. The textual and scriptural unity of the Avesta understood collectively as the “law set down by Ahura Mazdā” was thus a crucial part of the Achaemenid religious worldview.  
The King as an Instantiation of ZarathustraScholars have noted that the religious responsibilities of the Achaemenid kings according to the Old Persian inscriptions are directly parallel to those of Zarathustra according to the Avesta, namely to sacrifice to Ahura Mazdā and to preserve the cosmic and political Order. This parallel has led several scholars to speculate, correctly to my mind, that the king in the royal inscriptions consciously embodies or represents Zarathustra, who himself is absent from the Old Persian inscriptions.[20]
Like Zarathustra, the king also became the promoter of the dāta of Ahura Mazdā. When Xerxes urges his subjects to obey “the law set down by Ahura Mazdā,” he is likely very consciously assuming the role of Zarathustra as promulgator of God’s law.  
Ezra as Moses
Ezra similarly embodies the role of Moses, granting authority to his textual and legal mission. The Talmud seems to notice how Ezra takes on the mantel of Moses (b. Sanhedrin 21b):
רבי יוסי אומר: ראוי היה עזרא שתינתן תורה על ידו לישראל, אילמלא (לא) קדמו משה.
R. Yossi says: “Ezra was fit to have the Torah given to Israel by him, if it weren’t for the fact that Moses came before him.”[21]
The literary configuration of Ezra’s mission according to Ezra-Nehemiah in terms of the consolidation and promulgation of the Mosaic Torah is informed by the rhetoric that governs the king’s self-perception as promoter of the “law set down by Ahuramazdā.”[22]
It is likely that the Avestan rhetoric of the law of Ahura Mazdā mediated through the figure of Zarathustra reached the Judean scribes via the royal ideology of the Achaemenids. This is supported by the description, noted above, of torah in Ezra 7:26 in terms of divine dāta. This particular link suggests that the authors of Ezra-Nehemiah consciously engaged and responded to contemporary Iranian and Persian notions of revelation, codification, and promulgation of divine law.
I am not suggesting that the Achaemenid authorities played an active role in consolidating Pentateuchal law, as suggested by the theory of royal authorization of the Pentateuch,[23]though this possibility cannot be altogether excluded. Rather, quite naturally, the authors of Ezra-Nehemiah sought to portray the Mosaic authority of Ezra’s mission in the image and likeness of contemporary Persian rhetoric and its subversion of Zarathustra.
Dr. Yishai Kiel is currently a Heshin Fellow and doctoral (LL.D) candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law. He received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Rabbinics and Iranian Studies (2011) and rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (2008). He was a Blaustein postdoctoral associate and lecturer at the Religious Studies Department and Directed Studies Program at Yale University, a Harry Starr fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, and a lecturer at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Kiel’s articles on the intersection of Jewish literature with Christian, Islamic, Zoroastrian, and Manichaean traditions have been published in numerous scholarly platforms. His first book Sexuality in the Babylonian Talmud: Christian and Sasanian Contexts in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) was recently named finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.
[1] Editor’s note: See discussion in, Christopher Rollston, “Who Wrote the Torah According to the Torah?” TheTorah.com (2017).
[2] This conception may have some precedent in E. Editor’s note: For Deuteronomy’s self-conception as a book, see discussion in Itamar Kislev, “Understanding Deuteronomy on Its Own Terms,” TheTorah.com (2015). For more on writing laws on scrolls or tablets in the earlier Pentateuchal sources, see David Frankel, “What Did God Write on the Tablets of Stone?” TheTorah.com (2018).  
[3] Editor’s note: see David Glatt-Gilad, “Deuteronomy: The First Torah,” TheTorah.com(2015).
[4] Editor’s note: See discussion in Lisbeth S. Fried, “Sukkot in Ezra-Nehemiah and the Date of the Torah,” TheTorah.com (2015).
[5] Editor’s note: For more on the tendency to attribute texts to Moses in this period, see Hindy Najman, “The Ancient Practice of Attributing Texts and Ideas to Moses,”TheTorah.com (2015).
[6] In Old Persian the name is written as one word, Ahuramazdā, whereas in the older Avestan writin it is written as two words, Ahura Mazdā. Old Persian is the language of the royal inscriptions of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty; Avestan is the language of the Zoroastrian sacred scriptures, the Avesta.
[7] Scholars have previously noted the affinity between the dual system of imperial and divine law reflected in Artaxerxes’ purported proclamation and Xerxes’ allusions both to the law set down by Ahuramazdā and to the law established by the king (although never in the same context). See Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary (The Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988), 151. Cf. Jean Louis Ska, “Persian Imperial Authorization: Some Question Marks,” in Persia and Torah: The Theory of Imperial Authorization of the Pentateuch (ed. James W. Watts; SBL Symposium Series 17; Atlanta: SBL, 2001), 161-182 [166-167].
[8] See, e.g., Esther 3:8; Nehemiah 8:36.
[9] The language and contents of the Old Avesta (including the Gāthās) are similar to the Indic Rigvedic hymns, which date to the second half of the second millennium B.C.E. The Young Avesta (including a later, and linguistically distinct, layer of the Avesta) dates to the first half of the first millennium B.C.E.  
[10] For example, it appears in a list of divine/celestial entities addressed in the Zoroastrian Yasna liturgy:
  • The life-giving divine thought (mąθra spəta);
  • The law discarding the old/evil gods (dāta vīdaēuua);
  • The law of Zarathustra (dāta zaraθuštri);
  • The long Tradition (darəγā upaiianā);
  • The good daēnā of those who sacrifice to Ahura Mazdā (daēnā vaŋvhuuī māzdaiiasni).
All of these concepts were perceived, in one way or another, as manifestations of the Zoroastrian Tradition. Similarly, in Yašt 11.3, “the law of Zarathustra” (dātəm zaraθuštri) is found in a list of sacred utterances that fight (together with Sraoša) against the powers of darkness:
  • The mąθra spəta;
  • The ahuna vairiia (the most sacred utterance in Zoroastrianism, uttered for the first time by Ahura Mazdā to stun the Evil Spirit);
  • The correctly spoken Word (aršuxδō vāxš);
  • The daēnā māzdaiiasni.
These elements too were, in one way or another, perceived as embodiments or manifestations of the Zoroastrian Tradition.
[11] Compare Esther 1:13: כל יודעי דת ודין “all who were versed in law and tradition,” in which dāta and daēnā are similarly intertwined. 
[12] The daēnā, which in the Old Avesta seems to refer primarily to a mental faculty that “sees” in the other world and guides the sacrifices, assumes in the Young Avestan texts several additional meanings, one of which is the totality of Ahura Mazdā’s teachings and traditions (but not “religion” as often translated). It is in this sense that the term appears throughout the Videvdad (e.g. 2.1-5; 3.41-42) as the daēnā māzdaiiasni. It is possible, therefore, that much of the semantic range of the Pahlavi rendition dēn, which unequivocally refers to the Zoroastrian Tradition, is already presumed in the Young Avestan daēnā.
[13] This passage forms part of the mythical framework of the main body of ritual legislation contained in this work, which sets the stage for the ensuing revelation of the law.
[14] It appears in a gloss on Hērbedestan 2.5.
(Avestan) “What (part of?) the law of Zarathustra”? (Pahlavi) “How was the Avesta laid down?” (as) “the naked divine word.”
[15] Similar locutions appear in the Second Temple work, Chronicles. See, e.g., 2 Chron 25:4, 34:14.
[16] This Old Persian inscription, known as the “daiva inscription,” was found at the ruins of Persepolis, Iran. Duplicates inscribed on tablets exist in Elamite and Akkadian. The text proclaims Xerxes’ dominion guided and aided by Ahuramazdā. It also speaks of Xerxes’ destruction of the heathen cults of the conquered lands and the establishment of the worship of Ahuramazdā in their stead. The inscription ends with an exhortation to follow the law set down by Ahuramazdā.
[17] In the Achaemenid royal inscriptions, the Old Persian term dāta most often refers either to a specific decree or to a general notion of the law imposed by the sovereign. In the inscriptions of Darius I (r. 522-486 BC), father of Xerxes I, all of the occurrences of dāta refer to the king’s law. In this sense, Xerxes’ invocation of the laws of Ahuramazda veers from his father’s usage of data.
[18] The Old Persian royal inscriptions generally discuss “religious” matters only inasmuch as they pertain to the political ideology of the Achaemenids (e.g. the mention of “creation” by Ahuramazdā, for example, is intended mainly to support the idea of divine enthronement of the sovereign). Thus, Xerxes’ mention of the law set down by Ahuramazdā is intended, first and foremost, to portray the king as an agent of the supreme god and his law.
[19] Prods Oktor Skjærvø, professor of Iranian studies at Harvard, has demonstrated that this allusion, among other parallels, reflects the literary influence of a lost Old Persian translation and commentary (Zand) of the Avesta on the Old Persian royal inscriptions. Prods Oktor Skjærvø, “Avestan Quotations in Old Persian? Literary Sources of the Old Persian Inscriptions,” in Irano-Judaica IV (ed. Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer; Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi, 1999), 1-64; idem, “The Achaemenids and the Avesta,” in The Idea of Iran: Birth of the Persian Empire (ed. Vesta S. Curtis and Sarah Stewart; London and New York, 2005), 52-84.
[20] Some scholars even use this parallel to explain why Zarathustra, the most important figure in Zoroastrianism, is completely absent from the Old Persian inscriptions.
[21] For more on rabbinic views of Ezra, see Lisbeth S. Fried, Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition (Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament; Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2014), 137-147. Editor’s note: For a theological approach to the relationship of Moses and Ezra to the Torah and its authority, see Sam Fleischacker, “Two Models for Accepting the Torah,” TheTorah.com (2013).
[22] To be clear, I am not arguing that a conscious process of cross-cultural translation is at play, according to which YHWH replaces Ahura Mazdā, Moses assumes the figure of Zarathustra, and Ezra replicates the mission of Xerxes.
[23] See discussion of this theory in Watts, Persia and Torah and Konrad Schmid, “The Persian Imperial Authorization as Historical Problem and as Biblical Construct: A Plea for Differentiations in the Current Debate,” in The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (ed. Gary N. Knoppers and Bernard M. Levinson; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 22–38.

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