Category Archives: Tolerance

Don Quixote of the Modern College Campus

I took this picture while stopped in traffic on Nassau Street, right in front of Princeton University’s main gate.

The bus caught my eye.  (How could it not?)  It’s the type of NQR that makes me, at least fleetingly, rather happy, warmed-inside, representing a sort of harmless and hopeful craziness which, if it were to increase individually or collectively, would surely benefit our often cruel and callous world.

Some of the lovely, hopeful slogans borne by this Rocinante:  “Spread kindness to everyone every chance you get” . . . “Overcome bullying through love” . . . “One guy (Bob) and his dog (Gocart) traveling to campuses across the country to promote kindness” . . . “Kids need role models” . . . “Let’s all stop hurtin’ each other” . . . “Don’t Hit Don’t Hurt Do Help Do Heal” . . . “You Have Such a Big Heart Share It With Everyone” . . . “The Greatest of These Is Love”

The bus also provides an opportunity to show to people overseas who aren’t familiar with America one of the last vestiges of our vaunted hippie culture, a dream and an anti-capitalist fervor that once thrived on certain (more liberal) college campuses but has now disappeared, aging and mellowing, to suburban pacification or to isolation in certain marginalized movements or locations. (Though the ‘Occupy’ events of last summer still had force!)

I was happy to see this bus, here, in a place like Princeton where I wouldn’t ever have expected it.  I wonder how its owner fared, preaching or simply being among the scions of this elite, Ivy locale.  I imagine he found some folks to listen, others like me to look and think about his slogans and his message.  But, in the end, the thing that made me happiest of all was just to imagine him, a modern Quixote mounting his painted, slogan-covered Rocinante and driving, rescue-dog at his side, off into some romantic and futile sunset, tilting at so many noble windmills.


Massively Corrupt Translation

Obverse Arabic; reverse sporting Sanskrit.

When two powerful but rather mutually exclusive cultures come into contact (and here I’m not talking about West/East in the present day), strange things happen between their languages.  In one of my courses this semester I am studying the power dynamics of such linguistic interplay.  But this particular example comes from an Islamic history lesson on the Mughal rulers of northern India given by Professor Michael Cook.  In those particular days amazing levels of not only corruption but also of creation, of mistranslated openness, accidental syncretism, can be found between the Muslim rulers and their Hindu population.  I deal here with a few words written in the Śārada script (a version of Sanskrit) on a coin struck in Lahore during the reign Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 998 – 1030 CE).

The words are: 

avyaktam-eka muhammada avatāra npati mahamūda

~

This phrase, roughly decoded, is meant to replicate the Islamic shadada, or Profession of Faith, which occupies the central space on the front of the coin:

لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله (lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh, Muḥammad rasūlu l-Lāh)

In English:  There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.

~

However, things go very badly for the translation, at least if read from a Muslim theological viewpoint (rather than from the perspective of the Sultanate’s colonized Hindi subjects).

First, for fans of James Cameron, the word avatāra surely jumps out from the Sanskrit.  What has this to do with Muhammad?  Are Mahmud’s medieval translators depicting the Prophet of Islam as a giant blue-spackled centaur from a planet far, far away?  No.  This is the word chosen in the inscription to represent the Arabic rasūlu:  Messenger, or Prophet.  Except, in the Sanskrit, the term carries with it connotations less relevant to an earthly messenger and much more indicative of an incarnation, a reincarnation.  Definitely not an Islamic concept.

Next, the opening phrase avyaktam-eka stands in for the Arabic lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh — ‘There is no god but God.’  Again, the translation takes great liberties.  What we have is something much closer to “Invisible and One” or “Unmanifested and One.”  Furthermore, the Sanskrit employs a neutered case ending rather than a masculine ending, definitely changing the anthropomorphic, masculine Islamic deity into an ungendered metaphysical concept patterned strongly on the Vedas or Upanishads.

It is also worth noting that Sanskrit possessed a perfectly well-established and well-understood word for God:  deva Surprising, very surprising, not to see that word used in this inscription.  My professor hypothesized that the decision not to use deva in the inscription might be linked to Sultan Mahmud’s other courtly language, Persian.  There, the word deva sounds suspiciously like the Farsi div, which means demon.  Should Sultan Mahmud have chosen a translation that included the word deva as a stand in for God instead of avyaktam, his Persian courtiers would have been very offended indeed to hear a Śārada-Sanskrit version of the Profession of Faith that sounded, to them, like ‘There is no demon but demon . . .’

Finally, the word npati means something roughly equivalent to king, lord of men, prince, or sovereign, none of which are titles the Prophet Muhammad claimed, though subsequent Caliphs called themselves Leaders of the Faithful, Amir al-Mumineen.  At the expense of an authentic translation of the shahada, it seems Sultan Mahmud opted to use the very small, very precious space of this coin to remind his subjects of his place in their earthly dominion.

In the end, the coins issued by the Islamic Sultan Mahmud of Lahore, to the great edification of his Hindi subjects, portrayed the Profession of Faith in terms not so different from the way they already thought about the world, blending the language of Islam into a new and entirely different, entirely strange conception of the central tenet of the new religion:

The Unmanifested and One incarnate King Muhammad.

~

It’s not quite Hinduism.  It’s certainly not Islam.  And, doubtlessly, such a translation qualifies for mention on NQR.

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*Credit for the Śārada translations to E.A. Davidovich and A.H. Dani, “Coinage and the Monetary System” in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. 4., UNESCO Publishing, 1988, page 414.

 

 


A Beautiful Stillness

When we think of the Middle East, our stereotypical idea includes a lot of color, action, vibrancy.  Perhaps that is where the romance in the romantic notions of the region comes from:  the contrast against what we perceive to be our own staid, stable, sometimes dreary (certainly climactically chillier) versions of existence.

But this photo, which I choose to share mostly just because it is beautiful and I’m feeling, at this moment, still and quiet and happy with the world, should show a different, wetter, more stable and simple idea of life ‘over there.’

Maybe it’s not just life ‘over there.’  Maybe it is life as a whole . . . or the way we want to see it, to look at it.  Pulsing and full at times.  Quiet and contemplative at others. Always with the possibility to reveal, somewhere, a hidden gem of gracefulness.

I challenge you, dear readers, to probe your set ideas and to discard most of those that come with labels.  That’s what I’ve been tryingt to do here, at NQR. 

There’s always another story, another perspective.  There’s always a way to find beauty around you (or at least a good chuckle).  Either of those two things will dull the edge of the worst dangers in our world.

Rainy day view through an arch in the Frankincense Museum, Salalah, Oman.


Peace on Veteran’s Day

Yesterday I stumbled into the monastic quiet of Chancellor Green Hall on the Princeton campus, just to sit and think for awhile before the start of a seminar.  There, in the empty octagonal enclosure, with light streaming from all angles through gorgeous stained glass windows, I found a little item worthy of a Not Quite Right mention in honor of this Veteran’s Day, 11-11-11.

An image of peace in a window of Chancellor Green Hall, Princeton.

I’ve got two takes on the image of this Crusader-like figure, both of them worth mentioning in the context of NQR.

First, I wonder if the artist intended the image to embody the Pax Romana, the somewhat oxymoronic enforcement of peace through a monopoly on violence.  Does the horseman’s slumping posture hint at the failure inherent in such a doctrine?  Or is his head held high, looking foward to a horizon that must lead to a soldier’s self-sacrifice in the name of his ideals?

Second, and maybe simultaneously, I think that this figure represents the very opposite idea: a Don Quixote, piquant, holding aloft a banner embroidered with a single word for Peace despite the realities of the world around him.  I like this interpretation best.  It has warmth to it that matches the warmth of the light flooding through the colored baubles of glass — the lone soldier holding to an unreality, facing a corrupt world.  The invocation of Don Quixote touches also upon madness, a beautiful madness that sees things in their most wondrous light rather than in their most real and dismal actualities.  Unfortunately, such an idea is one for books, for literature, for poetry.  It intersects only in the realm of ideas with what life is really like for a soldier.

I think of the friends and comrades I have lost at war today and all those who have gone before us, sacrificing, unsure of what ideals they really represent.  All a little Quixotic.


Caliph Omar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One of the things that I noticed several times during visits to very different parts of the Middle East and North Africa were examples of early Muslims, Christians and Jews showing a tolerance for each other that has certainly not been the prevailing theme of more recent years, or at least not the theme of media coverage in more recent years.  One such example, in the tomb Morocco’s Moulay Ismail, I mentioned as part of an earlier post.  Yet another example I found in the very heart of the current conflict between Jews, Christians and Muslims:  Jerusalem.

The Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, across a small courtyard from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

So much has happened in Jerusalem, religiously and historically, that current discussions of Palestinian autonomy tread lightly on the subject of dividing or allowing a shared authority in the City itself.  However, people would be wise to look backwards at the actions of one of the first Caliphs, Omar, when his Rashidun Army conquered the city in the year 637 AD.  The Christian Patriarch Sophranius, upon surrendering, asked as a condition of the city’s capitulation, to be allowed to surrender to the Caliph himself rather than to a military leader.  When Omar reached the city, the Patriarch invited him to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is the site of the Cruxifiction, see my separate entry on the subject).  Muslims revere Jesus, not as the Son of God, but still as one of the major prophets in the line from Abraham to Muhammad.  Many Muslim men are named Issa or Aissa, which is the Arabic equivalent of Jesus.  This is not strange.  Just as many Muslims are named Daoud or Sulieman after David and Solomon.

Anyway . . . Omar was both sensitive about keeping the Christian Church autonomous and also didn’t want to set a precedent for Muslims to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  So he prayed, with Sophranius, just a few feet away at a spot where King David was said to have prayed.  Omar then built a mosque on the site so that future Muslims could pray near to, but not violating, the sacred Christian site.

Even more telling, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is that the church itself has been divided into seven different areas of responsibility, parceled out to seven different Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox).  But the keys to the building itself are held by a Muslim family, so as not to cause jealousy among the seven!

This is, truly, an elegant solution.  Though it might seem Not Quite Right to entrust the opening and closing of Christianity’s most important church to a non-Christian, such a solution might be best for the city as a whole.  Maybe a battalion or two of Buddhist peace keepers could be found to enforce whatever solution is finally decided upon for the Holy City.


A Wall Atop the Wailing Wall

The Wailing or Western Wall in Jerusalem is the holiest place in the Jewish religion.  It is supposedly the sole remaining portion of the First Temple.  Prayers offered near to it (or, especially, touching it) are said to be more easily heard by God.  Above the wall, on top of Temple Mount, the third and fourth holiest places in Islam are located:  the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  The Dome of the Rock contains the rock upon which Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son.  It is also the place from which Mohammad ascended to heaven on his Night Journey.

Control and/or provisions to share these locations are at the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but rarely make the list of discussion topics during peace talks, largely because of the extreme religious sensitivities involved.

Christianity’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa are not far away, either — both within the Old City Walls.  And the Crusaders once occupied the Temple Mount, making the city a well-known confluence for all three Monotheistic religions.

Men's and women's prayer areas, the newer Ottoman-era portion of the wall, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque itself are all visible in the photo.

What might not be well known is that the Western Wall itself is divided into several distinct layers and sections.  First, male and female prayer areas are separate and distinct, with women crowded into a disproportionately smaller area at the right of the wall.  Then, the stonework of the wall itself displays visibly differing ages and styles of workmanship.  Only the lowest few tiers of stone are from the First Temple.  The next few similar but more roughly-hewn layers date from King Herod’s reconstruction of the Temple (a period known as the Second Temple).  And, most interesting to me — and maybe closet to fitting with my theme of Not Quite Right — is the topmost section of the wall.  Built by the Ottomans (under the direction of Sir Moses Montefiore), its ostensible purpose was “for shade and protection from the rain for all who come to pray by the holy remnant of our Temple.”  However, its more likely purpose was to prevent Muslims who attended Friday prayers in the Al-Aqsa mosque above from tossing stones and other items on Jewish penitents at the base of the wall below!

In any case, a good look at the Wailing/Western Wall provides a tense snapshot of the forces that currently divide people in the Middle East.  It is that division, rather than symbols like walls or churches or mosques, which is truly Not Quite Right.


Equal Opportunity Slaughter

Male pharoah at Merowe, Sudan, slaying his prisoners.

While the record is certainly not blank with regard to a history of powerful and influential women — Catherine the Great, Joan of Arc, Catherine de Medici, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queens Victoria and Elizabeth, Rosa Parks, Cleopatra — nowhere does a graphical depiction of absolute equality between the sexes exist with such profudity as that which still stands at the Temple Complex of Merowe in Northern Sudan.

Here, on the left hand wall of a massive, 20-ft high bas relief, a male pharoah raises his sceptre to smite the knot of enemy heads he grasps by the hair.  In traditional Egyptian iconography, the pharoah stands three or four times the size of those he is about to kill, a statement of his superiority and a nice artistic touch to allow the masses in their domination to be better portrayed, often literally, under foot.  The pharoah’s dog waits, teeth bared, between his legs to feast on the carcasses of the slain.

Female pharaoh, partaking in the slaughter with apparent gusto.

This bas relief itself really doesn’t depart too widely from many of the other Egyptian retellings of war conquest.  What sets it apart is the matching right-hand panel of this same wall.  Here, the queen partakes in a very equal-opportunity sort of slaughter, with an equal number of enemy prisoners gathered by their locks in her hand while her other arm — this time with sword rather than with sceptre — hovers menacingly above them.

The best part of all of this, the part that stands in such stark contrast (an almost ‘Not Quite Right‘ sort of contrast) when compared to the lithe images of other female Egyptian rulers like Nefertiti, is this woman’s stylized yet very full, very womanly figure.  It is nice to see power displayed in such a way:  equal, unsparing, and devoid of the expectation that a woman in power rules through guile or charm rather than through the sort of brute physicality this long-gone pair of pharoahs demonstrated.


The Value of Education

While our United States federal and state governments debate budgetary issues and decide how (or whether) to trim services and expenses, it might be worth pointing out the levels toward which the human spirit will rise in the quest for self-betterment.

Boy studying by the light of a hotel marquee

This boy, studying in a pool of lamplight cast from a hotel marquee in Rishikesh, India, certainly could teach American students (and politicians) a few things about desire and determination and perseverance.  The very same sort of willpower this boy displays, a stubborn individual drive, is one of the things that has made America great.  It is one of the things that continues to make America great.  But it is also a thing we must guard as we, as a people, become accustomed to our privileged way of life.

As the democratic protests across the Middle East and North Africa continue, it should be noted that the relative satisfaction of a people with their government seems to be less related to the overall standard of living and more closely tied to the opportunity a government provides for its citizens to succeed, to maximize their own potential, to make something of themselves.  This, along with the promotion of basic human rights and tolerance, should be the marks by which a society judges itself.  It is tough to quantify the amount by which any bill of law or regulation improves these aspects but anything directly reducing freedom and individual opportunity would be Not Quite Right.


Unexpected Tolerance

Eight-pointed Islamic star.

The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, megalomaniac ruler of Morocco in the 17th century who successfully forged a country, defended it from the Ottoman incursion through Algeria and kept a picked force of African slaves warriors called the “Black Guard” in addition to thousands of European/Christian slaves who worked on his capital city of Meknes, was a surprisingly tolerant man.

The tilework on the walls of Moulay Ismail’s own mausoleum proves lasting testimony.  First of all, all the tiles are arranged in a pre-Islamic Berber style, where the sun sits at the center casting rays out onto an abundant earth.  And, even better, inside Moulay Ismail’s sun are three alternating symbols:  the eight-pointed star of Islam, the Cross, and the Star of David.

The Star of David.

Although to a modern audience the Star of David might seem most incongruous, most Not Quite Right, the Jewish community played a vital role in Moulay Ismail’s empire, providing trade links with the world.  The Jewish community lived in well-protected enclaves, here called Mellah, within the same walls as the Muslim population.  Indeed, a big portion of both the Muslim and the Jewish population arrived together from Spain, primarily the cities of Cordoba and Toledo, as the Spanish Reconquista drove the Moors south across the Straits of Gibralter.

The Cross.

It was in the face of Christian persecution that both the Jewish and the Muslim populations in Meknes, Fes and other Moroccan cities blossomed.  And it is, therefore, all the more strange to find the cross given equal status in the architecture of the great leader’s tomb.  His empire derived strength from all three traditions and realized the essential idea that all three peoples worshipped the same God.  While the tiles themselves now seem Not Quite Right, the idea they preserve is right on target.