In monotheistic folklore – meaning the folktales of Christians and Muslims, and I bet in Talmudic Judaism as well, though I have not seen it for myself – there is a persistent theme of a powerful king persecuting a good, peaceful believer. Among the Christians the persecutors are typically Nero and Diocletian, and their victims a whole host of saints, while in the Arab tradition the evil king is typically Pharaoh or Nimrod, though there are some other local variations. These religious groups have encountered real persecution historically; but the tales themselves have clear attributes of myth and I believe should be given a psychological interpretation. Famously many of the Christian tales take Nero or Diocletian and assign them responsibility for the torture and death of people they could never have met; and the figures “Pharaoh” – which of course is only a name for those ignorant of actual history – and Nimrod are probably entirely fictional (certainly the deeds ascribed to them are).
An example of this phenomenon is the story of Abdullah, the student of the man credited with introducing Christianity to Arabia, Faymiyun. Abdullah simply means the “servant of Allah” and may well be a completely mythical figure, which may also be true for Faymiyun. I will let Ibn Ishaq, our source on early Arabian history, tell the story:
Whenever Abdullah son of Al-Thamir entered Najran and met any sick person he would say to him, “O servant of God [“Abdullah”], will you acknowledge the unity of God and adopt my religion so that I may pray to God that he may heal you of your affliction?” The man would agree, acknowledge the unity of God, and become a Muslim [technically Islam did not exist at the time, but Muhammad insisted that he brought no innovations but was merely restoring the old-time religion, and venerable figures from the past are hence considered Muslims], and he would pray for him and he would be healed, until in the end there was not a single sick person in Najran but had adopted his religion and become whole from his sickness. When the news reached the king he sent for him and said: “You have corrupted the people of my town so that they are against me and have opposed my religion and the religion of my fathers. I will make a terrible example of you!” Abdullah replied, “You have not the power to do that.” The king had him taken to a high mountain and thrown down headlong, but he reached the ground unhurt. Then he had him thrown into deep water in Najran from which no one had ever emerged alive, but he came out safely.
Having thus gotten the better of him Abdullah told him that he would not be able to kill him until he acknowledged the unity of God and believed in his religion; but that if he did he would be given the power to kill him. The king then acknowledged the unity of God and pronounced the creed of Abdullah, and hitting Abdullah a moderate blow with a stick which he had in his hand he killed him, whereupon the king himself died on the spot. The people of Najran accepted the religion of Abdullah son of Al-Thamir according to the Gospel and the law which Jesus son of Mary brought. Afterwards they were overtaken by the misfortunes [or “innovations”] which befell their co-religionists. Such is the origin of Christianity in Najran. But God knows best [what the facts are]. (Life of the Messenger of Allah, p. 17)
The elements are clear: there is the acknowledgement of unity which brings health and wholeness, the salvific kernel of all these religions, and the good part that needs to be extracted from it; then the actual religion (“the law which Jesus son of Mary brought,” whatever that is), and the trading of worldly goods (in this case healing) for religious adherence, which provokes hostility and division; and the hostile king who subjects the believer to all kinds of torments. He eventually succeeds in killing him, but after several unsuccessful attempts. What makes an attempt successful is a good question. In the Christian stories typically every form of killing is attempted but only decapitation – the destruction of one’s own individuality and capacity for thought – brings the persecution to its fatal conclusion. That is clearly a symbol of bad Christianity as it is lived in real life: it demands a sacrifice of one’s intellectual integrity. (There are conservative Catholic colleges which require a vow of “submission of will and intellect” to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Galileo himself might recognize the very text of the vow.) In this story there is some kind of collaboration between persecutor and persecuted, and the Islamic twist that a conversion to Islam gives the Muslim the power to kill, a power which Muhammed, Lord knows, used to the hilt. Islam has a strong tendency to take the unappealing parts of the psyche – such as the desire to kill, or rape – and reintegrate them into the religion by directing them outward. “Thou shalt not kill [orthodox Muslims].” “Thou shalt not rape [orthodox Muslims who are not your wife].” Outside the religious boundaries much greater latitude is given: “Kill the infidels wherever you find them, and seize them and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush.” Here the king is brought into the fold of the religion by giving him the power to kill someone else, though this is his death in the end.
The king is a common figure in myth. Typically he represents wholeness – he is the kingdom itself, the embodiment of all its subjects. In our psyches we find tendencies to fight and steal, learn and make love, nourish and destroy, serve and laugh and everything else, and these tendencies will often appear in dreams and stories as soldiers and thieves and wise men and lovers and mothers and demons and slaves and fools. In the end, however, they all are subjects of the king, who represents the whole human being, the full self, who is representative and ultimately master of them all.
It is odd – but typical of these religions – to see this positive archetype turned into a negative figure. All of them at various times have presented their ethical code – a useful and necessary learning tool (Paul’s word is “paidagogos”) – as a criterion designed to condemn large and living portions of the self’s kingdom to eternal damnation. There are many ways that this is true, but today the most obvious example is sex. The typical defining characteristic of a modern religious person as opposed to an atheist is the religious person’s condemnation of the majority of human sexual behaviors.
And if parts of the whole are evil and to be rejected, ultimately the whole has to be rejected as well, in favor of the good parts. The psyche, however, is extremely unwilling to do this – it will struggle and struggle and struggle to be allowed to develop in its wholeness. It will give what feel like orders to the conscious self – in the form of appetites and desires, sometimes only vaguely apprehended, with a sense of impending catastrophe – and so the figure of the king reappears in the psyche, now as an evil tyrant.
The end result of all these stories is always martyrdom. The king is never truly converted; he can’t be, really; the image of wholeness in our psyches has no choice but to accept everything. He is not a pliable figure that can be shaped to our own limited idea of what goodness is. The martyrdom frequently occurs when the conscious self – the martyr – cooperates somewhat with the tyrant, going in the direction of self-immolation. In the story of Abdullah the king’s “conversion” is disaster for all involved.
This is hence a story which is played out in the psyches of individual religious people. Their religion requires them to exclude something; the thing excluded will not let them alone, however; and it appears as an evil tyrant in their thoughts, and is projected out onto the world as well. People who think this way consider themselves martyrs for their faith; because their faith is stunting some part of them, which returns as a persecuting tormenting force in their lives. And then they imagine this tormenting force is somewhere outside them.
The archetype of the evil king is a fairly good indicator, I think, of this martyr and persecution complex which comes from bad religion and bad thinking. It lies behind modern conspiracy theories, for instance, which all require some evil tyrant – the Dick Cheney archetype, which different people will put different faces on – Bush or Obama or the Pope or the Elders of Zion or Monsanto or whatever else – to play the part of persecutor. Almost all senior Catholic clergy are infected with this form of bad religion, which was heard in America for their “year of faith” and “struggle for religious freedom” against Nero-Obama. Because Obama had a healthcare plan which covered all doctor-prescribed drugs, pertaining to the entire body – even the parts of the body that have a nasty tendency to lead people to hell if they are heeded – and because he was in America’s kingly office – he became a figure of this evil wholeness. Catholics were literally talking on Facebook about accepting martyrdom “if it came to that.” But you don’t need a “religion” to think this way. Plenty of atheist vegans resent being having been born omnivores rather than herbivores, and come complete with the martyr complex that shows how frequently martyrdom is self-hatred. Now this is not always the case, of course – Martin Luther King really was killed by someone else and really was martyred – but there are many more people who want to be victims than people who really are. It is one of the features of our society: women are all victims, non-white people are all victims, Christians are all victims, Muslims are all victims, Jews are all victims, Republicans are all victims, now even white males are all victims because they’re the only ones who don’t get to be victims (“reverse discrimination”).
Once you associate goodness with some kind of achievement of a standard, anyone who does not live up to that standard becomes a potential threat to the motive forces that got you to achieve it. This is what makes anyone struggling to achieve something a martyr in his own eyes, persecuted by all the people who do not even make the attempt. Their indifference calls into question whether his struggle is all that necessary in the end. The only solution is a conversion which has transformed duty into desire and delight. When you have a religion which offers you access to joy, true joy of the sort that you cannot mistake for anything else, the things you do to obtain that joy do not need “shoulds” and “thou shalts” and laws, or eternal rewards and paradises and houris, to seem worth doing. And you do not feel so much like a martyr anymore. And whenever you feel that old victim-feeling creeping back into you, you know that it is a bit of the old Adam, and you recognize it as an unmet need, in which you probably deserve some share of the blame, rather than true martyrdom.
In fact the Christian paradigm of the martyr, Saint Stephen, had no martyr-complex at all and the account of his martyrdom shows him as filled more with compassion for his persecutors than pity for himself. The Greek word “martyr” means merely “witness,” and only later perverted religious practice brought it its added connotation of making oneself a maudlin spectacle of self-immolation to arouse the pity of others.
This unhealthiness of Abdullah’s religion is actually implied in the original story, another example of the impressively correct instincts of the old myths:
Yazid bin Ziyad told me on the authority of Muhammad bin Kab al-Qurazi, and a man of Najran also told me, that according to his people they used to worship idols. Najran is the largest town in which the people of the neighboring districts congregated, and in a village hard by there was a sorcerer who used to instruct the young men of Najran in his art. When Faymiyun came there – they did not call him by the name that Wahb bin Munabbih gives him but simply said a man came there – he put up a tent betweeen Najran and the place where the sorcerer was. Now the people of Najran used to send their young men to that sorcerer to be taught sorcery and al-Thamir sent his son Abdullah along with them. When he passed by the man in the tent he was immensely struck by his prayers and devotion and began to sit with him and listen to him until he became a Muslim and acknowledged the unity of God and worshipped Him. He asked questions about the laws of Islam [again, this is before Muhammad] until when he became fully instructed therein he asked the man what was the Great Name of God. Although Faymiyun knew it he kept it from him, saying, “My dear young man, you will not be able to bear it; I fear that you are not strong enough.” Now al-Thamir had no idea that his son was not visiting the sorceror along with the other young men. Abdullah seeing that his master had kept the knowledge from him and was afraid of his weakness, collected a number of sticks and whenever Faymiyun taught him a name of God he wrote that name on a stick. When he had got them all he lit a fire and began to throw them in one by one until when he reached the stick with the Great Name inscribed on it he threw it in, and it immediately sprang out untouched by the fire. Thereupon he took it and went and told his master that he knew the Great Name which he had concealed from him. The latter questioned him and when he learned how he found out the secret he said, “O my young man, you have got it, but keep it to yourself, though I do not think you will.” (16-17)
Abdullah does not keep it to himself; unlike Faymiyun, who goes about his business without attempting to convert anyone, Abdullah becomes a missionary, healing people in exchange for their conversions as has already been shown.
The story of Abdullah has a curious conclusion, which I will share:
I was told by Abdullah the son of Abu Bakr that he was told that in the days of Omar the son of Al-Khattab a man of Najran dug up one of the ruins of Najran intending to make use of the land, when they came upon Abdullah the son of Al-Thamir under a grave; he was in a sitting posture with his hand covering a wound in his head and holding firmly to it. When his hand was removed the blood began to flow; when they let go of his hand it returned to its place and the flow of blood ceased. On his finger was a ring inscribed “Allah is my Lord.” A report was sent to Omar [the caliph] and he replied, “Leave him alone and fill in the grave,” and his orders were duly carried out. 
This is an old Arabian image of a what is today called a zombie, a person caught between death and life. That their own religious stories can put a good orthodox Muslim in this position – “Allah is my Lord” – is a sign of how faithfully a sick psyche will report, even unintentionally, on its own illness. As with the Christian stories, the wound is to the head; and as with all bad orthodoxy life goes on, but consists of nothing more than continually trying to stanch the wound.