The Striker of Animals Runs Up a Bill

It is related that while going on a journey, if [Muslihuddin] Merkez [Efendi] were to see a peasant, he would go to him, ask ‘do you know the faith,’ and would explain the conditions and duties of prayer. He would then scatter the seeds of knowledge among the fields of his heart, saying things like: ‘The way to do it is so-and-so and such and such. It is prayer that separates Islam from unbelief, and one who neglects prayer is more useless than an unbeliever,’ and ‘Verily the prayers are incumbent on the believers in a fixed book,’ followed by the poem, ‘Upon the unbelievers the fixed book assigned prayers/ Those who don’t do it are detested in the two worlds,’ and ‘Beware, don’t let these farm animals lack for food, water or provisions; don’t load them with more than they can bear; don’t strike them with endless blows. To that the scholars say, “The striker of animals runs up a bill, it garners naught but its equal in the afterlife,’ and, ‘In this place full of seeds are walking around, your intent should be to revive empty land and to make it a benefit for the male and female believers…’

Sinaneddin ibn Yusuf ibn Ya’kub (d. 1581), Tezkiretu’l-Halvetiye, trans. by John J. Curry, in The Transformation of Muslim Mystical Thought in the Ottoman Empire: The Rise of the Halveti Order, 1350-1650

The War Works Hard

I posted this poem here in 2007- at the height of the US surge in Iraq, actually. It is still all too relevant four years later. I tried to write something to post today summing up my own very small and insignificant experience of the last ten years of war and everything that has gone with it; I wasn’t able to do it, at least not today, not in one sweep. Maybe I will try again soon, in smaller installments.

Dunya Mikhail says it better than I ever could, anyway.

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How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
Early in the morning,
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places,
slings corpses through the air,
rolls stretchers to the wounded,
summons rain
from the eyes of mothers,
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins…
Some are lifeless and glistening,
others are pale and still throbbing…
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children,
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missles
into the sky,
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters,
urges families to emigrate,
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire)…
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
achieves equality
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters,
accustoms young women to waiting,
fills the newpapers
with articles and pictures,
builds new houses
for the orphans,
invigorates the coffin makers,
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

Dunya Mikhail, from The War Works Hard (2004)

Distance From You is Death and Nearness to You is Life

The world confines us when You are absent from us,
And our souls abandon us because of desire.

Distance from You is death and nearness to You is life,
Were You absent for but the moment of a breath we would die.

Far from You we die and in nearness to You we live,
And if good tidings of reunion reach us from You we revive.

We remain alive in remembrance of You when we do not see You,
For only remembrance of the Beloved enlivens us.

Were it not for the quintessence of You that our hearts perceive,
In wakefulness or sleep, when we are absent,

We would surely die from grieving and yearning out of separation from You;
Yet, in reality, Your essence is within us.

Remembrance motivates us without need for word of You;
Were it not because of the desire for You within us our limbs would not move.

So say to one who would forbid ecstasy from those who experience it,
‘If you have not tasted the draught of Desire with us, be off!

‘When souls tremble, desirous of reunion,
‘Even phantoms dance, oh uncomprehending one!’

Do you not see how a cage bird, oh youth,
Breaks into song when it recalls its ancestral home?

With its chirping that which is in its heart bursts forth,
And its extremities are agitated with feeling and spirit.

It dances in the cage, desirous of reunion,
So that even sentient beings are moved when it sings.

Such are the souls of lovers, oh youth,
Desires propel them to the most sublime world.

Are we to force patience upon souls when they are enraptured?
Is one who has perceived the Quintessence able to be patient?

If you have not tasted the desire that true human beings have tasted,
Then by God, oh empty husk, do not defame us!

Concede to us what we advocate, for
When our desires overcome us we are likely to cry aloud.

Our hearts vibrate during sessions of invocation,
And when we cannot hide our ecstasies we lose control.

In the Divine Mystery are fine and subtle secrets
That perceptibly surrounds us. If only we could utter them!

Oh Distractors of Lovers, arise and openly proclaim!
Fill us to the brim and refresh us with the Name of the Beloved!

Because of our gratitude, preserve our secret from those who envy us,
And if Your eyes disapprove of something, then forgive us.

When we have become light-headed and carefree,
And the wine of Love intoxicates us, we are exposed.

Do not blame the drunkard for his state of drunkenness,
For in our drunkenness we have been absolved of responsibility.

Abu Madyan Shu’ayb ibn al-Husayn al-Ansari (1115-1198), Qasida in Nun, trans. By Vincent J. Cornell

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.

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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…

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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.

We Name You a Paradise

Blessed Virgin, Elected One,
We name you a Paradise in which the perfumed tree is planted.
We name you the Fountain, from which gushes forth the water of life.
We name you the Land, which bore the apple fruit.
We name you the Bush which was enwrapped in fire.
We name you the Rod which budded forth a shoot.
We name you the Pole which bore the cluster of grapes.
We name you the Fleece which was covered in dew.
We name you the Tent of Dwelling, which was covered in glory.
We name you the Ark, covered with the Mercy Seat.
We name you the Cloud which rained down food.
We name you the Dove, whose sides were covered with red hued gold.
We name you the Turtle Dove whose wings stretch over her chickens.
We name you the Ship laden with riches.
We name you the Harbor, that calms the heaving sea.
We name you the Land that gives a rich crop.
We name you a Heaven [who contained Him the heavens could not contain].
[We name you the Throne] and the Cherubim bear you up.
O Virgin, your glory is deeper than the Abyss, and higher than the heavenly heights;
There is no human tongue which can exhaust your praise.
Now I pray to you with fervent request, incomparable Queen,
Protect me in your majesty; grant me your clemency.
Gentle Lady, to whom revenge is wholly foreign,
Gird me about with your righteousness and endow me with courage.
My spirit calls upon you; in you my heart has put its trust.
May your mercy follow me all the days of my life.

From the Ethiopian Orthodox hymn to the Theotokos the Enzira Sehbat, trans. John A. McGuckin

Layering Meaning: Two Sufi Tafsir Excerpts

The following are two selections from the formative Sufi Qur’an commentary of al-Sulami (whom I have written about previously here and here). There are several interesting hermeneutical moves that al-Sulami makes in these two selections, moves that will be familiar to anyone conversant with Patristic and medieval Christian commentary. In the first selection, of Quran 2.158, al-Sulami has selected exegetical thoughts concerning the two hills al-Safa and al-Marwa, two small peaks that form part of the rituals of the Hajj (here is a decent overview of the two hills and their role in the Hajj)- pilgrims move around the two at one point in the pilgrimage’s rituals. It is this ritual significance that our exegetes here have in mind when addressing the verse in question. What, in fact, is the significance of these two hills, and how do they relate to the wider goals of the Sufi? Al-Sulami (and his sources) answer in two ways. First, they emphasize the importance of inner transformation and sight when carrying out the rituals of the Hajj- they do not negate the outward performance, but, as with formative Sufism generally, call for a carrying out of the outward acts alongside one’s inner acts.

Second, our exegetes look to the names of the hills themselves and mine them for significances that would resonate within Sufism. This is a type of exegesis that appears frequently in Christian Patristic commentary (East and West, Latin, Greek, Syriac, and others), enough so that by the early Middle Ages entire treatises devoted to etiologies and etymology could be found- with place names being particularly popular sites of examination. Keep in mind when reading this sort of commentary that for these writers, Christian or Islamic, names are not accidental occurrences, but have the capacity of representing deeper realities, of conveying multiple levels of meaning.

Finally, a note on the word I have translated godly manliness: al-muru’a is a tricky term, one that I have yet to find a good translation for. It has a whole web of meanings and connotations that develop around it through Sufi thought and a little later in futuwwa treatises and other genres. The Latin concept of virtus is perhaps the closest thing to muru’a, although the two ideas are not synonymous. Here it has a specifically religious sense, hence my tentative translation.

As for the second selection, it is fairly straightforward. The unstated question of our exegetes is: how is one to remain devotedly in mosques (or anywhere else)? The answer: this verse can be understood, with a little exegetical tweaking, to command not just devoted seclusion in a literal, physical place of prayer, but the transformation of one’s self into a continual site of prayer and devotion to God. Hence the command given in the scripture passage becomes broader and deeper, enjoining a state of secluded devotion not just at certain times or places, but at all time, and in all places.

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Q. 2.158: His saying, exalted is He: ‘Verily, al-Safā and al-Marwa are among the rites [or symbols] of God.’

It is said: whoever climbs al-Safā and does not unite his secret to God, nothing of the rituals of the Hajj are clear to him; and whoever climbs al-Marwa and the realities of the Unseen are not clear to him, perceives nothing of the rituals of the Hajj.

And it is said: al-Safā is the place of concord (al-musāfāh) with the Truth, and whoever does not devote himself singularly to the concord of God, let him understand that he has squandered his days and the running of his course in his Hajj. I heard Mansur speak a tradition related back to Ja’afar, who said: ‘Al-Safā: the spirit, due to its being clean (safā’) of the filth of divergences [from God]. Al-Marwa: the self (al-nafs), due to its employment of godly manliness (murū’a) in standing to service of its Lord.’ And he said: ‘Al-Safā is the purification of spiritual knowledge, and al-Marwa is the godly manliness of the knower. Al-Safā is cleansing from the turbidity of this world and the passions of the self, while the running of the course [between the two hills] is fleeing to God, and when one unites his running of the course to fleeing to God, he is not rendered empty by looking to something other than God.’

Q. 2.187: His saying, exalted is He: ‘Remain devotedly in the mosques.’

Al-Wasitī said: the devoted remaining is the imprisoning of the self (al-nafs) and the binding of the limbs and attention to the time- then, wherever you are, you are remaining devotedly.

One of them said: The Sufis are remain devotedly through their inner secrets before God- nothing from temporal occurrences effects them due to their total immersion in divine witnessing.

Al-Sulami, Haqa’iq al-Tafsir

On the Spider

Look at the spider and what God created in it in wisdom! Verily, God created in her body moisture (ratūbah) from which she weaves a house to dwell in, and a net for her hunting- it is crafted out of her body, and God made her nourishment through her sustenance (aqwātihā), directing [her sustenance] towards the capacity of her body, and to the forming of this previously mentioned moisture. She always sets it up like a net, with her house in the corner of the net. And the capacity of her house is such that she hides herself, and the net, by means of fine threads, intwines the legs of flies and mosquitoes and similar creatures. When she senses that one of those sorts of creatures has fallen in her net, she hurries out to it, lays hold of it, and returns to her house. She is sustained by what she derives from the moisture of these animals, and she is satisfied at that time, hobbling [her prey] and leaving it until the next time of her need.

And look at the means for obtaining her sustenance that God created in her, so that she attains in that what humans attain through discursive thought and artifice. And all that is for her well-being and the reception of her food, and ‘Know that God- He is the Director of this.’

Abū Ḥāmed Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Ghazālī (1058-1111), The Wisdom in God’s Creation, 91.

The Story of Jonah in Qur’an Tafsir

The classical tafsīr (Qur’an commentary) tradition contains, in addition to the grammatical, mystical, theological, philogical, and other disciplines we tend to think of as ‘high-brow’ and befitting religious discourse, material drawn from the (so-called) stratum of ‘popular’ religion. Of course, as my use of scare-quotes should make clear, dividing any religious discourse, oral or written, into ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ components is immediately problematic, and reflects more on twentieth and early twenty-first century presuppositions about culture and religion than the realities of medieval religion and culture. For instance, the reading and extemporaneous composition of tafsīr by imams and others seems to have been a feature of public life in mosques and perhaps even in the streets and markets- a movement of ‘elite’ culture into the world of the non-elite. We should also keep in mind that particularly for medieval Islam, the social and economic distinctions between ulama and others was not quite as bright a line as between Christian clergy, East and West. And in addition to the ulama proper there were other figures, existing somewhere between the learned religious realm and the realm of the non-ulama, who drew upon both the scriptural traditions (of Jews, Christians, and Muslims), their interpretative traditions, and a collection of stories and elaborations upon those traditions. These figures- story-tellers, popular preachers, demagogues according to some- have an ambiguous place in the discourse of the ulama proper and their works of exegesis. The stories of the Prophets that formed the canon of the ‘popular preacher’ are often censured by more learned religious figures- yet they also appear in those figures’ works. So we see ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ crossing back and forth into each other- distinguishable, perhaps, yet refusing to abide by strict hierarchies of cultural value and location.

The other ‘site’ of ‘popular’ religion is one that feels considerably more foreign and perhaps uncomfortable to us moderns, but was arguably more integral and accepted than ‘popular’ story-telling in exegesis. ‘Magic’ and the use of scripture as talisman is not only widespread in the exegetical tradition, it is as much a component of ‘elite’ culture as ‘popular.’ In fact, any distinction that can be drawn is in measure, not in kind. Mystical and other-world oriented ‘benefits’ transmute easily- in a single text- into very this-world oriented, almost automatic effects. Recitation of a given verse will ensure victory over enemies. Swallowing water that has soaked a written copy of a verse will cure stomach illness. And so on. Granted, there were critics of this approach to this sort of thing- the benefits of verses, for instance, elicited some displeasure- but they remained, firmly part of the ulama’s way of working with scripture. And, we may rightly assume judging from the proliferation of talismanic renderings of Qur’an verses, some of which are still with us (and in use in the Islamic world to this day), such usages cannot be pinned into ulama and poplar quarters, but were equally common to both- the ulama, perhaps, acting as the rightly-guided suppliers for popular consumption.

Below is an example of the first phenomenon, the use of popular stories about the Prophets to elucidate a verse. In this case we have a classical scenario of Qur’anic exegesis: the verse in question, Q. 10.98 (Surah al-Yunus), contains a frustratingly elliptical allusion to Jonah (Yunus in Arabic) and his mission (but not his famed encounter with the whale, which is elucidated elsewhere in the Qur’an, sans a description of his prophetic mission): ‘So if it were not so, no rural community (qarīa) believed so that its faith benefited it, except the people of Yunus [Jonah]- when they believed, we lifted from them the torment of shame in this life below, and we made them to enjoy good things for a while.’ That’s it- the reader must supply the details of Jonah’s life, using the handful of other Qur’anic details alongside non-Qur’anic material- which in this case forms the bulk of the story. Our exegete, the generally accessible al-Tabrisī, has made sure to supply several versions of the Jonah story. In its outlines it will be familiar to those used to the Biblical story of Jonah; but it also- in both the versions I translate here- includes elements that do not show up on Sunday School (or the Veggie-Tales version, though some of the second story could easily have been in a cartoon). Like the Veggie-Tales version, parts of these stories have the feel of elaboration for the sake of entertaining elucidation- not simply entertainment, mind you, but purposeful entertainment. When God tells the whale that Jonah is not his food, but a prisoner in his belly, we are probably meant not only to find it a little humorous, but to understand that God can communicate His will to anyone and anything- including great whales. If we understand these stories as drawn from the ‘popular preacher’ milieu, there is no reason not to think that such preachers crafted their stories with ‘proper’ exegetical goals and techniques in mind- such as moral edification. We know that Christian writers, from the Syriac to the Anglo-Saxon traditions, re-worked scripture along ‘popular’ veins for the purpose of moral edification. A similar process seems to be at work here.

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From the Tafsīr of al-Tabrisī: The story (al-qissa): this is part of the story of Yunus, as it was told by Sa’īd ibn Jabīr, al-Sadī, Wahab, and others. The people of Yunus were in Nineveh, in the region of Mosul. He called them to Islam, but they rejected him, so he reported to them that tormenting punishment would dawn on them in three days if they did not repent. So they said: verily, we have not attempted to deceive him. So behold- if he [Yunus] passes the night amongst you then nothing will happen, but if he does not then you will know that the punishment will dawn upon you. So when it was midnight, Yunus left from their sight, and when morning dawned on them the punishment descended. Wahab says: the skies were overcast with a black cloud, a strong dark smoke smoking, and it descended until their city was covered in it, making their roofs black. And ibn ‘Abbas says: The punishment was right above their heads- when they saw that they knew for sure that the promised destruction was true, so they looked for their Prophet [Yunus], but did not find him. So they went out to a high hill- themselves, their wives, their children, and their animals. And they dressed in sackcloth, made manifest their faith and repentance, making their intention [to repent] sincere, and they set apart each mother from her son- both humans and animals- so that each one longed for the other. And they [the mothers] lifted up their voices and the voices of [the mothers] mixed with the voices of [the men], and they humbled themselves towards God. They said: we believe in what Yunus brought [i.e. his prophetic message]. So their Lord had mercy on them, and answered their call, and lifted from them the punishment, after they humbled themselves.

It is related … Abū ‘Abdallah said: there was among them [the people of Nineveh] a man named Malikha, a servant, and another man, named Rūbīl, a scholar, and the servant paid attention to Yunus’s call to the people, and the scholar informed him, saying to him: ‘Do not set this against them! Truly, God will answer your prayer and will not desire the destruction of His servant.’ And Yunus accepted the speech of the servant, so he [Yunus] called to them, and God inspired him with the message that punishment would come upon them in such-and-such month on such-and-such day. When the time approached, Yunus, with the servant, left them, but the scholar remained among them. And when it was the day of the descent of the punishment, the scholar said to them: ‘Take refuge in God, and perhaps He will have mercy on you and remove the punishment from you.’ So they went out to the desert, and separated the women from the children and the animals and their young. Then they wept and called out, acting and turning aside from them the punishment [which] had descended to them and drew near to them. And Yunus passed angrily over the face [of the city] just as God had related to him, until he ended up at the shore of the sea, where there was a ship which was all loaded and the [sailors] desiring to shove off. Yunus asked them to carry him aboard, so they did. When they were in the middle of the sea, God sent a giant whale (al-hūt) against them, and it held back the ship. So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Yunus. Then they expelled him and cast him into the sea, and the whale swallowed him and Yunus went through the water inside it.

And it is said: the sailors said [before Yunus was thrown to the whale]: we will cast lots, and whoever the lot strikes, we will throw him into the water. For there is surely a disobedient runaway slave (‘abadan) here. So the lot fell seven times to Yunus. So he stood up and said: ‘I am the runaway slave!’ So he threw himself into the water, then the whale swallowed him. And God spoke to the whale lest he harm one of Yunus’ hairs, [saying]: ‘I have put a prisoner in your belly- he is not your food!’ So he lingered in its belly for three days (or, it is said, seven days, or forty days) … So he entered a sea and remained until he went out to the sea of Egypt [the Nile], then traveled from it to the sea of Tabaristan [the Caspian], then went out through the Tigris.

‘Abdallah ibn Masa’ūd said: the whale swallowed another whale, so it made off with it to the depths of the earth, and it was in its belly for forty nights. So [Yunus] cried out in the darkness: ‘There is no god but God! You are glorified, while I am in the deep darkness!’ So God answered his prayer, and commanded the whale so that he spit him out onto the beach of the sea, and he was like a plucked baby bird, so God made to grow a squash-tree, making shade under it. And God entrusted [Yunus] with a mountain-goat whose milk he drank. Then the tree dried up, and [Yunus] wept over it. God spoke to him: ‘You weep over a tree which dried up, but you don’t weep over a hundred thousand or more people who were going to be destroyed!’ So Yunus left, and there was a servant-boy whom he espied. He said to him: ‘Who are you?’ He replied: ‘I am of the people of Yunus.’ So [Yunus] said to him: when you return to them, report to them that you encountered Yunus.’ So the servant-boy reported to them. And God restored to [Yunus] his body, and he returned to his people and they believed in him. And it is said: that he was [also] sent to other people, but his people were first.

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From the Tafsīr of al-Baydawī: So were it not so, no rural communities believed: Is there not a community that believes before seeing the destruction [of God’s judgment], from among the communities which We destroyed? And He did not wait for them as He waited for Pharoah. So its faith benefited it: In that God turned [His judgment] from it and lifted torment from it. Except the people of Yunus: But the people of Yunus, upon whom be peace. When they believed: Right away- they did not behold the occasion of torment and they did not put off [believing] until the falling apart of things. We lifted from them the torment of shame in this life below: [it is possible that the meaning of the verse, rephrased, is]: no people of any rural community, from among the disobedient rural communities, believed so that their faith benefited them, except the people of Yunus. … [The following story] is told: Yunus [Jonah] was sent [by God] to the people of Nineveh in [the region of] Mosul, and they deceived and mistreated him, so he threatened them with tormenting punishment within three days (though some say thirty, others say forty). And when the threatened occasion drew near, the sky became overcast with a black cloud of strong dark smoke. Then it descended and covered their city, so they were terrified and searched for Yunus but did not find him, and they knew for sure that he was telling the truth. So they put on sackcloth and went out together to a high hill- themselves, their wives, their children, and their animals, and they set apart every mother from her son and each one longed for each other. And their voices and loud cryings were lifted up, and they sincerely repented, manifested their faith, and humbled themselves towards God. So He had mercy on them and lifted [the punishment] from them. And it was on a Friday…

They are Able to Garner the Words of Scripture into Their Hearts’ Store

His jaws, like dishes of incense, emit a fragrance of processed ointments. (Song of Songs 5:13, Armenian version)

This indicates the meticulous, deeply ruminated words of the teaching of vardapets [scholars and teachers of the Armenian Church]. They are guides of the Church, who by the continual, unwearied motion of their jaws sweeten the minds and thoughts of humanity with sweet, processed ointments. The things collected in pure hearts, as in a dish, they spread out before people, neither obscuring the incomprehensible things in great profundity, nor making the mysteries of God too plainly obvious. Instead, they dispense the knowledge of Scripture at an intermediate level of instruction, so that it may neither be despised as something negligible, by being too easily acquired, nor cause despair among those who desire to learn, by its unintelligibility. Rather, with a modest effort, they are able to garner the words of Scripture into their hearts’ store. As animals which graze and ruminate and regurgitate their food, so also do vardapets bring up again the words of the Holy Spirit gathered in their hearts. Regurgitating and ruminating on them, chewing them fine by the unwearying motion of their jaws, they dispense from their mouth the enlightenment of the sacred Scriptures, like processed ointment, into the minds of humanity.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 154-5.