Tag Archives: Writing

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.

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Thesis Tableaux, Part 1 – Gathering the Materials

As I sit, here at my kitchen table in a very suburban and bourgeois locale somewhere near Princeton, a masochistic satisfaction has taken hold of me, surrounded by the paraphernalia of my upcoming enslavement to a single, unified, and laborious paper-writing process:  the thesis.  Maybe as a means to preserve this beginning moment for myself, so that I might look back fondly upon it in future years, or perhaps to share the mound of work, at least metaphorically, with those of you enjoying a voyeuristic pleasure in my pain, I will document here what I perceive to be the major milestones of the process.

. . . like the setting of a B-grade horror film . . .

The subject of the thesis will be a monograph of the life of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s more scurrilous Companions, al-Mughirah ibn Shu’bah, who was a very early convert to Islam but was also involved in one of its more spectacular and formative legal/moral cases.  More to follow, in future installments of this thesis-production narrative, on al-Mughirah and his doings.  Now, onward to the writing process itself, onward to the first of the milestones I plan to document.

What more necessary milestone can there be than a beginning?  And how better to capture it than with a photograph, a tableaux of the materials, most of them visible, that I have heaped around me to spur me toward beginning this paper’s production?

Here I list the visible and invisible elements of this project, in order of importance:

1.  Computer.  Modern man cannot write, let alone research, without said device.  My choice:  a slightly feminine but perfectly serviceable white MacBook.  Unseen on the computer are perhaps 30+ files and scans from various encyclopedias that will contribute to the project, along with an entire searchable Arabic-language database of scholarly works that I will (at some time in the nebulous future) exhaust of all references to my subject.

2.  Coffee.  ‘Nuf said.  Cup courtesy Anthropologie, though meant to match a small collection of blue-glazed crockery purchased in Morocco and Oman.

3.  Books:  Most of this is background reading, rather than primary sources.  The primary sources will be in Arabic and I will access them online, for the most part, verifying them in volumes kept at Princeton’s library.  A preliminary search tells me that al-Mughirah is mentioned directly, in various hadith traditions, about a dozen times.  These secondary sources, along with primary-sources exegesis from later (but still rather Medieval) Islamic theologians and historians, supplement the direct mentions of al-Mughirah only partially.  The rest of his life I plan to reconstruct via hypotheses I derive from what various factions or various armies were doing during the blank spaces in his life.  Today my goal is to put all of these secondary sources into a bibliography and, maybe also, to comb through indices and mark/excerpt the direct mentions of al-Mughirah that each book contains.

4.  Stick-’em notes.  An archaic tool, but necessary.  When I have indexed a direct mention of al-Mughirah, I don’t want to have to go through the process of looking it up again.  I will therefore both a). copy the specific mention into a word document arranged by subject or time-period and b). affix a stick-’em note to the original page so that I can find the quote quickly in its larger context if necessary at a later time.

5.  Example theses.  My advisor provided two example theses from recent MA candidates.  I’m going to double check the formatting of their bibliographies prior to creating my own.  In the end, hopefully minus coffee stains, my thesis will look as fat and happy (and professional) as these two do.

6.  Chair, table, and especially cushion on chair.  The writer requires a certain degree of comfort.  But not TOO MUCH comfort.  The cushion eases the pain of a flat wooden surface squashing buttocks.  The table and chair will keep the writer more alert than, say, the couch or the nice big leather arm chair just purchased for more leisurely reading.  Chair/table/placemats/seat cushions courtesy IKEA.

7.  Woven baskets on wall.  No direct correlation with the thesis, other than ambiance in an otherwise milquetoast white pre-fab house.  Baskets from Nizwa, or perhaps from Morocco.  I forget.

8.  Voo-doo doll.  (Parti-colored feathers visible between largest stack of books and copies of previous theses).  Just in case.


Reblogging this post 1) Because it was a cool one and 2) Because it is now cited on a Wiki as evidence that the French explorer Pierre-Constant Letorzec visited Merowe (the link in the footnotes for Merowe leads to my Un-American Graffiti webpage! Hot-diggity dog.)

Not Quite Right

In a land of crushing poverty with a brutal climate, a high rate of disease, and a notorious dictatorship, it might be strange to confess that one of the things most troubling to me in Sudan was its graffiti.  While I started to gain an appreciation for Arabic graffiti itself (noticing some strange juxtapositions between imported Rasta culture, with images of Bob Marley combined with a Muhammad-like veneration) the stuff that most affected me involved the relics from ancient days.

Often covered in names to the point where the hieroglyphs themselves are barely readable, many of the ruins, temples, pyramids and fortifications from three, four and five millenia ago have been been seriously defaced.  What makes a person decide that their name, or their name with the name of their loved-one encircled in a heart, is worth immortalization?  What attraction does an object of history hold, that a man must…

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The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

Joris Hoefnagel's painting: "Animalia" -- unknown whether the artist employed a fine camelhair brush in his creation

On to a discussion of the sort of completely esoteric (by which I mean, ‘interesting but utterly useless from a practical sense’) things a person might encounter during graduate school.  Add to this esotericity a small dose of humor and we have a subject begging to be NQR‘ed.

This is the somewhat famous taxonomy of “The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”

As background, this list is reputed to be genuine, though likely is a fiction created or latched onto by Jose Luis Borges to show that all organization of the world into categories — despite the very convincing and cannonized taxonomies of Artistotilian and Linnaean thought to which we in the West have become accumstomed — is necessarily arbitrary.  In simpler terms, even though we think of classifications like ‘mammals’ and ‘reptiles’ to be fundamental to a ‘correct view’ of the world, those classifications are no more real than what Borges presents in this following list of ‘ancient Chinese’ groupings.

That’s prolly ‘enuff words for today.  Enuff high-falutin’ talk.  I’ll merely leave you with the original Borgian list, hoping that ideas will roll around in the back of your brain and that, the next time you look at something and slap a label on it, you think twice: “Does it belong to the emperor or has it just broken the flower vase?”

All animals fall into one of 14 categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The Opposite of a Roadblock

During the year I served in the town of Safwan, Iraq, our unit provided armed escort to military and civilian convoys throughout all of Iraq, meeting convoys at Safwan’s border crossing point and taking them on about a 1.5 mile loop along a two-lane town road between the border and the main highway just north of the city.  (This convoy activity forms a backdrop for my novel One Hundred and One Nights).  After that point the vast majority of the remainder of our routes used such fast-moving roads.  Our convoys slowed down on this one stretch, sometimes waiting for another convoy to clear through the border point, sometimes just congested in general.  As a result, a troublesome trend toward piracy sprang up along this road, with a few bandits seizing the opportunity, jumping into vehicles, ejecting the drivers and hurrying away before our widely-dispersed guardian Humvees could react (30 semis in a convoy = a virtual moving wall of trucks, for which 3 Humvees provided only a thin guard).

The Not Quite Right of this post hopes to capture the absolute mastery of the driving of these semis, the types of roads down which the bandits took these hulking vehicles, and also the elegant little solution we put in place.

An armored engineer vehicle emplaces a simple serpentine barricade on a road that 'seems' as if it would already have been impossible for a semi to use!

Here, in the photo, one can see the types of road and the woeful emptiness of the land into which the semis were driven (click photo to enlarge).  It might seem easy, perhaps, to find something like a semi in so much waste but the land was pitted with little quarries, rills of rock, hard-scrabble dunes.  A few tarps slung over a truck, a few shovelfuls of earth and dust, and no one would ever notice it.  Then, in the night, the truck might be driven north to a larger city, dismantled, scrapped, its cargo sold, and a neat little profit — a huge profit in comparison to the average Iraqi salary at that time! — made by the thiefs.  No one ever got injured during these filchings, the TCN (third-country national — Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Afghani, Indian, etc) drivers usually walking back to the border crossing, maybe with a lump on their head from getting shoved out of the vehicle.  But the thefts were annoying and escalating in frequency.

Our solution, proposed by one of my soldiers and at first seeming to be crazy and unworkable, was to wall-in this one lane bypass road all the way from the border to the main, fast-moving highway.  While the initial problem with this idea — the restriction of legitimate local traffic moving from one side of the town to the other — nixed the possibility of an outright wall, the final plan, to put barricades in place around which a small car or truck could easily navigate but through which a semi could not be driven, was brilliant in both its feasibility and its cost-effectiveness.  The semis couldn’t be driven across the open countryside, with its knee-high mud and clay farm walls, so we didn’t need to worry about blocking anything except the few adjoining roads.  We created something akin to the opposite of a roadblock, meant to restrict semis to a known and approved path but to let every other sort of vehicle move with only minimal hindrance.

The idea reduced thievery to almost nothing during the course of our remaining missions in the town, at least for the period of a half year or so, until the thieves adapted and started to carve new and hidden roads in the desert!  A game of cat and mouse during which not a single shot was fired.


13 Stares – Deconstruction Season

In honor of winter weather finally hitting the part of the USA from where my family and I hail, this next in the series of 13 Stares poems has a special NQR seasonality to it.  Plus, I love the long evening light across the desert that strikes these highway overpass poles.

For anyone who might have read my novel “One Hundred and One Nights”  the image of this light slanting through the overpass, then striking Abu Saheeh’s little market shack, should certainly be familiar . . .

Rebar eroded on a support column, overpass located between Baghdad and the port of Umm Qasr.

Deconstruction Season

Joke home that
the only two seasons are
winter and construction
well joke here if you can
stomach such humor the seasons
are an immemorial building up
and building down of mud
rising into its mortal forms
man, machine, block on block
and in the very hope of rising
eventual declension roots
entropic, that which is Ur-old
opens into the blossoming
of melon vines in mixed mortar
mudbrick, new rodents have nested
lining rebar with litter
Western peculiar: shoelaces, say
sandwich wrappers, or Gatorade
o-rings, age, to the ageless
is permeable
each goldfish proud
of the obdurate splendor
in passing around or thorugh
the castled cage


13 Stares – Alabama

This might be my favorite from among the litter of these poems, or — at least — the one I think about most.

Whenever I search for an analogy for what war in Iraq was largely like, I often bring up this comparison:  imagine Russia invading the deep south of the US.  There’d be a lot of resistance on the local level.  In fact, it’s not hard to imagine our redneck youth taking potshots with their ‘possum rifles from behind the local filling station.  That’s what I noticed in far southern Iraq.  Not so much armed resistance but a lot of street crime and a lot of kids throwing rocks, clods of dirt, that sort of thing.  So, our NQR moment here goes out to Alabama.

Wave on, Dixie, wave on.

One of our interpreters, "Willy" (Wael), playing soccer with local boys in Safwan. Note destroyed tank in background.

Alabama

If they ever invade
or say perhaps
like Caesar across the Rubicon
or Potomac
armies turn messianic
I’d lay odds on Alabama as the last
bastion of freedom
the sound of copper
dropping in the spittoon
the bloodhound rocking chair howl
the kudzu, Alabama! butternut!
while in Connecticut
or Nevada, Alaska, new kings
will come naked as the old
to play similar games on the hardscrabble
seeking oil, the woodman’s workglove
now a mark of terror, a black-headband
toothless jihad
of secrethandshake, insignia
perhaps neighborhood meetings
cellar celebrations, Rotary
as the guise of insurrection
graffiti coded on the T-72
to commemorate old ways
while our children ask
the soldiers guarding Wal-Mart
and McDonald’s
to play baseball
or give them water
bread
bic lighters
life


13 Stares – Dirt Joe

Here’s the next in this series of NQR poems . . .

The shadow of my kevlar-clad head looms over the little girl.

 

U.S. Education

Statistics show U.S. schools fail for fourth
consecutive quarter teaching
the fine art of beggardry
for the sympathy of dirt, Dirt Joe
unwashed, within 2.5
minutes of the HUMVEE’s arrival
barefoot across the expanse of day
bleached desert with two sisters, Fatima, Farina
skipping from syringe to PVC pipe
with a handful of Saddam dinars
gimme water mister, A+, kept dirty
candy, cute, please, 98th percentile
on the standardized response of some
hard-bitten team leader who believed
implicitly
in the smell of napalm in the morning
before he arrived here
and in red white ‘n blue
before tan
and in Sunday school
before touching death and beauty
in the same sunset
then, after, after which, this girl
smiling, bewitched him
so he smuggles her beanie babies
each Tuesday at noon, unable
to explain at his homecoming picnic
a sudden disgust with tickertape
and the PTA.


Thirteen Stares

Looking back on the time I spent in the Iraqi village of Safwan, on the border of Kuwait (which is the setting for my novel ONE HUNDRED AND ONE NIGHTS) I realize that a series of poems I wrote at the time comprise a body of really perfect subject matter for this investigation of things that are Not Quite Right.  In their convoluted, stream-of-conciousness way, these poems try to do the same thing as all the prose-postings I’ve put up:  take what seems, at first, to be an odd scene from the Middle East and turn it on its head, hopefully to expose an underlying bit of America’s own abnormality.

The next few items that I’ll post here will all be culled from a chapbook called “13 Stares” that was published by Magic Helicopter Press.

It’s a little something different than the usual, here at NQR.  But maybe, as a means of cultural commentary, the poem surpasses dry, boring old prose and description.

For what it’s worth:  enjoy!

The first of several NQR poems commenting on life in Safwan, Iraq, as a way to comment on absurdly pristine life we lead over here in the West:

Count 'em: thirteen people in Safwan's "Friday" Market gaze into the lens of my camera.

13 Stares

Mallrat munching cinnabon
in striped toe socks giggling your girlfriend
to walk the potted palm length like hopscotch
from Vicky’s Secret to The Buckle and thereby
avoid stepping on the break your mother’s
back of the schoolnight eyelash aglitter
kissing boys with folded triangular notes, O
what do you remember from before your
incarnations in Sicily and Kermanshah?
Long, long to be looked at, girl, long giggling
in your unsatisfied splendor, your quarterly
reportdcards, your healthcare, xBox, jitterfinger,
make toast and cut the crust off, walk to school
unlooked-at and hankering for somehow to escape
suburbanity. Know this: what you want in your secret
heart of notice-me hearts is not what you might
expect it to be, these thirteen stares and the wildboys
who would flee from embarrassment at your growing
ghost, such rapine beauty, America.

.


Utter Academic Infamy

Over the last few week’s one of my courses has introduced me to a man known as Ibn Tabrazadh who was born about a thousand years ago in Baghdad.  He was a scholar of hadith and a fairly widely circulating scholar at that, with many later thinkers and jurists quoting from him or being ‘downstream’ from him in the flow of the semi-oral traditions and teachings that surround many of the hadith works and commentaries.

But, for one reason or another, Ibn Tabrazadh’s primary bibliographic entry in Dhahabi’s compendium absolutely vilifies him.  I provide, here, a few of the choice quotes (translations my own) of how lovingly Ibn Tabrazadh has been remembered.  May these be lessons to us all, that no matter the scope of our work, the appreciation (or lack thereof) for our earthly endeavors is certainly up-for-grabs, the product of the whims and morals of those who follow us.  It also should be a lesson to not-piss-off-your-fellow-academics-or-writers as they wield the pens (or iPads) upon which legacies rise or fall.

Whether Ibn Tabrazadh deserves this degree of infamy, I truly don’t know.  Only these few words from Dhahabi remain to enlighten us.  The quotations make me laugh rather than feel any strong moral revulsion.  But I do feel a nagging sort of NQR-ness about amusing myself at the expense of this man, even across such a chasm of time and culture.

1.  Called المؤدب or ‘litterateur’ which, I feel, was likely a first glancing salvo launched from within the strict canons of academia.

2.  Called ضعيف or ‘weak’ in his trustworthiness as a narrator of hadith (this is the overall measure applied to his reliability after consideration of all the information in this biography — not a real shocking conclusion, if you read on).

3.  Called خليعا and ماجنا and كاغد all of which are new words for me but mean, roughly, ‘depraved’ and ‘shameless’ and ‘scoundrel’

(it gets worse)

4.  Called يؤدب الصبيان or, roughly, a ‘tutor of boys,’ which is a double-edged insult, both elucidating the fact that he used his hadith knowledge to earn money and, also, hinting that he was only good enough to instruct youngsters.  Certainly not an anachronistic reference to Penn State.

5.  More bluntly, one commentator in his biography says, لم يكن يفهم شيئا من العلم which means “he didn’t know a damn thing about knowledge.”

6.  He was called ‘negligent in religion’ (I think this is the true source of the invective) . . . متهاونا بأمور الدين

7.  One person remembers that he ‘saw him more than once urinate while standing . . . and then sit without cleaning himself either with water or stones’ (an offense probably akin to peeing-on-the-toilet-seat-and-not-wiping-it-up nowadays).  In arabic, very seriously toned, راينه غير مرة يبول من قيام . . . وقعد من غير استنجاء بماء ولا حجر (Note that Dhahabi himself ventures a guess, by way of apology for this egregious defamation, that perhaps Ibn Tabrazadh had a fatwa excusing him from cleansing himself.)

8.  (Again, to the heart of the matter) . . . cited for not undertaking prayers.  لا يقوم لصلاة

9.  And, more explicitly than before, he is accused of كان يطلب الأجر على رواية الحديث ‘being in the habit of requesting payment before reciting hadith.’

10.  Lastly, reminiscent of Dante, a later scholar says that he dreams of a dead Ibn Tabrazadh ‘wearing a blue robe . . . in a House of Fire inside a House of Fire.’  رايت عمر بن طبرزذ في النوم بعد موته وعليه ثوب أزرق . . . في بيت من نار داخل بيت من نار

Dude.  Not the kind of stuff I want written on my headstone!