Hammurabi was the sixth king of the first dynasty, Amorite, of Babylon who ruled circa 1792 – 1750 BCE and is mostly seen as the first law giver whose text survived. Like his predecessors, claiming the god gave him the law in order to rule peacefully; Hammurabi’s code of laws, after 4000 years, still transcends today’s standards of equality and free society. Most laws, though, have punishment integrated, disfigurement and/or death in terms of eye for an eye (one of the earliest example of such punishments!); however, it is important to keep in mind that in ancient civilizations the punishment were not routine and only performed in severe circumstances. Foucault makes a similar point for late antiquity and medieval periods. Read More

Known as the first surviving set of laws of human civilization, dating back to the end of 3rd Millennium BCE, the code of Ur-Nammu is, arguably, credited to the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112–2095 BCE). Unlike code of Urukagina, there are some 40 laws remained intact from the code of Ur-Nammu. However, there is a strong suspicion among archaeologists since the original laws were inscribed in a stone stele which is not found (yet!) and only the clay “copies” from later centuries are the source for the code (see sample below). However, the cuneiform are rich in detail and contain the first legal code. Kramer (1971), in his summary, points that the laws are, arguably, the first occurrence of eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth litigation. There is more than just resemblance to the later social orders. Notable Assyriologist A. R. George (2003), in a critically rich analysis, finds no discrepancies in the historical evidence that Sumerian practices both shaped and are at the root of Judaic, Mandaean Gnostic, Christian and Islamic belief systems. Read More

In the 3rd Millennium BCE, we find a trace to the conceptualization of purifying the (then) contemporary practices by returning to the ‘original state of affairs’. This is remarkable in a sense that a) the text in question, Code of Urukagina, predates all other recorded rules, laws and philosophies including all the Abrahamic religions as well as Greek (such as pre–Socratics), Indian (such as Vedic), Chinese (such as Tao te ching), Zoroastrian and Buddhist traditions and b) it originates with a yearning to go back to the original practices. Read More

On the relevance of sensational media reports in the wake of religious terrorism, the lack of critical thinking, anthropologist Talal Asad (CUNY) remarks on contemporary terrorism,

To take people in familiar situations innocently is to live without suspicion. It is to read people literally, to take their behavior as unproblematic, as harmless. To do a literal reading of texts (of what people say and do in their ordinary life) is not, of course, to repudiate figurative language; it is to be so familiar with the relevant grammar that one is unconcerned with the need to fix meaning. On the other hand, to ask suspiciously about the real meaning of the verbal and behavioral signs displayed by people one knows is to enter into the world of symbolic interpretation. And while hermeneutics doesn’t necessarily spring from hostile suspicion, it always presupposes that what appears on the surface is not the truth and seeks to control what lies beneath. Through interpretation, it converts absences into signs.

Source: On Suicide Bombing (The Wellek Library Lectures).

Also, see Asad’s earlier talk on Thinking about Religion, Secularism and Politics in UC Berkeley’s Conversation with History, here.