Tag Archives: Koran

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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The Poets

Poets are followed by erring men. Behold how aimlessly they rove in every valley, preaching what they never practise. Not so the true believers, who do good works and remember God with fervour and defend themselves only when wronged. The wrongdoers will then learn what a welcome awaits them.
The Koran (Dawood, N.J., Trans., Penguin 1997, pg 375).

Ah the “poets” … Plato expelled them from the Republic and The Koran damns them.

Of course, these are not the poets of our contemporary era — the silly horde intent on jotting down every clever turn or spilling out each mood and phase on the page. No, these are the “preachers” … those who, poets or not, use rhetoric to gain and influence their followers. The preachers (of any stripe, good and bad) are indeed “followed by [the] erring”. In this culture the protestants are the most prone to follow the rhetoricians, but every persuasion has its spokespersons … and the phenomenon is in no way limited to religious sects. Someone must keep the advertising and “public relations” industries in well-fed and (for this) the “erring” are truly well-equipped.

But, what about the “preachers” … I’m going to avoid the obvious and hopefully slip past the urge to bad-mouth the intentions of religious leaders. (That is a tiresome game in blog-land.) So, let’s just ask this question — was Muhammad a “preacher”. In practical terms, probably … I have no doubt that he exhorted his followers to be true to the message, to distinguish themselves from the unbelievers, to repent and to seek forgiveness. For believers, however, Muhammad was not a “poet”. He did not find clever ways to communicate the truth; he did not invent or imagine a new “wisdom”. Muhammad saw himself as a prophet, not a preacher. As a prophet, Muhammad served as the mouth-piece of the divine message. It was not his job to add embellishments. Nor, in the moral landscape of the Koran, was it his job to be extra persuasive … God, after all, will open the ears of those who will be saved. Those who will hear, will hear.

In fact, this passage is a perfect example of the Koran’s emphasis on orthropraxis — it’s what you do, not what you say or who you follow, that distinguishes the true disciples from the false. There are times in which Christianity (especially our dear protestants) would benefit from a good dose of orthopraxis — though it bucks hard against the ethos of grace. There are times, too, in which American culture would benefit from a similar suspicion of its “preachers”. We practice a ridiculous short-hand in this culture … one in which the disciples are judged, wholesale, on the actions of their purported “preachers”. The furor about Barak Obama‘s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is a convenient contemporary example. In this case one preacher (Obama) is judged by the “poem” of his own preacher (Wright), meanwhile the actions, the praxis, of each is virtually ignored. Praxis does not win votes, nor will it build mega-churches, nor will it solve all of one’s problems, but it will keep one rooted. And, ultimately, if we’d follow our principles and not our preachers, we’d spend less time “aimlessly … [roving] in every valley”. (May 11, 2008)

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)

Reading the Koran

I have been reading The Koran–an exercise which is at times dull and at others fascinating, but on the whole well worth the experience. To be a person of the book (which I am) and to read the Koran is to be part-way included in semi-familiar circle of faith. Lately, I have noticed a degree of defensiveness about the text. In Hud, for example, doubters are challenged:

“If they say: ‘He [the Prophet] has invented it [The Koran] himself’ say to them: ‘Produce ten invented chapters like it.'”

Well … writers do like challenges, but would anyone (excluding Joseph Smith) be brave enough to take it on? What distinguishes The Koran and the Book of Mormon from mere attempts to imitate scripture is: that what is written is done so by a person who truly believes that they convey God’s message. Even more so, that they (the prophets) are God’s scribes. Mere writers can not fake this, at least not for long. (April 6, 2008)