The House of Worship Was Also a House of Learning

Adult education is a modern term and carries with it the connotation of something exceptional: normally, we adults are satisfied with sending our children to school, while we regard ourselves free from the obligation of pursuing formal studies, except for professional purposes. The attitude of the society described in this book was approximately the opposite of our own. The elementary school was considered merely as a preparatory stage, and certainly was so in practice. Study, that is, the regular, habitual reading and expounding of the Bible and other sacred texts, was a duty incumbent on everyone and therefore could never be regarded as completed. The house of worship was also a house of learning, and the weekly and seasonal days of rest and prayer were devoted in the main to study. Particular care was taken to keep the synagogue illuminated during the night so that everyone who cared could study as long as he liked. In the introduction to an epistle of the Jewish community of Alexandria to that of Fustat the members of the latter are praised for studying throughout the night until daybreak…

The attainments of laymen must sometimes have been impressive. We are able to recognize their achievements in several business letters that have been preserved, on the reverse side of which the recipients- merchants whose handwriting is well known to us- discuss theoretical problems or actual cases to be decided according to the sacred law. Their discussions are on a high level and do not differ in character from legal opinions written by a scholar. These instances should not be regarded as exceptional. Many letters contain quotations from the Bible, and sometimes also from postbiblical literature, which are by no means mundane, and the poetical proems frequently preceding letters are seldom confined to conventional phrases. Thus, the general standard of adult education, or rather of the regular study by middle-class adults, cannot have been low. It seems that the studies of laymen and of professionals differed in quantity rather than in essence.

S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 192, 195.

On the Ravens and Elijah

The following is a translation of two short exegetical texts by Mar Jacob of Edessa, a Syriac Christian bishop, ascetic, and exegete who lived and wrote in the second half of the 600s. The texts are fairly self-explanatory: Mar Jacob is examining the story of Elijah and the ravens, found in 1 Kings 17. Jacob’s approach is two-fold: first, he looks at what was apparently a disputed question about the ‘literal’ or ‘fleshly’ meaning of the passage, namely, whether the food brought by the angels was from the ‘common’, pre-existing creation of God, or whether it was a new creation equivalent to God’s initial act of creation. A similar question was in play concerning the ram that replaces Isaac in the famous mountain-top sacrifice story. If I am remembering correctly, this was a question that occupied Jewish exegetes as well; I am not sure if similar issues show up in Islamic exegesis or not. The second question Mar Jacob is interested in is the ‘typological’ significance of the story, or, as he also phrases it, the spiritual or mystical meaning. If you will, this meaning lies ‘deeper’ in the text, connecting the story to the larger story of Christ. Typology runs throughout Mar Jacob’s exegesis, which of course is not unusual: typology is arguably the uniting theme in ancient and early medieval Christian exegesis, Syriac, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Ge’ez, and so on.

My translation here is more provisional than usual; my Syriac skills are not up to par with my Arabic, at least not yet, and a couple of lines here still leave me stumped as to their exact meaning. As with any text in any language, and exegetical texts particularly, full comprehension only comes through entering into the complex, multifaceted thought-worlds that inform even as short a text as this. I am still very much in the process of exploring those vast late antique and medieval thought-worlds that writers like Mar Jacob helped created and inhabit.


From the Fifteenth Scholium: On the Ravens Who Brought Sustenance to Elijah the Prophet

The ravens brought sustenance to Elijah the Prophet who was hiding before the Jordan- meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The [following] question precedes spiritual interpretations (ta’uria– from Gk. theoriaruhnita) that are manifest by these words, speaking the literal word on account of these, investigating the ineffable on account of this which people ask: whether it was a new creation commanded by God, namely, the bringing of sustenance to the Prophet who had fled and was persecuted: or whether it was from the pre-existing and common creation of God, Maker of all that is. And we say: that the bread and the meat, which were brought by the ravens, were from this common creation, created by Him who is creator of all. They were not a new creation that was created, each day, one by one, through a command of God, as is the surmise of [some] men. And these [the meat and bread] were from a man who feared God and the prophet. By the command of God he placed them before the ravens, so that they took them up and transported them to Elijah- in the morning bread made from grains baked and toasted by fire; and in the evening meat of animals that had been boiled with fire. These ravens were winged ceatures that ate meat, but were servants due to the command of God, who is powerful over all.  And they were not angels, as [some people] say foolishly. And the story is thus [known] from history.

Demonstration of the Depicted Likeness of the Ravens, the Bread, and the Meat Brought to the Prophet:

There is also spiritual significance that comes from these typological words. The meat that in cloudy times and in the evenings was brought to the prophet, is for us an announcement: the action [of bringing the meat] is a type of the sacrifice of animals, that was until then by means of the shadowing darkness of the law obscured, and that was given to the community hidden beyond the physical Jordan. The bread that was by morning given to the prophet hidden beyond the Jordan is depicted for us as a type of the heavenly, divine bread that is quickened in the dawn of the new creation: for the set-apart community of the Messiah, which has crossed over this and the spiritual Jordan. Ravens are impure beasts, yet are ministers [of God] which are appointed as symbols for us: of those priests of the Church of the Messiah, although from the [impure] nations, [are priests] of the Body and Blood the Messiah, a lamb with no spot, no sin: heavenly, vivifying bread. This is the significance of these words.

Death in the Mihrab

As I’ve written before, medieval fatwas often contain quite surprising material, dealing as they do with all the contingencies- possible and otherwise- of medieval life. Below is my translation of a short question and answer dealing with what I don’t imagine was an every-day occurrence, or at least something one would hope wasn’t a normal occurrence… The selection is from a compilation of fatwas isssued by muftis in al-Andalus, and hence reflects the prevailing Maliki school of jurisprudence. Though note that in this case our mufti does not support his opinion with citations or scripture: rather, he is working from a probably shared assumption that even if the imam drops over dead, the canonical prayer must go on…


Mahmud ibn Umar ibn Libaba asked about a man who was a prayer-leader (imam) of the people, was praying with the people the second raka’a, then suddenly died in the mihrab– what is to be done with him? And how are they to finish their canonical prayers?

Answer: If there is a section of the mihrab fenced-off in some way from the people, place him in this section. Otherwise, let the people in the first row remove him to the people of the second row, and the people of the second to the third, passing him along backwards via the people of each row. [In this way] they will not turn their faces from the qibla.

Neighbors, Strangers, and Travellers

Sufi exegesis of the Qur’an was often quite divergent with the broad consensus of ‘exoteric’ exegetes: Sufis ‘heard’ different things in the Qur’an, and looked for more ‘esoteric’ depths to the established meanings other exegetes worked within. Yet at the same time Sufi exegetes did not reject those meanings. In fact, they very much operated within the wider exegetical scheme. This exegetical scheme could manifest itself in quite subtle ways, ways that remind us that in late antique and medieval ‘scriptural communities’ scripture was never read in isolation from exegesis or from the wider religious and cultural life of the community. Rather, scripture and scriptural exegesis became deeply integrated in the thought-worlds of writers across the spectrum, almost to the level of an automatic ‘reflex’. This reflex shows up quite well in comparing two seemingly quite different exegetical approaches to the same verse.

In the first example, a citation in al-Sulami’s tafisr of the great formative Sufi teacher Sahl al-Tustari, what we would probably call ‘allegory’ is clearly being deployed. The second example is a much longer and much more ‘traditional’ passage from the voluminous al-Tabrisi, an eleventh century author who consolidated much previous material and recrafted it according to his particular literary scheme. At first glance the two passages seem to have little in common, save a shared reference. Al-Tabrisi does not point out any allegorical or mystical significance; al-Tustari gives no ‘literal’ meaning. However, informing al-Tustari’s interpretation, in fact making it understandable, is the ‘literal’ exegesis that lies in the background. The verse in and of itself is relatively unclear, especially the odd term ‘adjacent neighbor.’ It is only with an exegetical unpacking that the various terms can be differentiated and explained. It is this unpacking that al-Tustari’s exegesis takes advantage of. Knowledge of this ‘literal’ exegetical background also gives an unspoken, deeper significance to al-Tustari’s symbolic equivalences. To explain: if the heart is the nearby neighbor, we know from the ‘literal’ exegesis that it has the most ‘rights’ and is, according to some commentators, to be understood as a kinsmen: someone related by blood, and not merely physical proximity. The adjacent neighbor, understood by al-Tustari to be the ‘lower self’, retains rights as well, but is essentially foreign: either distant geographically or unrelated in terms of blood. The companion, understood by literal exegetes to be someone you are traveling with, is the intellect: a helper in the way, essentially. Finally, the bodily limbs, if equated with the traveller (who is by definition a foreigner to be treated with hospitality), are for the spiritual adept not truly essential, but still important and to be treated with care. All of these meanings depend upon two levels of background knowledge: knowledge of the wider exegetical apparatus for this verse, and knowledge of Sufi terminology. Once again we see the importance of approaching Sufism- especially early Sufism- as a movement very much embedded in and interacting with the wider Islamic tradition, and not as an exogenous thing grafted onto ‘orthodox’ Islam.

The Texts

His saying, exalted and glorious is He: [And show kindness to] to the neighbor who is close [to you], and to the adjacent neighbor [or: unrelated neighbor], and to the companion nearby, [and to the traveller].

Sahl [al-Tustari], God be merciful to him, said: the neighbor who is close is the heart, and the adjacent [or distant, see below] neighbor is the self (al-nafs), and the companion alongside is the intellect (al-‘aql), which comes to know the imitation of the Way and the Law. The traveller is the bodily limbs that are obedient to God, exalted and glorified is He.

Tafsir al-Sulami, Q. 4.36

The neighbor who is close and the adjacent neighbor: it is said: its meaning is the neignbor who is close through kinship, and the adjacent neighbor is one with whom you and he have no kinship, according to ibn ‘Abbas, Mujahid, Qatada, Dahak, and ibn Zayid. It is said that the intended meaning here is a neighbor close to you through Islam, while the adjacent neighbor is the non-believer distant in terms of religion. It is related that the Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him, said: ‘There are three sorts of neighbors: a neignbor who possess three rights (huquq)- the right of the neighborhood, the right of kinship, and the right of Islam; a neighbor who possess two rights- the right of the neighborhood, and the right of Islam; and a neighbor who possess the right of the neighborhood, [namely], unbelievers among the People of the Book.’ Al-Zajaj said: the neighbor related to you is he who is close to you and you are close to him, and who knows you and you know him. And the adjacent neighbor: the stranger [or simply the one who is more distant]. It is related that the limit of a neighborhood runs out to forty houses, and it is related that it is forty dhara’ [approx. eighty feet]. He said: it is not possible that the intented meaning is the neighbor who is close through kinship, because mention of kinship and the commanding of good deeds towards them came earlier, through His saying and to those nearby. It is possible to answer him that [this meaning] is possible. Mention of kinship had come before because a neighbor, if related by kinship, possesses the right of both kinship and neighborship. The relative who is not also a neighbor still has the right of kinship reckoned to him, while the singularities of the related neighbor are presented as preferable through this mentioning [?].

And the companion nearby: in its meaning are four intepretations: the first of them: that he is a comrade on a journey, according to ibn ‘Abbas, Sa’id ibn Jabir, and others. And good deeds towards him are by way of benifience and proper companionship. The second of the interpretations: that it is one’s spouse, according to ‘Abdallah ibn Sa’ud, ibn Abu Layla, and al-Nakha’i. The third of the interpretations: that he is one cut off from his journey, hoping for some benefit from you, according to ibn ‘Abbas in one of the reports [he relates], and according to ibn Zayd. And the fourth of the intepretations: that he is a servant who serves you. However, the first interepretation makes allowance for the other two [to be correct also].

And the traveller: its meaning is the traveler on the road, and there are two ideas contained therein: that he is the traveling stranger, according to Mujahid and al-Rabi’. And it is said: he is a guest, according to ibn ‘Abbas. He said: Showing hospitality to a guest for up to three days is a commonly acknowledged good deed (ma’ruf), and every such good deed is an act of almsgiving. And Jabar related that the Prophet said: ‘Every commonly acknowledged good deed is an act of almsgiving. It is concordant with the good deed that you meet your brother with a joyful face, and that you empty your bucket into the vessel of your brother.’

Tafsir al-Tabrisi, Q.4.36

On Teaching and Education I: Learning and Coercion

I’ve been in the education industry now, off and on (but mostly on) since 2007, in a range of capacities: substitute teacher in public high schools, teacher’s assistant in a large public research university, an instructor in a tiny historically black private college, and, in a couple months, a grad student and TA at a wealthy private research university. Besides my work as a teacher I have experienced a wide range of educational settings as a student: a small private school (kindergarten, though because of my family moving, I never officially graduated), followed by a couple of years in public school. I disliked school and my parents, thanks be to God, didn’t compel me to continue a compulsory public education, and instead let me be homeschooled. Homeschooled is a bit of a misnomer, since my childhood and adolescent education took place in lots of different settings and with lots of different teachers, besides my day-to-day ‘formal’ curriculum. I learned painting and woodcarving under the relatively informal and very personal tutelage of wonderful, experienced teachers; I spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring and camping; I participated in a (rather disorganized and not very badge-driven) Boy Scout group and in 4H; I joined a railroad history group; sat in on graduate classes in history my father was taking (and used the university library); and so on. That I have turned out a market anarchist is not really a surprise when I reflect on it: had I been forced to spend most of my waking hours in a state institution of mass education, my political, economic, cultural, and religious views would probably be much more ‘mainstream’ and malleable to State and Capital. Which is, I suppose, the point, whether intentional or unintentional. But more on that question later.

Now that I’ve briefly set out the history of my own experience with teaching and education, I’d like to reflect a little on some of the lessons I’ve learned (pun intended) over the past several years, focusing primarily on my experiences as a teacher. First, my experience in public primary-school education, the most limited of my experiences, lasting for a semester plus a few extra weeks in the second semester. I had recently finished my bachelor’s degree and wanted to begin grad school, but knew that I needed to begin learning Arabic. I also wanted to do some more traveling, so I decided to go abroad to study Arabic. In order to pay for said expedition, I took up a couple of jobs and lived with my parents; in addition, my father was deployed to Iraq so I felt a certain imperative to stay at home with my mother and youngest brother. Anyway, I took a job working for a shoestring budget skating rink; once the school year rolled around I signed up for substitute teaching, which in Mississippi at least does not require any rigorous training. I ended up teaching at a couple of schools on a regular basis: a semi-rural, semi-urban high school, and the so-called alternative school, the holding cell for ‘troubled’ students, which as often as not meant the less nasty alternative to jail. I briefly subbed at another high school but lost out on that after pissing off a rabidly militaristic and neocon civics teacher, in my first taste of being blacklisted. But that’s another story.

What follows are some of my observations from this period; none are groundbreaking (as I would later discover, much of what I learned has already been uncovered and discussed by other radical thinkers, Ivan Illich chief among them), yet the entire structure is generally accepted as a given in industrialized Western society, despite the almost blindingly obvious harms inherent in it. I cannot of course hope to list more than fraction of these harms- there are plenty of others I could enumerate. Rather I will stick to those I saw up-close, and even was forced to participate in. Also, do realize that I do not aim to incriminate any one individual, even those who were, even by the standards of the system, particularly atrocious. Rather, it is the system as a whole that I have come to condemn, the structures and procedures whose operation is not dependent upon any one person’s will or intentions.

To preface the particulars: my overall conclusion was that compulsory education is an incredibly anti-social method. Students, far from being encouraged to interact in anything resembling a free environment, find themselves, day after day, in an environment that is at once highly structured and regimented, from arriving on the bus to processing into classrooms to the punctual division of the day into timed blocks, with brief interludes of liberty in between. Students are sorted into age groups, evaluated according to performance on (increasingly centrally directed and evaluated) tests, ranked further within their age groups. Disciplinary figures are everywhere, threatening some form of more direct coercion or another. This does not mean that the students respect these impositions of authority and regimentation: in fact, they tend to resent it, and try to find ways of evading it at all turns, all the while both fearing this authority and internalizing its inevitability (as they see it, as they are drilled to see it). Students organize themselves within the interstices of the regimented day, and they extend these organizations beyond the school day. Sometimes the pent-up aggression at continual coercion bursts into open acts of belligerence, even violence, usually against each other, sometimes directed at teachers. Far from creating order, the system tends towards barely contained disorder. Substitute teachers are soft targets for strategies of evasion, though I was able for the most part to at least keep my classrooms civil, if not exactly engaged in meaningful learning.

Which brings me to another consistent pattern: the amount of ‘busy work’ designed to keep students occupied, and the complete lack of instruction in some classes. The latter reflects what I imagine, though don’t know to be, a regional variation: football and to a lesser extent basketball coaches who also teach are notoriously exempt from any standards. But neither of these problems strikes at one of the central, maybe the central, evil of the entire system, an evil that I dealt with while subbing and one I continue to deal with in colleges and universities. Simply put, students are taught to associate learning with coercion. The things that we in the humanities hold dear- literature, history, philosophy, music- become, for the average student, weapons in the hands of a power structure that operates on them day after day, year after year. I know because I had to yield them as such for this job- certainly, I was able to engage the students voluntarily, more or less, on many occasions; I tried as often as I could to avoid the tactics I saw being employed by full-time faculty. Yet even I, in order to keep things moving through the day, to go from one period to the next, as often as not had to effectively compel students to read their Shakespeare (which most of them did not understand at all, but it was on the day’s schedule) or whatever it was at hand.

For the especially bright students, or the well-connected and favored ones, all of this may not be an especially terrible experience. For them- especially the brighter kids- it is the broader anti-social atmosphere of high school that chafes them: asinine teachers, bullies, the grind of busy work, of confinement to a standardized (industrialized!) curriculum, the creation and clashing of cliques. They manage to disassociate learning with the coercive structure, or discover ways of learning that lie outside of the school’s control. For the rest, learning is physically imprinted in them (through these bodily actions, day after day after day) as an activity imposed from the outside, a method of control, humiliation even. That they reject all semblance of ‘higher culture’ upon escaping from the educational structure is not surprising; even for those who do not reject all learning, their further experiences with educational structure are forever imprinted by their years of experience in school. It is not that they reject the necessity of school: they’ve had it drilled into them, year after year; nor do they reject the authority, which they have also had drilled into them year after year. Rather, they resent it, chafe under it, and, crucially, do not desire learning. The world of learning has little or no wonder available to it; the discipline and tests and ranking and regimentation have crushed it out of them.

It is this crushing of desire and wonder, this awful associate of learning with a system of continual coercion, that I find most destructive. Certainly, for those of us teaching in colleges and universities, we face student bodies that are often times close to functional illiteracy, or who are at the very least incapable of most of the skills necessary for basic humanities courses (I can say nothing of math and science, but I would not be surprised if a similar situation obtains there as well). Opening discussions in class (which is a primary task among teacher’ assistants) is doubly difficult: the students have rarely read the assigned material nor do they especially comprehend it. If one can get them to discuss, it is nearly impossible to engage them, since they will not- in class at least!- counter-say a teacher, not without lots of urging. They do not love the authorities over them, nor do they respect them, but they will not gainsay them. For a teacher’s assistant trying to stimulate a discussion about the Venerable Bede, it’s a depressing scenario, but one repeated over and over again. But for an operator of the authority of state or corporate capital, it’s the perfect scenario: unhappy subservience, but unquestioning subservience.

But before I spin off another tangent, let me return to, and end with, the most troubling environment in which I worked, the alternative school. These were students who had been caught in the teeth of the system, and were being slowly shredded to bits. The threat of actual prison- juvie, then adult- was always over their heads. Many of them- freshmen, sophomores, mind you- had lost count of the number of times that had been hauled in by the cops or disciplinary officers. The roots of their problems were various: most came from deeply troubled homes, nearly all had been caught in the crossfire of the drug war, all, so far as I could tell, were from chronically poor backgrounds. Their lives were chronicles of all the state institutions that wage war on the poor: prisons, judges, schools, welfare programs, the projects, cops, alongside the ugly constant of disordered families and utterly fragmented communities, wracked by drugs, poverty, and violence. None of these programs had ‘helped’ them, nor were they supposed to, of course. The alternative school, as I mentioned above, was for the most part a last stop, a last ditch effort. Certainly, in terms of school structure and daily procedure, it heightened the coercive nature of schooling: pat-downs, metal detectors, locks on everything, constant surveillance. Not that I entirely minded it, mind you- some of these kids had committed violence in the past, and for a skinny white twenty-something guy having backup nearby gave a measure of reassurance. That said, the environment in the actual classrooms was, in some ways, less coercive and oppressive than in ‘normal’ schools. Certainly, some of the teachers seem to have missed out on a career as prison-guards, but they were the exception- the teachers were, for the most part, genuinely kind and decent. Classes were relatively loosely organized, compared to ‘normal’ school, and since classes were (for reasons of security probably more than anything) small I got to know the students and other teachers pretty well. Some of my most enjoyable times of teaching took place there, in large part I think because my class periods gave the students a little glimpse outside of their otherwise deeply disordered lives shuttling between one coercive authority after another, with stops in utter disorder and violence in between. Teaching tended to be relatively informal; sometimes I would just read passages from books to my students, stopping to gloss difficult bits. It was also a heartbreaking experience: here were kids who had already been passed through the larger educational and judicial mills, and- I knew in the back of my head- were almost certainly going to end up behinds bars, or murdered, or dead from an overdose or cop’s bullet or alcohol, or living in cyclical poverty. I could offer my miniscule cup of compassion, but that was it.

To be sure, all is not terrible: I came across plenty of bright spots as well, smart and engaged students, students who refused to simply swallow everything fed them, teachers who genuinely loved to teach and even managed to impart some of their love of learning to their students. Certainly the anti-social and anti-learning tendency of compulsory, centralized education does not always destroy learning and creativity and so on- it’s not an utterly total system, nor an always consistent or homogenized one, thank God. Some components are far more negative than others, and individual teachers, students, and others can make a considerable difference. But for all of the particular and personal examples one can summon the overall system looms supreme and ultimately dominating, operating just as well- perhaps better- with these positive blimps in the radar existing. The system does not need mere reforms, as politicians of both statist parties will content: it needs to be demolished, and teaching and learning need to be re-imagined and re-built from the ground up.