July 2009


I enjoy occasionally looking at the search terms that brought readers to my blog. Alas, I am afraid that some of them left without anything remotely connected to what they were looking for. Though, for some, I am not entirely sure what they were looking for: the search term string is a tiny trace of ephemera in this great web of ephemeral jottings, thin connections to someone’s intention, or half-formed intention and desire (hence the searching…).

From a couple days ago:

al ghazali 1
deer blind stencils for corn stalks 1
the andalucian islam 1
katrina place 1
ornamentalism 1
national underwear day 1
sefrou – a side trip

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Is there a National Underwear Day (if there is, Knoxville is surely the place to be for it, and presumably the reason my blog was pointed to)? Have the Proof of Islam and deer stands ever before been associated? Do the lands that the storm Katrina ravaged now cohere in a single ‘place’?

Two fragments from the cover of a notebook of mine. First, a short verse on the scholarly life, lifted from the epigraph of Makdisi’s Rise of Colleges:

ذكا و حرص و افتقار و غربة
و تلقين استذ و طول زمان

Intelligence, longing; poverty and a foreign land
A teacher’s instruction; the long stretch of time

Jawaini of Nishapur

And one that is, I think, from the Moroccan Sufi Abu Madyan; it’s scrawled on the cover of one of my notebooks without an ascription:

النفس عزت و لكن فيك ابذلها
و القتل مر ولكن في رضاك حلا

The self* is dear, yet I slay it in You
And being killed is bitter; but in Your pleasure, sweet

*(An-nafs conveys both the sense of ‘soul’ and of ‘self,’ anima and ego; in Sufi thought and practice, overcoming the ‘lower soul’ or self in the apprehension of God is a primary goal. The dying of the self is obviously a term deeply resonant in Christian practice; likewise, the studied ambiguity about one’s relation to the self/soul exists in both traditions. St. Augustine is, I suppose, the most marked exponent of this tension, in which there is a proper ‘self-love’ and an improper one, so that loving one’s self is, for St. Augustine, a necessity, yet only in so far as it is properly directed. Paradoxically, the highest love of self would be the abnegation of the self in a Christ-like self-humbling and self-offering to God. In a similar manner, Sufism seeks a self-destroying abnegation in God, yet one in which the self is still there- even for someone like al-Hallaj, the nafs remains even in the closest union with God. Still, it is always an ambiguous thing in Sufi texts, as the soul/self is consumed utterly while the author still maintains a self-existence (if not self-awareness) and distinction between Creator/creation.)

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.

Via Sepia Mutiny, the first ever recording of Indian Classical music, recorded in 1902 and performed by Gauhar Jaan, an Armenian Jew living in India (Armenians have been in India for centuries, often working as merchants along the coasts). Guahar Jaan was apparently quite the hot ticket in turn of the twentieth century India; more information and a further snippet of one of her recordings here.

Down a dark, narrow little side street in the Fes medina there is a tunnel, old solid cedar beams straddling overhead holding up whatever structure stands above- what exactly is not clear when coming down the street from Tella Kabira, the main drag through the medina. Upon emerging on the other side, if you look back and up, you can see one of the most remarkable little architectural gems in Morocco, in my opinion, the Ayn al-Khayl Mosque, which dates back at least to the time of the 12th-13th century Muslim mystic and esoteric philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi, and is presumably older than that. While I know of at least one other mosque in Fes that straddles a street- it’s way across the valley in the Andalusian quarter- this little mosque also stands out for its octagonal minaret (I only saw one other in the rest of Morocco), and the evocative flame-shaped moldings around the tiny windows that march up the minaret towards the sky. That, and it was in this mosque, its tiny prayer hall perched above the street, that Ibn ‘Arabi spent much of his time while sojourning in Fes, and where he experienced repeated mystical visions. It is also home, within its elevated courtyard, to a spring- the Ayn of the name- in which, it is said, a mysteriously large fish appeared one day, some thirty years ago. And while there’s no word of al-Khidr having shown up in the area, there is a wonderful vegetable and fruit market a couple blocks over.

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One of the most effective means of State control is the relentless production of required papers, permits, documents, and so on, from business licenses to drivers licenses to Social Security numbers. When a person has not met the vast number of government requirements the State has the “right” to harass and commit violence against that person. And since we are taught, virtually from birth on, that filling out papers and carrying our documents and meeting every jot and tittle of government regulations is not only necessary to avoid physical pain, but also morally good (how would society function without it?), we rarely question the value or justice of the endless regulations and documentation the State requires. The documentation regime- an integral part as well in the bureaucratic sense of totalizing control, in which every object under the State’s rule is documented and accounted for- is continually expanding, as the State seeks to extend its tentacles into every last aspect of life. And once established, one can hardly just decide to ignore it; in this both State and Capital are willing partners, as government documentation becomes necessary for transactions in the “private” sphere. Part of this, of course, is just the State’s desire to expropriate as much wealth as possible; hence anything that is “undocumented” is evil. Undocumented workers and undocumented transactions generate little or no revenue for the State and are hence evil. And when persons and entities ignore the documentation regime, they become less visible to the State and increasingly harder to control. Most importantly, when we ignore the documentation regime, when our lives are not tied into the control mechanisms and papers of the State and Capital, we begin to feel less a part of their systems, and begin to feel that our existence is not so directly tied to their existence. We begin to question, consciously or unconsciously, the legitimacy of an all-embracing State.

All of that is apropos of this article: Texas pastor protesting traffic stop arrested. The pastor and his congregation made several “mistakes” vis-a-vis the State. The accused driver lacked one of the many offical papers required for movement; as any centralized State knows, controlling and regulating human movement is absolutely vital to maintaining power. The church, apparently, also lacked proper papers, in this case an “occupancy license” required to hold services. Again, undocumented anythings are a danger to the State, even- perhaps especially- churches. Just ask the Chinese State- properly documented, “law-abiding” churches are not a threat; it is the congregations that refuse to be absorbed into the system that pose the true threat. Finally, the pastor made the mistake of a genuine protest: he was directly confronting the excercise of State power. Protest in the sense of marching on the Mall or something is no threat to the State; it serves in fact as a catharsis, an outlet for popular anger. Some governments, of course, savage all forms of protest, from petitioners to street marchers; other, arguably more savvy ones, integrate protest. But only within limits. This pastor overstepped those limits and met the consequences. For while governments, here and everywhere, largely rely upon the built-in acceptance and acquiesence to their policies, the threat of real physical violence is ultimately the source of power and authority. Papers or pepperspray, or worse.

One last point- the documentation regime is only part of the tendency, on both the part of governments and big capital, to reduce the person to a number, a aggregate of data, for purposes of control and marketing. Gabriel Marcel, the Catholic existentialist of the last century, wrote in several of his works about this tendency of the modern world to subsume all other aspects of human identity in offical information and data; the tendency continues and has arguably increased in the internet age, particularly for marketers. However, the internet also poses a challenge,since it is considerably harder to control, and is hence the cause of endless anxiety for governments from Washington to Beijing. At any rate, the documentation, person-reducing tendencies of State and Capital stand in stark relief to the iconic, “personalist” ideology of the Church. An icon, for example, is not a passport photo; it is not a reduction of the person into a mass of statistics and numbers. Hagiography is not, to the frustration of historians for the past couple of centuries, raw information, but is instead closer to a hymn or poem directed at the saint being honoured and held up as an example of transformed, Deified humanity. Even monastic life, which at first glance seems to be the most regulated aspect of Christian life, reveals a surprising latitute unallowable by modern governments, as abbots and spiritual directors mold their judgment and suggestions for each individual under their tutaleage. As the letters of two solitaries and spiritual directors from sixth century Gaza, Barsanuphius and John, reveal, the “rule” for one spiritual disciple may be entirely different from another, as one disciple is encouraged to fast more or pray a certain number of times, while another is directed in an entirely different manner. John and Barsanuphius, of course, are not relativists in any way; rather they recognize the differences between different people, different states (in Sufism a similar practice is embraced under the idea of differing maqam, stations of the spiritual life, that vary from one person to another).

Finally, the presence of Christ in the Church is in general disruptive to attempts by both State and Capital to exert their control; again, the most expansively totalitarian regimes of recent years understood this quite well and sought to control and co-opt the Faith as much as they could. Jesus does not carry papers; or rather, His “documentation” in the world ultimately moves in channels different from and ultimately uncontrollable by any temporal State. The central action of the Eucharist breaks into a world of data and person-control, as an undocumented Savior offers His Body and Blood for each person in His Body, food and drink “without cost,” in Isaiah’s borderless gathering of the peoples on the Mountain of God. From Baptism to Eucharist, Christ offers an identity rooted, not in regulations or marketing or fear or lust, but in a Living Savior Who unites each person with Himself and calls Him to theosis, to transformation in God. And surely anyone genuinely living the baptised life, inhabiting the world not of endless documents and statistics and advertising campaigns, is a far greater threat than any violent revolutionary or marching protestor.