The Night Journey

Reading The Koran at a snail’s pace, in English, and for the first time can be overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in what seems repetitive – repetitive, perhaps, because the text appears to be arranged by the page and the page by the expectation or need for recitation. The repetitiveness is also fed by the urge to communicate the essentials of the message in every section of the text. When reading one section in isolation (or listening to it) one would not notice the repeated sentiments. At the same time the narratives are few, scattered and sparse – one must piece them together as if building a story while reading a correspondence between several people who already know and assume their readers know well the narrative at stake. These qualities, however, serve to intensify the experience of the concrete, the poetic, the mysterious and the anecdotal. In today’s reading from “The Night Journey”, a book most famous for the interpretative dispute over the first few lines, lines which seem to suggest that the prophet was transported in a single night from Mecca to Jerusalem (I have to admit that, were it not for N.J. Dawood’s footnote, I would have missed entirely the “interpretation” that the prophet traveled the distance in a single night – this is the first instance in which I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t be reading multiple translations), Muhammad (and Gabriel) become noticeably frustrated with the demands of the non-believer.

We have set forth for men in the Koran all manner of arguments, yet most of them persist in unbelief. They say: ‘We will not believe in you until you make a spring gush from the earth before our very eyes, or cause rivers to flow in a grove of palms and vines; until you cause the sky to fall upon us in pieces, as you have threatened to do, or bring down God and the angels in our midst; until you build a house of gold, or ascend to heaven; nor will we believe you in your ascent until you have sent down for us a book which we can read.’ (pg 290 in my edition; 17:90 ff)

Muhammad is instructed to reply: “Glory be to my Lord! Am I not an emissary, made of flesh and blood?”

Ecce homo! Far more memorable, by my taste, than the one-night trip to Jerusalem. The prophet speaks of the frustration that all persons of faith (or persuasion) must have at one time or another. When people seem incapable of listening, when the bargain includes a moving target … am I not an emissary, made of flesh and blood! At the same time, I love the irony and perhaps derision of “until you have sent down for us a book which we can read”. In the current context, my context (of course), this is a haunting note to a non-believing reader, who sits in his arm chair reading (with the anachronism intact) this very book!

But, then, I doubt I’d make such demands; honestly, these are bargains made by the disobedient and the unwilling, not bargains made by disciples. Muhammad (anachronism still intact), we would have much to discuss or we would sit together in silence, but there will be no price to haggle. (April 13, 2008)


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