It Is Written

Where and how scripture shows up- literally, on what surfaces, in what media- is something that interests me as much as the question of how it is being used in ways we recognize more readily as ‘textual.’ These are some textual/architectural/public uses of scripture I’ve come across; their application of the scriptural voice is at once similar to and different from more ‘conventional’ employments of scripture, whether in sermon, commentary, theology, liturgy, etc. These sorts of public, ‘architectural’ inscriptions operate on different levels, speaking on different registers, depending on their surroundings while also penetrating their surroundings and forming them (much as sacred scriptures both shape the reader/exegete even as she shapes them). Where these texts appear works hand in hand with the texts’ significance within the wider tradition, as this sampling hopefully shows. As usual, I am very much thinking out loud here, and have only given this topic the briefest of thought, though it deserves a lot more.


Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Summer 2008: The scene: big swathes of empty green, where there used to be a neighborhood. There are hardly even bones here now, or if there are they lie beneath the switchgrass and caney reeds and brush. The air is thick, heavy, silent, except for a thudding hammer from one of the few centers of human habitation left here. The text is also crying out, even if its voice looks a little muffled, the vicious heat and humidity of the Deep South no friend to plywood and ink. No matter. The emotional power of the original passage is amplified here in this space of dry (or wet and humid perhaps) bones; it fits the place and fits the place to it.

Sihrij Madrasa, Fes, Spring 2009: This is a somewhat neglected Marinid madrasa (these madrasas being rather more like dorm complexes for the educational activities that took place in the neighboring mosques); but the calligraphy is still bright and compelling. It of course fits the space: besides the continual pre-eminence of the Qur’anic text in Islamic societies, the institutional setting makes the choice of Qur’anic text (operating both as edificational/educational material and edifying decoration) all the more apt. As the students- whose study would consist primarily of Qur’an and hadith- come in and out of the space of the madrasa, the selected texts of the Qur’an (which unfortunately cannot here identify- if anyone in Fes who might happen to read this would like to go by and transcribe, that would be truly wonderful) would become part of the architecture of the student’s daily life, daily perception, daily thought, action. Written on the wall, written on the heart…

Lower Ninth again. The text resilient, always speaking, in the midst of storm, decay. The flowers of the field may fade…

Moulay Idriss Shrine, Fes: This is one is rather different from the madrasa. The calligraphy is somewhat sparser, and the setting is not an enclosed, institutional- particular- space, but is on an external wall. Albeit still within the sacred precinct of the shrine, this now worse-for-the-wear (yet still holding on, like the battered scripture text of the Lower Ninth) slice of scripture shows itself to the passing crowds. It helps mark out the sacred space around and especially within it, and create it, and reflect it. Even to those passing by who are unable to literally read the text, it is readable as a particular thing, a sacralizing thing.  It is recognizable as being part of the sacred, even to those who do not know its literal, strictly textual meaning. It still works. This is, I think, one of the important parts of public scripture, of scripture made stone or wood or whatever and placed on display, grafted into signs and walls and amulets and so on. It blurs the line between literate and non-literate reception and what comes in between- all have some reception of this text, some access to its power, to its meanings, and themselves help construct the meaning.

Milk, Blood, Human Anatomy… and Qur’an Exegesis?

Last term I worked through a fairly prodigious stack of Qur’an commentaries (tafsir) dealing with vv. 66-69 of Surah al-Nahl (Q. 16):

66 And verily, you have a sign in the cattle: We give you to drink from what is in their bellies, from between stomach-refuse (farth) and blood, milk pure, palatable for the drinkers. 67 And from the fruits of the palm and the grape you take an intoxicant and wholesome sustenance; verily, in that is a sign for people who think. 68 And your Lord revealed to the bee: take from among the mountains houses, and from among the trees and from what [people] erect as trellises, 69 then eat from all the fruits, then travel on the easily treadable paths of your Lord. One takes from their bellies a drink, variegated of colour; in it is a medicine for the people. Verily, in that is a sign for people who understand.

I wrote some about my project here and here; I’m now working on a couple of new projects, one dealing with constructions and uses of the ideology/doctrine of futuwwa– literally, ‘youngmanliness,’ sometimes translated as ‘Islamic chivalry,’ a probably inapt term from what I know so far of futuwwa. My other project deals with mostly tenth and eleventh century Sufi approaches and embodiments of the doctrine/practice of tawakkul– also a difficult term to translate into English! It literally means ‘trust,’ but it conveys a very absolute trust in God, which can entail a sort of quietism and almost Dao or Zen-like avoidance of doing and being, in some ways.

Anyway, I realized that I have a great deal of translated material left over from last term, and some of it is really fun stuff (though, granted, I’ve an odd idea of fun I suppose). Some of it is in a more polished, presentable form than other passages. The one below, by Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (b. 543/1149, d. 606/1210) on part of the first verse in this passage, is definitely one of the more accessible for those not accustomed to the rather esoteric genre of tafsir, and was much easier to translate into a comprehensible form in English. Plus, al-Razi’s idea of how to do scripture exegesis is pretty entertaining- he pulls in material from all over the place, including, for this passage, long discussions of human and animal anatomy, which draw upon the conventions of good Galenic, Hellenistic medical theory and description. Al-Razi was obviously conversant in the science of his day, and draws upon in explicating the Qur’an- a process which also ties science into the Islamic scriptures, legitimizing both in a fashion. In so doing, he does come into conflict with previous exegetes- their description of the relation of the stomach-contents, blood, and milk in the stomach does not stand up to the test of science, so it has to be replaced something than does not contradict investigative observation (by which al-Razi likely has in mind the established Galenic tradition more than anything).

Besides helping to explain the verse- which task, one might argue, could have been done with rather less ink spilled!- al-Razi also induces in the reader a Qur’anically-keyed but scientifically developed appreciation for the wonders of God’s creative power and providence. Plus, I suspect, al-Razi enjoys these things and enjoys showing off his knowledge of them- a small vice, perhaps, but if so, one I and probably most of you, dear readers, are guilty of… Al-Razi concludes the passage with an interesting analogy between God’s creative transformation of food into blood into milk, and His creative transformation of the dead on the Day of Resurrection. This question of how the dead are raised is of course a very old question, going all the way back to St. Paul and his querying Corinthians. It becomes all the more pertinent for Muslims- and Christians and Jews- with the reception and valorization of Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, which tended to cause difficulties for the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Al-Razi is aware of these problems, having been educated in philosophy and kalam (dialectical theology is one way to translate this term); his linking of scientific description and philosophical problems with bodily resurrection is, I think, quite clever. All in all, I found this a charming passage, and very revealing of how a well-educated, albeit pretty exceptional, thirteenth century Muslim could imagine both the physical world of creation and its intersection with the textual world of the Qur’an.


… [W]e say: The commentators say: the intention of His words: from between stomach-contents (farth) and blood: is that these three are produced in one place, the stomach-contents at the bottom of the stomach, the blood in the top, and the milk in the middle; we have indicated about that saying in regards to the difference of perception and investigative trial, because the blood, if it were produced in the top of the stomach (and in the ruminating-stomach [as well]) then it is necessary that whenever one vomits one would vomit blood- and that is certainly false! As for us, we say: The intended meaning in this verse is that milk is produced from a portion of the blood, and the blood is produced from a portion of the subtle stuff in the stomach-contents, which is the eaten stuff operative in the ruminating-stomach, and this milk is begotten from the portions which are produced in what is between the stomach-contents first, then produced from what is between the blood second, and God has clarified these thick, fatty portions, and created in them the attributes which are in view of becoming milk, beneficial for the body of the child, and this is what we have brought about on this matter, and God knows best.

The fourth issue: Know that the happening of milk in the breast and its attribution with attributes which are, in consideration of it, befitting for the nourishment of the child, consisting of wondrous wisdom and marvelous secrets, the soundness of the intellect seeing that it does not occur except by the direction of the Wise Doer, the Merciful Director, and He makes it clear in certain aspects:

First: that God created in the bottom of the stomach a ‘deliverer’ [so the literal meaning- I suppose this is some valve that I ought to recall from my undergraduate freshman year anatomy class but don’t…] from which departs the heavy stuff of food. When the person takes food or thin drink which is suitable to that ‘deliverer’ there does not depart from it a thing from that food and drink, so that its digestion is completed in the stomach, and it attracts what is made limpid in it to the liver, and the heavy stuff remains here. Then that ‘deliverer’ opens and expels the heavy stuff, and this is among the wonders which are not possible except by the direction of the Wise Doer, because whenever there is need of the retention of food in the stomach there is an occurrence which suits that ‘deliverer,’ and when the need to eject that matter from the body arises, it opens, and the happening of the application is one time, and the voiding another, by the reckoning of need, and the regulation of the ‘deliverer,’ from what does not arise except by the direction of the Wise Doer.

The second: That God placed in the liver a power [qūwat] which attracts the subtle portions occurring in that food or drink, and which does not attract the condensed portions, and He created in the bowel a power which attracts those condensed portions which are heavy, and which absolutely never attracts the subtle portions. And if the occasion on the contrary was for the differentiating of the wellbeing of the body then the order of the arrangement would be corrupt.

The third: that God placed in the liver a digestive power, so that these subtle portions would digest in the liver and turn into blood, then He placed in the gallbladder an attractive power towards yellow bile, and in the spleen an attractive power towards black bile, and in the kidney an attractive power for the increase of water, so that the blood remains limpid, befitting for the nourishment of the body. And He specified each one from among these members with that power and special quality, impossible but for the direction (tadbīr) of the Wise, the Knowing.

The fourth: that in the time in which the fetus is in the womb of the mother, there is directed from that blood a plentiful portion to [the womb], until raw matter becomes through growth members of that child and he increases in size, and when the fetus separates from the womb of the mother that portion is directed to the flank of the breast for the production of milk from it which is nourishment for the child. And when the child grows larger that portion is no longer directed to either the womb or to the breast; on the contrary, it is directed generally into the body of nourishment, and that blood flows, at all times, into other members beneficently for wellbeing- and the wisdom [of this] is not attributable except to the direction of the Free, the Wise Doer.

And the fifth: That at the production of milk in the teat, God has caused to occur in the nipple of the teat a slight keenness and a narrow pore, and for what is this pore is very narrow? For when there does not exit from it except what has the goal of purity and subtlety, and as for the condensed portions, it is not possible that they exit from this narrow regulator, so they remain inside, and the purpose in the occurrence of this slight keenness, and the narrow regulator in the head of the nipple of the breast is that, like [in the operation of] the strainer, everything that is subtle leaves, and everything that is thick remains inside and does not exit, and by this means the milk becomes pure, befitting for the body of the child, ‘palatable for the drinkers.’

The sixth: that God inspired the child to suckle; then verily the mother, whenever she feeds, bit by bit, the nipple of the breast in the mouth of the child, that child is in the state he takes in suckling, and if the Merciful, Free Doer did not inspire that small child that special state, then the sating of thirst would not occur by the production of that milk in the breast.

The seventh: we have made clear that God, however, created the milk from the remnant of the blood, and He created blood from the nourishment which the animal receives. The sheep, when it takes herbage and water, God creates blood from the subtle stuff of those portions, then He creates milk from some of the portions of that blood, then verily milk occurs in three states regarding differing natures: what is in it of oil is hot and wet, and what is in it of water is cold and wet, and what is in it of cheesiness is cold and dry, and these natures are what are potential in the herbage which the sheep eats. It is evident from this that these bodies do not cease transforming from attribute to attribute, from state to state, with some of them being incongruous with others, and some of them not resembling others, and in this you see that these states occur through the direction of a wise, merciful Doer who regulates the state of the world with regard to the suitable beneficence of the servants. So glory to Him who witnesses all of the minute particles of the world high and low in the perfection of His power and the ends of His wisdom and mercy, to Him is creating and command, God, the Blessed, Lord of the worlds!

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Mafatih al-Ghayb (al-Tafsir al-Kabir)

Bees, the Power of Music, and Other Wonders

I decided- yesterday, in fact- to add to my term paper on Qur’an tafsir material from Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s (543/1149- 606/1210) massive Qur’an commentary, Mafatih al-Ghayb– Key to the Unknown, also known as al-Tafsir al-Kabir, the Great Tafsir. The later appellate is especially apt- al-Razi’s commentary is not only huge, stretching to some thirty printed volumes in one edition, but is also both wide and deep in subject matter. For the limited little bit that I am covering for my paper- verses 66-69 of Surah al-Nahl– al-Razi has a regular field day talking about the wonders of animal physiognomy and the marvels of bees. While he touches on grammatical issues, the bulk of his commentary is taken up with descriptions of digestion, blood and milk production and transportation within the body, the details of beehive construction, and where honey comes from (which, for al-Razi, is an odd mix of traditional Aristotelian speculation on ‘honeydew’ and the, as it has turned out, more accurate Qur’anic idea of honey as bee secretion). Among the wonders of the bees that al-Razi includes is one ‘wonder’ that no other commentator I have examined includes, and is a practice I have in fact never encountered anywhere else. Here is the relevant passage, first in Arabic, then in my translation:

والرابع: أنها إذا نفرت من وكرها ذهبت مع الجمعية إلى موضع آخر، فإذا أرادوا عودها إلى وكرها ضربوا الطنبور والملاهي وآلات الموسيقى وبواسطة تلك الألحان يقدرون على ردها إلى وكرها، وهذا أيضاً حالة عجيبة

‘And the fourth [wonder]: That whenever they flee from their nest and go as a group to another place, and they [the beekeepers] desire their return to their nest, they play the tanbur, music-makers, and [other] instruments of music, and in the midst of these tunes [the beekeepers] are able to return them to their nest- and this also is a wonderful case!’

Well. What appears to be going on here is a dislocated swarm, and beekeepers who wish to return the errant swarm to their nest. Such a situation in itself is not unusual, but the means our Khurisani (presumably) beekeepers employ is one I am not familiar with. It would seem that the music al-Razi describes is meant to make the bees sedate and thus manageable, similar to the use of smoke to calm bees. But beyond this brief passage, I have so far been unable to find any other examples of music being used in bee-management (I suppose that’s the right word), in any part of the world.

If you, dear reader, happen to have knowledge of a similar case, either in ‘folklore’ or Classical science or mythology or whatever, or in actual practice, please share. Besides the fact that this is a fascinating little anecdote, I am interested in uncovering al-Razi’s sources for his tafsir– is this something he has himself observed or otherwise heard about, or is it something one might find in a written source, perhaps even a translation from the Hellenistic world? God knows best…

* N.B.: My use of al-Razi, whose commentary is not available in my university’s library, has been made possible by the truly wonderful website, which has a massive collection of classical tafsir online, free and easily accesible. Most are in Arabic, but there are also a few English translations. For the struggling graduate student, this is a particularly welcome resource- tafsir are usually expensive and bulky; though, nothing awes vistors to your office like an enormous Arabic tome opened on your desk…

Milk, Blood, and Devotion

Pardon the paucity of posting- it goes without saying that I’m keeping busy here at the mid-point of the semester, though that’s not really a good excuse for not writing, since I manage to find time to waste on less productive things on-line…

One of my projects that’s keeping me busy involves looking at various Qur’anic tafsir– commentaries- on verses 67-69 from Surah al-Nahl, the Surah of the Bee. The verses in question deal with, among other things, the eponymous bee, which brings up a surprising range of questions for the various commentators I’ve looked at so far. The most exhaustively covered aspect regarding the bees seems to be a phrase that describes honey as a medicine for people (or at least the commentators all suppose that honey is what’s being referred to- like much of the Qur’an, there is a great deal left unsaid. Qur’anic commentators were exploiting the silences in the text long before it was cool to do things like that…). Before the bit about the bee, however, there is a description of milk and where it comes from: ‘Truly, you have in grazing beasts a sign- we give you to drink from their bellies what is between blood and stomach-contents (farth, a rather difficult word to convey into English): milk pure, palatable for drinkers.’

This gives rise to all sorts of questions for commentators, who tackle their material in a surprisingly wide-ranging manner. This is one of the things that has struck me in learning to read tafsir: that while there is indeed a remarkable continuity and stability in these writings, there is also great diversity, especially in how the material is arranged, and what sorts of ‘standard’ questions the author picks, and even more importantly, what he chooses to say about those questions. The following is a nice example of some of the issues one finds in tafsir, and how they might matter in working out what all these authors are doing with the text of the Qur’an, its interpretative tradition, and its devotional use:

‘The second question/disputed matter: God pointed out the greatness of His power in the pure issuing out of milk from between the stomach-contents and the blood, from between the red of the blood and the filthiness of the stomach-contents (al-farth). And though the two had been joined together in one receptacle, when you look to its colour you find it white, plainly pure from the filth of its neighbor. And when you drink it, you find it palatable (sā’igan), against the disgustingness of the stomach-contents- meaning, then, [milk’s] deliciousness. And some say sā’igan to mean no one chokes on it, and truly it has this attribute. However, the notation [above] still holds regarding the deliciousness and pleasantness of the taste, [as opposed to] the odiousness of the neighbor from which it is separated while in the stomach, that is, the disgusting stomach-contents.

‘This is a power that is impossible except to the Regulator of all things for [their] benefit.’

Ibn ‘Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an, 1145.

This brief excerpt comes from an eleventh to twelfth century commentator, Ibn ‘Arabi of Seville (not that Ibn ‘Arabi from al-Andalus, but a different, far less well-known, and much easier to read and decipher Ibn ‘Arabi), in his Ahkam al-Qur’an, which is a selective tafsir: he only deals with ayah that, ostensibly, have a legal importance.

But as you might have noticed, there’s not really any legal matters at play here. This excerpt follows a long grammatical excursion, and is followed by a legal/hermeneutical question. While I’ve just started this particular tafsir, I would suggest that we see in this small example that even a seemingly narrowly focused work is not in fact so narrow. Nor, I might suggest, should we understand legal matters in general as being carefully divided off from things we might rather label ‘devotional.’ Rather, things seemingly as mundane as legal matters and grammar and vocabulary explanation can provide opportunities for expanding the text’s devotional and contemplative possibilities. Here, Ibn ‘Arabi is dealing with a question of word meaning: the proper connotation of sā’igan. Ibn ‘Arabi resolves it by offering two possibilities, and indicating which he thinks is preferable. Like any grammatical explanation, the commentator is here guiding the reader into a new understanding of the text, creating a new text. But why? Obviously one of the primary reasons one employs a tafsir is to simply understand the often eliptical and opaque words of the Qur’an- otherwise, one ends up confused in many places. The text calls out for an interpreter, if only on the grammatical and syntactic level. How a given commentator reshapes the text depends on all sorts of factors- what elements he chooses to emphasize, which authorities he draws upon, even how he organizes his material. Each commentator arrives at a somewhat different text, a text that can, from then on, be experienced through the lens he has created for us.

Among the concerns of commentators, and the one I want to focus on here, is that of guiding the reader into the ‘devotional’ meaning of the text, a meaning that will guide him as he reads the Qur’an for himself, whether in a contemplative setting or in a public-liturgical one or as part of further study. As al-Ghazali argues in Volume 1, Book 8 of the Ihya, proper recitation of the Qur’an- recitation that becomes ‘present’ (hudur) to the heart- depends upon a good understanding of the text itself. This involves, obviously, understanding grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, but I would suggest that it also involves being guided into the ‘worshipful’ junctures of the Qur’an, some of which may not be immediately obvious. In the case of the passage above, the text itself indicates that the giving of milk is a ‘sign,’ an ‘indication,’ (‘ibratan); in this case, Ibn ‘Arabi points out again what has already been ‘pointed out’ (nabah) in the text. If the reader missed the significance, the commentator reiterates and expands it, and directs him to the proper response: wonder and praise over the power of God.

The vocabulary question, then, becomes a textual fissure from which Ibn ‘Arabi can direct the reader, not simply to a better understanding of a given word, but to a better understanding of the power of God in the natural world. By unpacking the text, he deepens the reader’s awe and reverence associated with this single ayah, which the reader can then retain when he comes back to this ayah in any other context. It also has the function, I think, of not only explicating the potentially hairy syntax of the Qur’an, but also of more closely linking the textual ‘sign’ to the physically perceived world of cows and milk. By emphasizing the process of milk-production, the commentator can perhaps guide his reader to recollection of the ‘sign’ even when the reader is outside of the text itself- say, drinking milk or seeing a cow. Either within or outside the text, the intent, I think, is to evoke in the reader worship, devotion towards the Creator. While textual explication on a very straightforward level is important, obviously, it is not necessarily the only or even primary concern.

This is also true, I think, for both Eastern and Western Christian commentators: even the long lines of often times dry grammatical explanation ultimately direct back to a devotional- for lack of a better word- use of the scriptures. This is in fact a rather important point that cannot be stressed too often: for medieval users of scripture- Christian, Jewish, Muslim- the text is not simply an artefact to be examined. It is always the words of God speaking and offering a means to approach the Divine. Text does not exist for text’s sake; even the driest of commentators (and trust me, they can be terribly dull, across confessional lines…) is working towards a deeper and more knowledgable experience and understanding of God through his exegesis. Even in, say, the ‘Antiochian’ tradition of exegesis, there is a very marked difference between the ‘historio-critical’ and what a late antique or medieval exegete is doing, though the external forms may on first glance appear similar.

Lost in Translation

An author I’d not heard of and whose write-up in the Guardian does little to impress me (cock-tails! handsome! witty! with-it! Great Novel of Our Time!) interjects in the write-up his opinion (almost admittedly un-informed) on the Qur’an, Islam, and Muslims of the present day and the past. Mr Faulks- the author in question- is rebutted by Ziauddin Sardar, who does a decent job. However, as the comments section to Mr Sardar’s article reveals in greater, and quite distressing, depth, the problem lies not merely in Mr Faulks’s ignorance of the Qur’an and Islamic history (though anyone who is unable to find an ethical message in the Qur’an has some reading comprehension problems, frankly), or in the ignorance of the aforementioned commentators. Some of them do seem to have a greater grasp of both the Qur’an and Islamic history, but still miss the point, not only of the Qur’an, but of all sacred scripture. But they all miss the point of scripture in, not only the tradition of Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism. Scripture does not exist in a vacuum, not even in the practice of Protestant traditions whose official doctrines might suggest as much. Scripture only exists, only signifies, within the shared practice of a community. Scriptures comes to signify only within the community, within the tradition of shared life, practice, ritual, whatever you wish to call the complex- religious life is too weak, becaue it entails a division between times, when the scriptures of the Peoples of the Books permeate all of life, all of imagination and activity, though especially what we label specifically “religious” ones.

The befuddlement of Mr Faulks and the like-minded commentators- and many non-religious or vehemently anti-religious people in the modern West- is like the befuddlement of someone faced with a deeply foreign language. Unable to understand the language, they conclude that it must be nonsense, lacking in art, lacking in real meaning- dry and arid, to use Mr Faulks description.

It’s not a new reaction (what is really new?). St. Augustine tells us that when he first started reading the Bible, he didn’t like it too much. Compared to the classics of Greece and Rome, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was vulgar and dull by turns, and just didn’t do it for St. Augustine, at first anyway. His reaction wasn’t original, either- there were plenty of people in the world of ancient Christianity who felt the same way. But St. Augustine, obviously, would over time come to not only understand and participate in the language of the Bible, but it would permeate him, grip his imagination, serve as the constantly recurring seed blossoming into new interpretations and permutations. It took time- his early work as a Christian shows signs that his grasp of the language of Scripture was young and not deeply set. For in order to enter into the language, the rhythm of scripture, one must enter into the lived participation of it.

The contours of this lived participation vary within the traditions of the Peoples of the Books, but I increasingly find that they mirror each other considerably. Not, I suspect, primarily through borrowings and direct influences, but rather through a shared sense of commitment to a given text (or rather, canonical assembly of texts) that is spoken and interpreted and embedded in the life of a self-aware community. To illustrate, let me offer some very inadequately fleshed-out examples from the scriptural traditions I am most familiar with. As a disclaimer, my knowledge of Orthodox Christianity comes from both the lived (and still quite fresh and in some ways novel, in some ways quite familiar) experience and my more academic studies. My commentary on Islam does not have the lived participation, obviously, but, I think, is informed by my experience in the scriptural tradition and experience of Christianity.

To begin with, in Orthodox Christianity, the Divine Liturgy is the central location of the Bible; its phrases, words, chapters and verses permeate the Liturgy (and every other service), which the worshiper hears and speaks day after day after day, and, even if she does not practice much attentiveness, the language of the Liturgy works into her imagination, her practices, becomes a language, a way of life. From the shared experience of scripture in Liturgy, the Church draws upon the commentaries (both explicit and implicit) of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, who, even when they are not writing what we would identify as commentary proper, write and think in a language that is built from scripture. The words and lives of the Church’s saints, in turn, fold back into her liturgical life and experience of the scriptures; no part can really be divided off from another. The words of the Fathers and Mothers are organically fused, impregnated, with scripture, the well of all knowledge as St. Isaac says of the Bible. The knowledge of scripture that they seek and that they live is not a mere knowledge of grammar and syntax, historical context and critical apparatus (even if those things are not ignored), but a living knowledge, the knowledge of the heart, so that the text comes to shape them, to direct their desires and thoughts and actions. And in all of these permutations of scripture, the person of Christ is woven through and through: the Church speaks Christ through scripture, and speaks scripture through Christ. Hence the importance of encountering scripture in the Divine Liturgy, in the embracing enclosure of the Eucharist- scripture itself is gathered into Christ and out of Him, as it were, truly begins to signify, to live. Outside of Christ, outside of the Church and her life, the Bible is a confused jumble of texts; “for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” The letter does not cease, but is transformed.

In Islam, scripture is the central axis of all practice; the Qur’an is understood as the actual, living words of God. Yet, even as the Qur’an stands in Islam as the direct mediation of God’s language, it does not exist in a vacuum either. In fact, the content and form of the Qur’an even more than the Bible demands an ummah, a community to receive it and understand it. As various Western critics have rightly noted, the Qur’an does not explain itself; with the exception of Surah 12, the story of Joseph, there are no fully developed narratives. The text often jumps rather abruptly from one point to another, without any seeming interlude or reason. (Incidentally, when modern writers do this, we are expected to hail them as brilliant and unbound by convention, but that’s another tale…) But it is this very form that entails its embedded nature in the Muslim community: in the first place, the Qur’an becomes, from the very beginning, the language of the Islamic ummah, obviously within the formal salaat, and within the practice of recitation. Qara’a, the root of al-Qur’an, includes, among its valences, the meaning ‘to recite,’ and this is of course how the early Qur’anic recensions were preserved, and continued to be experienced, up to the present. Qur’anic recitation- in the various possible forms and manners of reciting- are crucial to the assimilation of the text into the worshipers heart and mind. The goal, al-Ghazali tells us in the Ihya, is to so attune oneself to the text that as one recites, at the sound of the threats of God against sin, one becomes as a dead man, and at the sound of God’s promises and mercy, one soars aloft like a bird. The text is ‘unbound’ through its penetration of the heart and its permutation of one’s very language. The dis-junctures of the text keep one in motion, alert; the repetitiveness helps to inscribe it and make it present.

Further, the text comes to exist in the Islamic ummah through the work of the commentators, whose tafsir- interpretation, commentary is a decent enough translation- ‘flesh out’ the semi-narratives of the Qur’an and seek to solve its syntactical and lexical difficulties, and to correlate its often cryptic allusions and references to the sunnah of Muhammad. In so doing, they situate the text of the Qur’an within the life of Muhammad and more broadly the life of the ummah. The tafsir tradition, in its general stability, provides a consistent framework for the wider community to receive the Qur’an and assimilate and understand it- both on an ‘exterior’ (zahir) level, and, increasingly as Islam develops, the ‘interior’ (batin) level. With its situation in a fairly stable commentary tradition the text can be opened up to multiple meanings (such as the Sufi emphasis upon personal movement from maqam to maqam in the apprehension of the Qur’an) while still remaining an integrally whole text. Out of the whole complex of the Qur’an’s situation in Islamic life- and I have just touched on two aspects- it becomes the language of the community, not simply a rule-book (the Qur’an is in fact rather short on that sort of thing) or a reference guide, but a site of prayer, of self-knowledge and self-formation under the text.

All of this is to say that Mr Faulks, and a great many other people in the modern world, fail to grasp the scriptures of the Peoples of the Books because they do not grasp their function, and they do not even seek to enter into the scriptural ‘world’ of these communities. Their approach to a scriptural text is like their approach to any other text- it is an object to be dissected and laid out to dry and then pronounced upon. If upon doing so they find only a rather uninteresting or even disgusting corpse, it should come as little surprise.

Al-Ghazali on Funerals

As I was reading today the last section of al-Ghazali’s Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (The Revivification of the Religious Sciences)- Book XL, Kitab Dhikr al-Mawt wa-ma Ba’dahu (The Remembrance of Death and What is After It), I was struck by how apropros the following two passages seemed in light of the past couple weeks’ spate of well-publicized deaths and funerals:

1. ‘Know that funerals are a lesson to the man possessed of insight, and a reminder and a counsel to all save the people of heedlessness. For these latter are increased only in hardness of heart by witnessing them, as they imagine that for all time they will be watching the funerals of others, and never reckon that they themselves must needs be carried in a funeral cortege. Even if they do so reckon, they do not deem this to be something near at hand. They do not consider that those who are carried now in funeral processions thought likewise. Vain, then, are their imaginings, and soon their allotted lifespans will be done.

‘Therefore let no bondsman watch a funeral without considering that he himself is the one being borne aloft, for so he will be before long: on the morrow, or on the day that follows: it is as if the event had already occurred.’

2. ‘The properties of attending funerals include meditation, heedfulness, preparedness, and walking before the pall in humility… One of these proprieties is to have a good opinion of the deceased even if one he had been corrupt, and to have a poor opinion of oneself even if one may outwardly be pious. This is because the last moment is a perilous thing the true nature of which is unknown.

‘It is told of ‘Umar ibn Dharr that one of his neighbours once died. He had been extravagant with himself, and for this reason many people refused to attend his funeral. However, Ibn Dharr attended it and took part in the prayers. When he [the neighbour] had been lowered into the grave he [Ibn Dharr] stood beside it and said, “May God show you mercy, O father of So-and-so! For throughout your life you kept with you the testimony to Divine Unity, and begrimed your face with prostration. Although they called you a sinner and a transgressor, which one of us is not a sinner and has no transgressions to his account?”‘

Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, in The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife (Islamic Texts Society, 1989), 97, 98.

A Kind of Hurt in His Spirit

Song of Solomon 5.6: I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word.*

‘See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of his knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that knowledge which I had received when I opened.

‘For that reason she says, my Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen that He at once withdrew, swift as the lightening. And my soul went out with his word; that is, “having obtained a small glimmering of his words my soul left me and pursed His words.” To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had attained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

‘I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: “Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain.” By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person who yearns after the meaning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.’

St. Gregory of Narek, Commentary on Solomon’s Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007)

* Note: you will notice even from this excerpt that St. Gregory’s text is somewhat different from either the Septuagint or Masoretic recensions; in lieu of ‘beloved’ this Armenian recension has ‘nephew,’ among other differences.

Nothing But You Have I

ردوا علينا ليالينا التي سلفت و امحوا الذي قد جرا منا

Return to us the nights that have been lost to us,
And erase, by Your favour, that which has been issued from us.

فكم زللنا و انتم تصفحوا كرمآ و كم اسانا و نزجو حسب عفوكم

How much we have sinned, yet out of generosity You forgive!
How much we have erred, yet we still hope for Your good pardon!

ما لي سواكم و انتم حزني و قد جهلت و ما لي غير ستركم

Nothing but You have I- You are the recourse of my sorrow,
I have been ignorant, and possess nothing but Your indulgence.

لو كان الف لسان لي يبش بها شكرآ لم يقم يومآ بشكركم

Were to have a thousand tongues with which to express
Thanks to You, I would not stop thanking You for a single day.

Abu Madyan, Qasida in Mim

Comparative Spaces, Sounds: Frogs, at Fes and at Seven Islands


The road here passes alongside the big green liminal space that lies between Fes al-Bali- the oldest part of the Old Medina- and Fes al-Jedid, the rather newer (fourteenth century) construction that once housed the Sultan and Fes’ Jewish community. Today the King still has a residence but all that remains of the Jewish community are a couple synagogues and the white-washed cemetery.

The region between the two halves of the city is mostly covered in green space, with the old water channels- the restructured pieces of the streams that made Fes a desirable city in the beginning. Now they are home to at least a few frogs, who start to show up as spring evenings warm and lean towards summer. I passed through one evening as the crowds along the avenue were thinning out and the frogs starting up, down in the warm, mucky green water of the canals, fresh and vigorous against the late medieval bulwarks behind. I thought- here, at the edge of the desert (the dust was already starting to intrude, coming in through the open window of my bedroom, and the shopkeepers beginning their war upon dust in the streets), under the weight of the centuries of the city, are frogs, singing, as they have no doubt been singing under these walls for centuries, as the mulberries come into leaf. Kids run by, one chasing a ball (maybe they are the same kids I would see climbing the mulberries gathering fruit and leaves?); a single car mumbles by, the crowd moves along, laughing, calling, the snatches of Maghrebi Arabic ring in my ears. Frogs, children, the vigorous clip-clip of Maghrebi, spring over all- life, wonder, the ancient, the eternal, what I know, and what I can only listen to, and feel.

Frogs, near Fes al-Jedid. Spring, 2008.




A few weeks ago the weather briefly- it’s now turned back cold- warmed, the sun came out, and the weeks of bitter cold passed into memory. It was warm enough that, for a few days at least, the frogs came out along the banks of the French Broad River at the Seven Islands Refuge, a Knox County park east of town. I was coming down the big limestone ridge towards the river when I heard the frogs singing, filling up the still wintry looking woods and fields. I scrambled down to the edge of the little flood-water pond, its quiet waters having swallowed up part of the trail and the clumps of weeds and brush. This also is a sort of liminal space, stuck between the wooded ridge behind and the river banks beyond, the pond precarious and temporary, the frogs unexpected- frogs in February? Where did they come from- I suppose frogs hide in the mud during the cold- what woke them?

The frogs seemed to be spread out in a line up and down the little pond, rising and falling in their song. I squatted beside the water and listened, closed my eyes, breathed the spring, the return to life, the womb of water and the song, all things bright and beautiful and alive.

Frogs, Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. February 2009.