Tag Archives: religion

al-Mughira bin Shu’bah

Earlier this fall, in fact the very same week I sat down to start writing my thesis — a monograph on al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah (ra), the rather infamous Companion of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) — one of my advisors informed me that a work in Arabic had just been produced and published, albeit in Iran, on the very same man.  As an academic, even a very temporary academic like me, this is not the sort of news you want to hear.  In fact, it is very much like having the rug pulled right from under your feet.  Hours and hours of research in primary sources:  Tabari, Ibn Sa’d, Ibn Kathir, Baladhuri, Waqidi, Ibn Khallikhan, Ibn Khaldun, all the ahadith of the various canonized collections, all of that down the tubes, not to mention more contemporary tomes that helped me frame my thinking about these primary sources.

Holding “Mughira bin Shu’bah” for the first time.

But, wonderfully enough, through whatever absurd connections Princeton maintains around the world, the University was able to get me a copy of this book, even though it isn’t yet widely available.  As such my task in this monograph remains intact but also gets shaded just a little.  Not only will I produce a monograph of al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah (in English) but I will engage with this work, debate it, raise conflicting opinions, and jump into what might become a mini-academic debate.

The combination of curmudgeonly respect I feel for this volume, as I heft it for the first time, freshly hand-delivered to me by the library staff here, and disgust (that my idea has been stolen) has a certain curiosity to it, an NQR-icism unique, so far, in the annals of this blog.

Please wish me luck reading this tome, digesting it, and somehow incorporating it in my own endeavors over the next two months as I finish this thesis.  It remains for me to read and review and think about just what sources were used and what opinion of al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah the author of this study — a man named Abd’al-Baqi Qurna al-Jaza’iri — formed and conveyed in his preemptive strike on my (strangely cherished) objective.


Beautiful Grammar(?) — Sura Ya-Sin 36:37

Two words that should probably never go together:  beautiful and grammar.

However, one of my courses this semester, called “The Language of the Quran,” aims at just that very thing, connecting the two.  And today, at least in some small measure, it succeeded to awe, if not (quite yet) to make the music of the particular grammatical point ring in my mind.  The Quran is known to be an evocative text, imbued with a magic in its tone and a particular depth of meaning that leads men to devote their lives to its study.  Some small glimpse into the mechanisms behind that power is all I ask of this course, or of myself, with what Arabic I possess.  To capture some idea, in English, of one example from among many covered already in two days of class, will be something of a challenge, but hopefully worthwhile, removing the taint of NQR from this link between beauty and grammar.

Today we were looking into metaphor, the various types of it.  As we disected the following example, posted on the blackboard by Professor Hisham Mahmoud, the complexity and multivalent functioning of the metaphorical devices suddenly sprang into stark relief.  I will outline them.

First, the verse itself:

Tranliterated into something vaguely pronouncable in English, this script may be rendered:

Waayatun lahumu allaylu naslakhuminhu alnnahara fa-itha hum muthlimoona

This may be translated, in its words but not in the depth of its meaning, as:  “A sign for them is the Night.  We skin from it the day and, behold, they are darkened.”

On the first functional level the type of metaphor exemplied by this Sura is one in which an unstated object receives a comparison.  Here the unstated object is an animal’s body from which God peels back, or flays, the skin.  This action is related back to the Night and the Day as a sign of the power of God.  In itself, the metaphor presents a powerful, primordial image, the idea of Day being peeled back from the heavens (each and every day) so that Night shines through, showing man a substance more base and more fundamental than the veiling brightness of the sun, an image that evokes, for me, a particular gloaming beauty when the raw heavens transcend or reveal themselves lucidly through what, at first, seemed substantial (the sky) but suddenly and magically dissolved into insubstantiality.

This works, this image.  It grabs me by the guts, just as if I am the one being flayed or as if I am sitting on a hill in childhood idyll watching the sunset, a Shel Silverstein moment.  But the use of metaphor doesn’t stop at this single comparison.  As the class looked at this example, we realized a second level of metaphor fills the verse, a very intentional deepening.  Both the terms Day and Night are, themselves, metaphorical, a different type of metaphor, or an allusion, a type called kinaya in Arabic. Here, Day refers to the believing man’s understanding or grace or God’s mercy and compassion therein, His plan and His foreknowledge to bring man toward enlightenment.  The Night represents the reverse, or the fundamental state of ignorance in which man begins and to which he returns if he should not accept the guidance of day, if he should not accept the revelation of his base substance via the hand at work, which is, in the Quran’s parlance, the Word of God.

Dismissing, not even yet thinking about the elements of poetry in the sound of the Arabic words themselves, assonance, consonance and the like, the allusion and the mutliplicity of metaphor here, in this one single example from among many, should convey some of the power (and some of the difficulty) inherent in reading and comprehending the Quran.  To hear it chanted, or spoken, recited by an expert, the mind attuned to such sounds can slip away, letting the metaphor operate subliminally and the words flow.

Beauty + grammar = a deep operation on the psyche and the Id, a powerful insight into one among many ways in which the Quran serves as a self-sufficient example, or sign, of its own holiness.


Have Faith in Your Delivery Man

Just in case you have a very special package to deliver . . . does a sender get to choose between delivery via the Old Testment smiter of a God or the New Testament lamb?

A good name . . . perhaps a little presumptuous?


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.

 

 


Kharijite Rhetoric

The following remarks by the Kharijite (an early heretical sect of Islam) rebel Abu Hamza al-Mukhtar b. ‘Awf were given as part of a sermon in Mecca during his fight against the Ummayid Caliphate, approximately 746 CE.  Amazingly (and definitely NQR) they were preserved in Sunni sources because of the strength of the rhetoric, even though the comments greatly disparage the Sunni Ummayid caliphs.  In this year of campaign invective it might be nice to see that other peoples have engaged in character assassination, perhaps even more effectively than we Americans now stomach.  And it is interesting to note that the Sunni historians had such a sense of aesthetic value that they’d record a sermon like this, even though it clearly damns the Ummayids!

PS.  This is excerpted from Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds’ book “God’s Caliph.”

PSS.  The really good stuff is toward the end of the sermon, so keep reading.

Abu Hamza’s comments:

The Prophet's Mihrab, or pulpit, the approximate spot from which Abu Hamza may have delivered his sermon (although, back then, it wouldn't have been so gilded).

1.  O people! The Messenger of God used neither to advance nor to draw back save with the command of God and His revelation. [God] revealed a book to him and made clear to him what he should undertake and what he should guard against, and he was in no way confused about His Religion….

2.  When the Muslims put him (Abu Bakr) in charge of their temporal concerns, He fought the apostates and acted by the kitab and the sunna, striving, until God took him to Himself; may God’s mercy be upon him.

3.  ‘Umar took charge after him.  He proceeded according to the mode of conduct of him who had gone before him . . .

4.  Then ‘Uthman took charge.  For six years he proceeded in a way which fell short of the mode of conduct of his two companions.  Thereby he annulled what he had done earlier, and passed on his way.

5.  Then ‘Ali b. Abi Talib took charge.  He acted in a proper manner until he established arbitration concerning the book of God and had doubts about His religion. [Thereafter] he did not achieve any goal in respect of what was right, nor did he erect any beacon for that.

6.  Then there took charge Mu’awiya b. Abi Sufyan, who had been cursed by the Messenger of God and was the son of one so cursed.  He made the servants of God slaves, the property of God something to be taken by turns, and His religion a cause of corruption.  Then he passed on his way, deviating from what was right, deceiving in religion.

7.  Then there took charge his son Yazid, part of the curse of the Messenger of God, a sinner in respect of his belly and his private parts. He kept to the path of his father, neither acknowledging what ought to be acknowledged nor disavowing what ought to be disavowed.

8.  Then Marwan and the Banu Marwan took charge.  They shed forbidden blood and devoured forbidden property.  As for ‘Abd al-Malik, he made al-Hajjaj an imam of his, leading to hellfire.  As for al-Walid, he was a stupid fool, at a loss in waywardness, abusing the caliphate with benighted senselessness.  And Sulayman, what was Sulayman?!  His concern was with his belly and his private parts.  So curse them, may God curse them!  Except that ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was from them:  he had good intentions but did not act upon them; he fell short of what he intended.

9.  Then there took charge after him Yazid b. ‘Abd al-Malik, a sinner in whom right judgement was not perceived . . . Two items of apparel were woven for him and he wore one as pants and the other as a shirt.  Then he sat Hababa on his right and Sallama on his left and said, “Sing to me, Hababa; give me wine, Sallama.”  Then, when he had become drunk and the wine had taken a hold on him, he rent his two garments, which had been acquired for one thousand dinars on account of which skins had been flayed, hair shaved off, and veils torn away; he took what he spent unlawfully and wrongly.  Then he turned to one of the girls and said, ‘Surely I shall fly!’  Most certainly!  Fly to hellfire!  Is such supposed to be the distinguishing characteristic of the caliphs of God?!

10.  Then squint-eyed Hisham took charge.  He scattered stipends about and appropriated the land . . . and you said, ‘May God reward him with good.’  Nay!  may God reward him with evil!  He was miserly with his wealth and niggardly in his religion.

11.  Then the sinner al-Walid b. Yazid took charge.  He drank wine openly and he deliberatly made manifest what is abominable.  Then Yazid b. al-Walid rose against him and killed him:  God has said ‘So We make the evildoers friends of each other for what they have earned.’ Then Marwan b. Muhammad took charge and claimed the Caliphate.  He abraded faces, put out eyes, and cut off hands and feet…

12.  These Banu Umayya are parties of waywardness.  Their might is self-magnification.  They arrest on suspicion, make decrees capriciously, kill in anger, and judge by passing over crimes without punishment . . . These people have acted as unbelievers, by God, in the most barefaced manner.  So curse them, may God curse them!

(Please note, the Kharijite opinion of these Caliphs is a minority opinion in Islam.)


13 Stares — No God

Here is the next in this series of NQR poems — all of which are based on photos and thoughts dredged from the year I spent in the town of Safwan, Iraq.  While this particular poem branches off in a different direction, speaking more about the smirk on this British soldier’s face as he stands on the far side of the wall of an all-girls’ school in Safwan . . . the oddest thing is the word ‘God’ written below Sadaam.  We might not remember it, or might view it through the haze of our own convoluted political justifications (or lack thereof) for having gone to war in Iraq, but the people, especially the Shi’a in southern Iraq, were very happy to be rid of Sadaam.  This graffiti provides a weird, mute testimony to that fact, a testimony underlined (as all things in Iraq seem to be) by the evocation of God.

These poems appear in my chapbook “13 Stares.”

A Squaddie stands guard outside an Iraqi girls' school. Graffiti captured by coincidence.

 

No God

The place to find God is not
never has been, in the set
of stacked Pentecostal folding chairs
where the organ dustcover
and orange jellybeans at Easter
or cleanliness, sidewalk router suburbia
clipped, fertilized lawns and sprinklers
conservative Oldsmobiles for gentle coffee
and the body of Christ flat
on the same tongue as adultery
Lo, beat the stolen hubcap
of the Minister of Agriculture’s Mercedes
into a birdbath, there He is, find
the Kuwaiti coin from the year of your anniversary
as if, striking in sunlight, the mold
fits the one thing that ever fit you
her
and grass seeded on the lee of the dune
swept, root bare, smiling outside
the girls’ school where accidentally the squaddie
hears them screaming at recess.


Masada = Awesome

Model of how Pontius Pilate's original palace at Masada may have appeared.

If you want to plumb the depths of commitment to an ideal of religious zealotry, one of the best places to go is the ruin of the mountain fortress of Masada south of Jerusalem on the Dead Sea.  Here, a band of Jewish sicarii (or daggermen) holed themselves and their families up in order to avoid Roman oppression at the end of the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE.  In the end, when it became apparent that the huge earthen ramp the Romans built to bring seigeworks to the cliff would prevail, the sicarii men drew lots.  The ten men selected each went among a group of about 70, probably not their own kin, and performed a bloody ritual of slaughter before turning their daggers on themselves.  When the Romans at last breached the fortress they found cooking fires still burning and stores of food and water enough to withstand several more months of seige.  But they found no living rebels.  They took no slaves.  Approximately 700 people died at their own hands, free, that day.

Now, in the present age, Masada has become a national symbol of pride and independence for the state of Israel.  New recruits to the Israeli Defense Forces swear their oaths of allegiance after performing a harrowing early-morning climb up the sheer eastern face of the bluff, following a twisting path called Snake Trail.

The mountain fortress of Masada and the thin winding path of Snake Trail seen in the morning light before my climb.

With one day, actually just one morning, left during my visit to Israel, I decided to wake really early in Tel Aviv, leave the comfort of my hotel, zip through Jerusalem in the gloaming, traffic-free hours before dawn, cruise down the Dead Sea highway, and try to scale Masada in a way that would trace the footsteps of these new recruits and still give me several hours on top to snoop around among the archeological preservations and reconstructions.  I wanted to get a sense for the place and its mystique.  I wanted to maximize my last day of exploration in the Middle East.  I wanted to cap off my travels with the one spot that might be, while not as famous as the Pyramids in Egypt, most relevant to our modern world’s troubles and trials.  In the execution of this plan, I was not disappointed.

First of all, the drive and the climb went just as planned, exhausting my body in such a way that my limbs shook and my skin under my backpack foamed with sweat when I reached the summit.  This was purposeful.  It was my choice to experience the rigor of the climb, sun cresting the Jordanian mountains on the far side of the Dead Sea to bleach the bluff and burn my skin.  I could have taken a ski-lift tram to the top but I wanted to be tired.  I wanted to feel the emotional drain that the new Israeli recruits must feel, along with the euphoria of their ascent and their sacred entrance among the place of the death of those terrible, awesome martyrs from two-thousand years ago.  The view from half-way up Snake Trail shows the amazing precipice of the heights and reveals, also, the outline of one of seven militarily-square Roman encampments, a place that sheltered somewhere around 600 legonaires, and the well-preserved wall of the Roman circumvallation, far below at the start point of the trail.

View from half-way up Snake Trail, just before sunrise.

What I came away with, after relaxing and soaking up the historical information on placards scattered around the blufftop ruins, was a sense of the awesomeness and the holiness of the place, the same strange mixture of secular strength and religious fervor that colors the Israeli outlook on the world.

To talk about that sense, to really give a reader a feeling for it, is — if anything — the Not Quite Right element here.  Think of killing your own children, having those deaths link to cultural motifs like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Torah, and then tying the oath of an impressionable young soldier to that moment.  What do we, as Americans or Canadians or Australians or Europeans hold similarly dear?  What symbols make us fight for our freedoms?  What experiences lead us to rise from the comfort of our Monday Night Football- or Oprah-opiated lives to actually do something for the betterment of ourselves or our fellow men?  Do such symbols exist that might benefit the whole of mankind rather than just one group, one nationality, like the Israelis?

I fear they do not.

Ruins of the storerooms atop Masada.

 

 


Odd Angels on High

For those of us around the world — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, even atheist — there is one shared conception from this Holiday Season that has undergone little debate but has left a lot of room for popular imagination:  angels.

Growing up in a very Protestant Christian environment where the frenetic reach of mass marketing intrudes even into the most sacred of objects, I became accustomed to one particular image or ‘idea’ of what an angel should be:  white, fluffy, well-preened feathers, golden halo, usually Caucasian in appearance, holding a harp, sporting a few other little daubs of golden accessories, like a trumpet, and perhaps wearing a neatly-pleated toga of some sort.  Very clean and white-washed and harmless.  Angels of this sort appear everywhere in the USA — on the topmost boughs of Christmas trees, suspended from streetlights along the main thoroughfares in many little heartland hometowns, adorning the covers of greeting cards, even making appearances in films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “City of Angels.”

So, when I read in one of my guidebooks that I would find frescoes of angels — four huge seraphim dating to the 4th Century AD — on each of the main arches inside the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul (which had once, for more than a millenia, been the primary church of the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, much like St. Paul’s Cathedral for Catholicism in Rome) my mind immediately latched onto this image of fluffy happiness.

But that idea was completely, utterly mistaken.

What I found inside the Hagia Sophia turned out to be downright weird, if not frightening.  But, in a way, this sort of angel seems much more real, much more like the type of messenger commonly noted to have stricken fear into the hearts of the Prophets to whom the angels came as messengers of God.  Ezekiel, Abraham, Moses, and many more right up to and including Muhammad — all who encountered angels report a sense of terror and numbness at seeing or being in their presence.

So, maybe it’s our plastic and lily-white conception of an angel that is Not Quite Right while this frightening and disembodied mass of shifting feathers painted 1500 years ago more closely represents the truth —

An angel inside the Hagia Sophia.

 


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.


Heavenly Etymology

The Garden of Allah by Maxfield Parrish.

I’m going to nerd-out here for a moment in order to show my enthusiasm for what must be a totally obscure and academic discipline:  etymology.

I’m taking a course right now with Professor Michael Cook, who is a truly entertaining teacher as well as being one of the world’s most iconoclastic scholars of Islam.  During the course, reading through an Arabic passage on the life of the revered Muslim scholar Bukhari, we came across a strange nisba, or surname, in Bukhari’s lineage.  The name, roughly transliterated into English, was Birdizbah.

This is, doubtlessly, a non-Arabic name.

We asked Professor Cook about it in class and he launched into a really groovy etymological explanation.

It seems he, too, had the same question but was not, like me, completely dumbfounded when it came to deciphering the word.  He guessed that it likely derived from a very obscure Iranian language (still spoken in one little valley in Tajikistan) called Sogdian.

He found an online Sogdian discussion forum (wonder of wonders!) and posed the question of the origins of this name to the assembled electronic Sogdians and Sogdian enthusiasts.  It seems, within a short period of time, that a Japanese scholar identified the ‘–bah’ ending of Bardizbah as roughly equivalent with the Indian term ‘walla,’ which could mean lord or possessor or owner of something.

Then in the same forum an English professor, switching the Arabized ‘B’ to a phonetically equivalent Persian ‘P’ arrived at Pardiz for the first half of the name.

This gave Professor Cook “Pardiz-walla’ or “Owner of Pardiz” for the rough meaning.

It was only a small step further to produce our English-language version:  Paradise.

Lord of Paradise.

When you think about it, it’s quiet beautiful as a name, really.  And the only quip I can make as far as NQR is the fact that such a linguistic excavation was really incredibly interesting to me.  I guess I’m in the right place, immersed in academia!