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UNDERSTANDING THE TRANSCENDENT EXPERIENCE
By: Spencer Pennington

In the film Contact several heavy social, theological, spiritual, and personal questions are dealt with.  There is of course the question of “Are we alone in the Universe?”  Then there is the follow-up question, “If we are not alone, where do Humans sit in the Universe?  What is our importance?”  The other great questions in the film are much more personal in nature: “Is there a God, and if so, what is God?  Did God create both us and the aliens?” Perhaps the most perplexing question though is that of “How do we explain and justify the transcendent experience?”

The film does this by showing the double-edged nature of skepticism: Skepticism is displayed as a means of analyzing and strengthening one's own faith through questioning and examination.  However, it is also shown as being a possible block to the great realm of the transcendent, the spiritual, where explanation is beyond science and conventional reasoning.

Where then, do we find a middle ground?  Certainly, one could argue that it could not be in blind faith, as this would shut away the very purpose of faith itself; to believe in that which gives us strength and that which rests on solid foundations and having this blind faith would only limit us to ignorance, something that is condemned by all major religions.  Yet it could neither be at the other end of the spectrum, where Science serves as our only means of explanation, as this itself would be illogical; too many things have occurred throughout Human history to be explained solely by Science, yet to be completely ignored at the same time.  Perhaps Bishop John Shelby Spong says it best in a similar manner in his essay The Vehicle of Words: “Once this experience is put into words, with all of the limitations that this implies, the words themselves take on a life of their own.” However, based on the course of Human history, we can be sure that something within all of these events did occur.

History’s greatest examples of this lie in the transcendent experiences in the early stages of the world’s major religions.  In Christianity, for example, the Gospels tell us that Jesus was approached and tempted by Satan three times.  In Judaism, Moses is alone in the desert when approached by God in the form of a burning bush.  In Islam, Muhammad is meditating in a cave on the Mountain of Light in Arabia when approached by Gabriel and commanded to become the next of God’s Messengers.  In Buddhism, the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama sits beneath a bodhi tree in India, tempted by the evil within himself, challenged with overcoming it before he can, and finally does attain Enlightenment or “Nirvana”.

Can these things be proven strictly by science?  No.  There are no fossilized footprints of Jesus in the desert; there are no remains of a burnt bush in Egypt that can be traced to Moses; there is no “radiation” or form of physical or tangible energy to prove Muhammad’s encounter with Gabriel; there is no archeological imprint of the Buddha underneath the bodhi tree where he was said to have reached Enlightenment.  But we must then ask ourselves: can these things be completely disproved or discounted by Science.  Again, the answer is no.  We need only to look at the development of these religions and the impact that they have had upon humanity, both good and bad, to know that something did indeed occur.  Could something so earth-shaking and history-altering be based on pure untruth?  To say yes to that, some might argue, could also be unscientific because it rules out the fact that something must have occurred in order for Human history to develop in the way that it has.

The theological implications, validities, and nature of these events could be (and have been) debated for centuries.  Those are questions to which we may never know the answer; things that Science may never prove.  But perhaps this is where faith comes in, not of a blind nature, but of an objective one: From these great experiences of transcendence, we are able to see the true presence of God all around us – When we examine openly, questioningly, and objectively, we are able to draw our own understanding of transcendence.  Thus, we may be able to understand Christ when he said “The Kingdom of God is within you,” or the Qur’an’s words in Sura 50, verse 16 that “God is closer to man than his jugular vein.”

Thus, the key may be then, not to believe or disbelieve all of or any of the transcendent events that are presented to us, but to approach them equally with the same respect and integrity that we may study them for ourselves and form our own beliefs about them with a scientific mind in terms of being objective and open.  In Contact Dr. Ellie Arroway’s experience meant nothing to those that had her on trial; when they looked, they saw nothing, and why should they?  Her experience didn’t affect them or their views, nor should it based simply on her words.  Perhaps, though, there was one inescapable truth that they did not see: That regardless of God, religion, spirituality, or theology, something truly transcendent had occurred for Ellie and thus something did happen.  This does not make her experience more or less valid, but certainly, one can honestly and understandably come to the conclusion that something did occur based not on Ellie’s story or the way she said it, based not on her scientific degrees, but based on the change evident in her as a person.  Perhaps, then, what is needed is objectivity and respect and the ability to think for ourselves in careful, analytical ways.  As Heather Keith and Steven Fesmire note about Ellie in their essay Our Place in the Cosmos: Faith and Belief in Contact: “Rejecting blind faith, even in her own experience, Ellie finds meaning in examining her beliefs by embracing and encouraging doubt wherever possible.”  Yet maybe it begins all with us and our ability to perceive.

In the words of Van Morrison: “No guru, no method, no teacher…just you and I nature…and the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost…in the garden.”

Spencer Pennington
June, 2007

Work Cited:

Spong, John Shelby.  “The Vehicle of Words – An Unsteady Ship.” Resurrection: Myth or Reality?  A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity.  New York, New York.  Harper Collins Publishers, 1994

Amjad, Moiz.  “Where is Allah?.” Understanding Islam.  www.understanding-islam.com/re…, 1998

Keith, Heather and Fesmire, Steven.  “Our Place in the Cosmos: Faith and Belief in Contact.” Class handout, Geary.  English 4, 2007

Morrison, Van.  “The Best of Van Morrison, Volume 2.” Lyrics from “In the Garden.” Produced by Van Morrison.  Distributed by Polydor Records, 1993
This was an essay written earlier this month for my Philosophy class as an analysis of the film "Contact". I tried to base my essay around the idea of finding some level of middle ground between science and religion in terms of explaining transcendent experiences (the full title of the essay is "Understanding the Transcendent Experience").

Anyone who knows me knows my ideas feelings and beliefs about of the world religions and many philosophies. This is not intended to offend anyone or to prove or disprove their beliefs as I point out in my essay, merely to try and observe objectively while approaching each transcendent experience with the same respect and level of personal spiritual validity for regardless of belief or disbelief.

Also, I have written it in a way so that those who have seen the film will understand the essay's relationship to the film, but also so that those who have not seen it will be able to understand the basic message of the essay.

Enjoy.

Preview image: Woodcut print of the monk Bodhidharma (commonly thought to be the founder of Zen Buddhism) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1887. Found here: [link]
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:iconcairnthecrow:
cairnthecrow Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2007
You make many good points here. Skepticism, while happily preventing the tragedy of blind faith, can also lead to a needlessly cynical view that can have many holes in its explanation. I particularly love the point about religion and science being able to go hand in hand; too often I see one or the other uplifted and the other mocked. Do you know -when our eighth grade class was asked if we believed in creationism, about fifteen hands went up, but when asked the same about evolution, my hand was alone. I believe in both, to some extent, but apparently the notion of hard science was a foreign one to my peers at the time. Why is it that throughout history, the church has appeared determined to crush what it saw as "opposition?" While I haven't studied Islam, it seems to me that I really ought to -the East seems to have a stronger tradition of logic and acceptance, rather than rigid preaching.

Science is unable to prove some things -thus far. And as it reveals the workings behind more of the world's secrets, the tales of religion are validated quite often. Logic and reason don't have to be absent from religion; it's the strict doctrine that some humans choose to clothe it in that makes it so.

In an ideal world, doubt would fuel creativity and a need to know the why of how the world works. I doubt, however, that that day shall ever come; indeed, I hope it does not, for nothing good can ever come of perfection -after all, without flaws, what are we?

Beautiful essay; I can see that I'm going to have to spend more time browsing through your gallery. :D
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you so much for your kind words. And I'm very honored that you can actually understand the points behind what I wrote and that you can enjoy it. I myself obviously do see harmony between Science and religion. I do not believe purely in the concepts of evolution nor do I follow a fundamentalist interperetation of creationism (For example, though I believe God caused creation, I don't believe it was literaly in seven days) and I believe in a harmony of faiths. I believe people have a right to personal opinion and faith and to have their voices heard. It is unfortunate that the West, at least for the last several centuries, has had a hard time practicing tolerance of beliefs contrary to those of the Church (any of the Churches, really). Islam is fascinating faith to study, especially since Science has historically flourished alongside religion under Islamic rule. Of course, then again, all faiths are fascinating to study.

Thanks again for your kind comment. I'll be looking through your gallery as well. :)
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:iconcairnthecrow:
cairnthecrow Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2007
*laughs* But of course. It's nice to see some people who still have time to think about things such as this...the more I read your essays and comments, the more I come to respect your beliefs, I think. Not only are they parallel to my own ideals, you have the talent to express them eloquently. :heart:

Indeed. Come to think of it, any facet of human existence is fascinating; it's really a pity that I can only fit twenty-four hours in a single day. How many times have I wished that school were an hour or two longer, or that I didn't have to "grow up" and leave leisure and study behind for the looming future of the workplace? Speaking of which, do you have any books to recommend in regards to religion/philosophy/etc? You seem to be quite well-read. :)

*laughs* Again, no problem. And thank you in return! :D
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Aug 12, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Really thank you so much for all these kind words. I'm not trying to sound phoney, I really am I grateful, I just wish I could respond with a better phrasing, but really, thank you.

It's great to see that you yourself seem to love learning so much, especially at leisure and more in a way that is relevent to your person. I love to study stuff on my own. It's one of my favorite things to do.

Books to recommend...hmm... I do have a few, but I'm trying to think of anything that might be particularly helpful.

If you would like more info on Islam, the books "Islam" by Paul Lunde, "Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet" by Karen Armstrong, and "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes" by Amin Malouff are all great resources. Another fascinated field is early Christianity. Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," though it is a novel, has great historical background, as does his "Angels & Demons". A great actual history book on early Christianity would be "The Jesus Papers" by Michael Baigent as well as one I'm reading now called "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart D. Ehrman. I have several other books on these subjects and others that I'm still getting to, so I'll inform you about those soon as well. Also, my uncle is the author of "Sands of Empire," which really sheds light on U.S. goals in the Middle East, which I'm about to start reading.

You might also like to check out documentaries like "Islam: Empire of Faith," "Muhammad: The Life of a Prophet," "Holy Warriors," "The Crescent and the Cross," both about the Crusades, as well as "Banned From the Bible," "Banned From the Bible II," "The Gospel of Judas," and "Egypt: Land of the Gods". Also, another great resource in some cases, is films. "Kingdom of Heaven" does a brilliant job of portraying the Crusades and "Little Buddha" is an excellent film about Buddhism in the modern world.

Also, websites like ReligiousTolerance.org and even Wikipedia are good resources for basic information. A lot of what I learned, I was actually first taught about by my Dad, who exposed me to other religions when I was very young. He taught me about Buddhism when I was five and introduced me to Islam when I was eleven, and I've been studying on my own since then. Even though my family is Christian, we're not fundamentalist or even really churchgoers. My Dad taught me to respect and take the best of all faiths, so I guess you could say he is my biggest inspiration, in terms of fostering my spirituality and the routes it has taken as well.

And you're very welcome, and my gratitude to you again as well ^_^
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:iconcairnthecrow:
cairnthecrow Featured By Owner Aug 13, 2007
*laughs* Call it an addiction, if you will...I've yet to find anything that frustrates me quite so much as ignorance. Thanks so much for the recommendations, I'll have to nip on over to the library as soon as I'm finished with the Mists of Avalon...I just checked the website, and it looks like "Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet" and "Misquoting Jesus" are available, but none of the others...which is quite typical of my local library, alas! There's something to be said against living in the middle of nowhere. Still, those two ought to make good reading, this should be a nice contrast to my standard fare of fiction...Thanks! :D

Wow...that's really quite spiffy. I don't recall my parents specifically introducing me to alternative religions, but I've always had a very vague awareness of them. xD We're reformed Jews, and synagogue, while happily a constant in my life, never delved too deep into philosophy -that is, we never actually got to debate anything or spend time studying the texts or anything of that nature. Not particularly surprising, seeing as we're a very small synagogue, but still...people here tend not to think about the world at large too much. (For a sense of scale, we have 1 Muslim student in my class of 350.) Anyway, at camp this year one of my hallmates was from Morocco, and a Muslim, and I guess that was when I really began to get annoyed at my ignorance regarding other religions. (CTYers tend to be very passionate about politics/theology/etc.) My family has always taught me tolerance and acceptance as well -education is simply something that was always left to me, I guess. And now I may finally start working on it. Yayzorz! :D

And by-the-by, you don't sound phoney. Simply earnest. And there's quite the difference.

Anyway -At 1:13, I better be off to bed! Talk to you later, Spence! :D

~Bunny
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
You're very welcoe for the recommendations. I hope you enjoy them. Those two are both great places to start. I love fiction myself; I'm a big fan of video games and anime, as my Dad worked at Nintendo for seven years, so I grew up around the stuff :)

Again, I appreciate the kind words. I think it's great, too that your parents raised you to be tolerant and accepting. It's there that we are prepared most of all to explore on our own. Studying the texts is always a beautiful thing to do; in most cases, when it comes to religion, one can not find a better beginning point than the holy texts themselves. If I may ask, where do you live? It sounds like an interesting place based on what you've described here. And I'm not sure I know the term "CTY".

Good luck with those books. Always keep finding more and more stuff to study, most importantly on your own. If you have any questions or comments, please don't be afraid to bring them up to me, as I will do if I have any questions or comments for you. You know where I'll be.

Have a good night!

Peace and love,
Spence
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:iconcairnthecrow:
cairnthecrow Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2007
For the longest time, fiction was an easy way to escape from school...it eventually transformed into something of an addictive way to learn. :D Ah, spiffy! Nintendo...I used be addicted to all things Nintendo, until I realized I was played the same game over and over again with different labeling. Sigh. And thus ended my obsession over video games...Anime is also amazingly spiffy, although it never fails to annoy me when a show ENDS. Same thing with books, actually. Endings are kill off a little piece of my soul...:XD:

I'm very fortunate that they did so, I think; without that, who would I be? Parenting has a ridiculous impact on one's mental processes, I happened to be rather fortunate :) I've actually been meaning to read the Torah and the Bible for some time now, but haven't quite gotten around to it...hopefully it won't raise too many questions if I suddenly sprout an interest in religion. *laughs* After so many fantasy novels it may confuse my mother.

Meh...I live in Ocean City, MD, otherwise known as that speck of land that used to be pretty and nice until all the historic things were pulled down for condos. We have the fifth oldest running carousel in the country, and real estate taxes may force it to close just because it's near the beach! Forgive my cynicism regarding my hometown, I just get sick of its smallness on occasion. ;)

I shall not hesitate to do so...thanks! As soon as I've paid my overdue fines I can start checking out armloads of good stuff! :D

G'night (once again, it's 1 am, what is it with me lately?)!

~Bunny
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Yo!

Sorry about the belated reply; I've been sort of busy this last week and I guess I just fell into a bit of a lethargy. Well, I'm all good now.

I learned a lot through fiction myself; from an early age, I loved fantasy and began seeing all the spiritual and symbolic elements present in RPG's. I in fact did my Argumentative Paper in my Junior year on spirituality in video games. I suppose at times it can be a replaying of the same thing...though for some reason, the variations they had were usually enough for me. Endings are also tough for me as well, but I like the fact that anime series' usually tend to have a set ending; it makes it more...dramatic and realistic I suppose.

Indeed, parenting is where we begin our learning; it should have a major impact on us, and for many people it can stick with them for the rest of their lives. I too have yet to actually read the Bible, or any religious text, from cover to cover; I merely know a good deal about the contents and several key points, verses and whatnot as far as that goes.

And your cynicism about your hometown isn't bad. I would be too if so much of my home's history was destroyed; being obsessed with history as I am.

Take care :D
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(1 Reply)
:iconrikabi:
rikabi Featured By Owner Jul 30, 2007  Hobbyist Digital Artist
May God increase in your examples! Ameen :)
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Aug 1, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Many thanks, Ali. And God will continue to help me, Insha Allah :)

Asalaamu alaykum
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:icondancewiththesky:
dancewiththesky Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2007
Amazing and extremely insightful like always :)
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Many thanks, my friend. Insight is always key.

Asalaamu alaykum
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:icont-amjad:
t-amjad Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2007
a truly inspiring essay, my friend!
this film, "contact", what's it about?
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks so much! It means a lot, brother. That is what I wanted, was to present a way of thinking about the transcendent. "Contact" is about, really, what I discussed here, but it deals largely with extra-terrestrial life and how this will affect religiion and human life and with the experience of the individual, really. Check it out. I think you'll like it.
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:icont-amjad:
t-amjad Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2007
ill try and rent it or something.. i think ill like it too ... ill let you know!
thanks :)
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Very welcome and thank you! Peace and love!
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:icongoddess-imaginary:
Goddess-Imaginary Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2007
This is an amazing article, Spencer! This reminded me of when I was maybe nine or ten and my cousin was about fourteen or fifteen. He began studying paganism and witchcraft and kind of shared things with me on occasion, with discretion. But he and I brought up idea of science within the realm of “magick” or the act of miracles, etc. If they were/are physically possible and such. He told me that it made sense to him that the human body expels a certain amount of energy (like the energy you and LauraJeanZ spoke of) and that if directed it could work out to some effect. I’m not very scientifically experienced, I’ll be the first to admit, but I think that there is much, much more possible than the majority of the human population is willing to accept. That whole old-woman-lifting-a-car scenario definitely presents suitable argument. Anyway, I’m just trying to use big to say that I agree with you 100% on this and I am so glad that you put this essay up! Awesome job!!
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks so much, Rachel!! And yeah, that's the point of the essay is that although science can't explain every part of the transcendent, neither can it refute its existence, and often, they work in harmony. After all, Jah made man and everything else and gave man knowledge, so both science and energy are of God.
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:iconlaurajeanz:
LauraJeanZ Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2007
I have not seen the movie, but I do get the point, or question, from the essay. It is a great interesting topic. While I was in college doing my science requirements for nursing I realized that religion and science do not have to be so far apart as some would like us to think/believe.
Trancendense. I believe that matter and energy both come from the same. I think about it like this: Matter is composed of atoms, Atoms are composed of protons + electrons - and neutrons and these are what create energy. So matter is nothing more than energy, composed of atoms in different formations. So maybe there was energy first than matter..To think of this even deeper: to get energy( protons and electrons) we need: light, radiant energy, pieces of light that can crash together to create positive and negative particles.....and for some God is that light.
Radiant light---Energy---Matter these are connected, which is fundamentally proven scientifically. I am not skeptical, and do not need scientific proof, but it seems to me that there are signs for people who have faith to see/feel that light. We have signs...this is not the blind leading the blind. The science is there for those who are inclined to that by nature, and the spiritual is there for those who are inclined naturally.
No the burning bush is not there now...but it was something of matter and as stated before matter and energy can be one and the same...so it matters not as to the physical evidence....Basically I think that I am trying to say that science does not only pertain to matter alone....energy must be with it. And what about angels? Energy when told to BE matter. :floating:

I went on and on! Great essay! :) :heart:
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you very much, Laura. I think your points are correct - and one of my points is that science and religion do not need to be so far removed from each other. Certainly, in the Islamic world, science, theology, and politics flowed hand in hand perfectly and ushered in the most advanced civilization of its time. I believe that science and religion can be allies. I also establish that a healthy amount of skepticism is positive, so that we may be able to examine our beliefs openly, but also that science cannot explain every little thing - such as the transcendent experience, either to prove or disprove it. I for one believe, as you know, in God and the angels, in the burning bush, and I do believe that Muhammad truly had a great transcendent experience. Indeed, God is the light for me.

In an interesting note, in the Torah, when Moses climbs Mount Sinai to speak to God, he has his face turned away from God, yet, when he returns to the Israelites, his face is glowing - with energy! Some have called this a form of radiation. So there, even, we see, science and religion do not need to be enemies.

Thank you for your kind words :hug:

Asalaamu alaykum
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:icondancewiththesky:
dancewiththesky Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2007
I couldn't have put it better than you did! In the West, there are constant and widely publicized attempts to discredit God and religion as being dark age left overs as if no messenger/prophets were ever sent and no books were revealed. I believe it leaves the average person in a constant state of confusion or worse not caring at all. On the other hand, in the Islamic world there are constant attempts to link science and history with religion aiming for more complete pictures. But being under-developed in many of these branches of knowledge (due to the lack of proper education and constant power struggle abandoning the true ideals and spirit of Islam, especially in the Arab world,) many have turned to the West for unfiltered streams of knowledge, not paying much attention to the ideological background.
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
I would largely be inclined to agree. For centuries, the Islamic World and the Far East were far ahead of the West. However, since the West began the use of mass colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a shift in power, and as such, this threw off the age-old balance of the world. The Eastern realms were advanced in education, medicine, science, art, technology, and military prowess, but after the West became more powerful militarily, it led to a darker time for the East.

The Muslims (and the Jews and Eastern Christians) sought a unity of science and religion and even delved into philosophy. It was, after all, the scholars of the Caliphate that rediscovered the works of Plato and Aristotle - classics of Western antiquity! The irony is that by now, the West, with the exception of Byzantium and perhaps Venice, shunned its classical roots while they were freely discussed in the East. I truly hope that there can be a restoring of the Golden Age of the Islamic world.
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:icondancewiththesky:
dancewiththesky Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2007
I'm dead sure there will be. Even if it took another hundred year to get there and I would only attribute it to human contributors for the least part and God for the most part.
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:iconberhane-negus:
Berhane-Negus Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Amen, my friend. Insha'Allah.
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