Smoke and Ornaments of Gold

Perhaps all readers are fascinated with the different; perhaps our brains demand the new, built as if destined to expand mental empires word-by-word, accumulating images, narratives, sign and sound in sequence. There are times, however, in which this is a suspect habit. As when reading the Koran in English, and for the first time, I find myself collecting the exotic–greedy for the strange. I have added to this collection the recurring references to maritime travel and to travel in other forms, but especially the boats. These sometimes occur in the context of Allah’s blessings–that we were given beasts to carry us across the land and ships to carry us across the water. I am drawn to this image, I think, because it is younger than much of the agricultural imagery of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Also, not only are we humans, in this imagery, blessed to have been given the ingenuity to build boats, but our technology is located firmly within the natural order. Christian and Jewish visions of the “natural” are comparatively narrow. Here’s an example from the Koran of what I have in mind; this passage from “Ornaments of Gold” (43:10 ff, pg 488-9 in ISBN 0-14-044542-0):

It is He who has made the earth a resting-place for you and traced out routes upon it that you may find your way; who sends down water from the sky in due measure and thereby resurrects a dead land (even thus shall you be raised to life); who has created all living things in pairs and made for you the ships and beasts on which you ride, so that, as you mount upon their backs, you may recall the goodness of your Lord ….

Very well, you may say, so this reader likes this imagery–the ship, the travel, the slant-rhyme on his own scriptural inheritance. … Fair enough, but we’ll return to this in a moment.

The next chapter, “Smoke”, also offers plenty of the exotic for the new reader of the Koran. The smoke itself, a palpable smoke, perhaps volcanic ash, which will afflict those who deny God’s sovereignty by ignoring the message of the Koran) is not so strange, although it does set the mood. A stranger torment can be found growing on the Zaqqum tree–the fruit of which simmers in the belly like “dregs of oil, like scalding water”. These afflictions are contrasted to the heavenly rewards of the faithful. The faithful will inhabit the familiar gardens, but (unlike the somewhat asexual Christian paradise) they will be wed to “dark-eyed houris”. Believe it or not, I am not very interested in who or what the houris might be; I am more interested in their eye color … that this color (dark brown eyes were probably a common feature of the author’s companions) would be reflected in the vision of paradise.

We fashion our angels and heavenly beings in our own image–there’s nothing so unusual about that. I have, now, sat in churches and stared at the representations of angels on all sides of the American color line. So, why should I be so captivated by the eye-color of the Koran’s houris? On one level it’s an example of the particular in religion–an attention to contextual detail which is both inevitable and necessary. Jesus was a man and (although he could have been a woman) it is important that he was a man who lived in a certain place, with certain people, eating food and drinking wine. The universal is found in the particular.

Should I worry, however, that I’m falling into a kind of racist fancy for the exotic? A not very sophisticated manifestation of what Edward Said described as “Orientalism”? A worldview that turns everything “Eastern” into a belly-dancing prostitute? Something attractive, but to be possessed and discarded at will? If my interest in the eye color of these heavenly beings is merely a manifestation of a literary “jungle fever”, could my fascination with the maritime travel also be an outsider’s hunger for the seemingly strange? And, in the end, what is a reader to do? Is it enough to merely stop and acknowledge–yes, I too am from a particular place, a particular time … I too enter this text with agendas I have not acknowledged? (July 20, 2008)

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