February 2010


When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

George Herbert, “The Pulley”

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You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.

St. Augustine, The Confessions

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Another singular little story from the Kitab al-Futuwwa of the thirteenth century Sufi al-Ardabili; this one is one of the odder stories I’ve come across, and that’s probably saying something. I think the moral is that, first, delicacies are bad for spiritual health, as the immediate context is warnings (through rather more clear stories) against indulging in ‘soft’ living. However, I suspect that the story could also be a parable about the transitory nature of this-world (al-dunya). Maybe.

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Abu ‘Abdallah al-Rudhabari said: Abu Ali bought a load of white sugar, and called a group of confectionists, and they made from that sugar a wall out of sweets, and upon it were balconies, and in the wall were mihrabs [carved] in columns and with variegation of colour- all of it from sugar! Then he called to the Sufis so that they might raze it, smash it, and pillage it.

al-Ardabili

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Sweetmeat sellers in the street alongside Qarawiyyin Mosque, Fes, Morocco. The brightly coloured sweets you see here are the sort I imagine (though don’t know, not being up to speed on thirteenth century candy-making….) composing the wall in the story- if so, they were pretty tought to tear down, as these things are quite a task to eat!

As part of one of my classes- History of the Spanish Conquest– the professor is having us respond to each week’s reading on a blog. I personally enjoy this approach; it certainly beats having to write formulaic book reviews, which I’ve never particularly enjoyed. This format allows more freedom of form and content, and presents a platform for working out thoughts and ideas in a ‘semi-formal’ that I’ve long found useful for working towards more polished ideas and projects. Anyway, if you would like to read my musings on the Spanish Conquest of Central America (no Peru, unfortunately- time and size constraints), they are here: The Conquest, Considered. Latin American history is a fair distance (though not too terribly far) from my usual stomping-grounds of Islamic and Eastern Christian medieval matters, but I enjoy the topic, and so far the readings have been interesting and profitable, if long (this week’s was a monster of nineteenth century work). My posts don’t provide a lot of context, so some are probably going to be fairly worthless outside of the class’ setting. Some, however, I think might be interesting, including this week’s, which, if nothing else, has some lovely examples of nineteenth-century geographical determinism.

These short texts are excerpts from two medieval Sufi texts, one by the important formative-period Sufi author and biographer al-Sulami; the other by an early-thirteenth century, and rather less known, Sufi writer named al-Ardabili. The poetry by al-Shibli is from al-Sulami’s biography (in his Tabaqat al-Sufiyya) of that early Sufi master; the second is from a brief work of al-Ardabili’s titled Kitab al-Futuwwa, the Book of Futuwwa (virtuous youngmanliness is one possible translation of this rather amorphous complex of values and practices). The second text especially struck me as an illuminating and succinct example of early Sufi ‘allegorical’ (or perhaps more aptly, ‘typological’) use of scripture.

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Today I forget my prayers because of my impassioned love-
I do not know my morning from my evening-
Remembrance of You, my Lord, is my food, my drink,
And Your face, if I see, is the cure of my disease.

– al-Shibli

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Ja’afar bin Nasīr al-Khladi said: The virtuous young man (al-fatā) is he who slays the enemy of the Beloved, for the sake of the Beloved, and on account of this He spoke of Ibrahim- upon him be peace- when he turned the idols into tiny pieces (ja’ala al-asnām jadhādhan) and broke them. They said: ‘We heard a young man (fatā) called Ibrahim mention them.’ (Q. 21.60) And the idol of every one is his nafs [the lower, passionate ‘self’] and his passions, and when he smashes his nafs and is at enmity with his passions, he is worthy of the name of futuwwa.

Al-Hārith al-Muhāsbī said: Futuwwa is that one acts justly yet does not demand justice [for himself], and expends freely yet does not take.

– al-Ardabili

First, the music: if you’ve never heard of Lee Bozeman, well now you have, and you ought to go and listen to his work, all of which you will find linked to on his blog. His project from a few years back All Things Bright and Beautiful is one of the loveliest, lushest art-rock/post-rock albums to have come down the pike in a while. Besides being beautiful to listen to, Bozeman is a skillful lyricist, weaving the malaise of contemporary society, reflections from Western Christian thought and Orthodox theology and liturgy (Bozeman is currently attending St. Vladimir’s). It’s not a combination you get everyday in any genre of music, to be sure.

Next, two films, neither of which are especially recent, but I only lately got a chance to see them. First, Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film Offside works through a very straight-forward storyline: several Tehrani girls want to watch the World Cup qualifier game but are barred from the stadium by Iranian law. Their attempts to sneak in and blend into the all-male crowd fail, and they are placed in an impromptu holding pen just out of sight of the game. The rest of the film focuses a tight lens on their interactions with their guards. There is a lot of potential for straight-up propaganda here, and the film does engage in some rather obvious castigation of the quite ridiculous law and the young soldiers’ participation in it. However, what saves the film is its willingness to humanize the soldiers, revealing them to be more or less unwilling agents, drafted and stuck and not wanting to get stuck deeper in. The film’s final scene takes place in a police van with the girls being driven to the Vice Squad headquarters, accompanied by two of the soldiers. The journey is interrupted by the joyful anarchy of the post-victory celebration, and the film ends on a decided high-note.

Also hailing from an Iranian director, Majid Majidi’s Baran is in many ways a quite different creature: it is on one level an extended allegory of the path of the Sufi aspirant to the Divine, and is suffused with imagery taken from Rumi and others. The plot revolves around a young Iranian, Lateef, who is presented, ‘pre-repentance,’ as a hot-headed, vindictive kid who deeply resents Rahmat, the young man (or so he initially thinks) who replaces his position as tea-wallah on a Tehran construction site. Upon discovering the young man’s secret- he’s no young man at all, but a girl disguised as such in order to support her family, Afghani refugees from that country’s endless conflicts. Upon the discovery- the initial ‘tasting’ of the divine in the allegory- Lateef is transformed, and the rest of the film is devoted to his devotion to the Beloved, whom he does not truly ‘draw near’ to until the end of the film, and then only briefly. In between, Majidi paints a beautiful picture of the aspirant’s spiritual journey, concluding with Lateef’s losing of his identity for the sake of the Beloved (in this case, selling his precious ID card) and his transformation after the moment of fana’ in meeting the Beloved.

As you might have gathered, a prior knowledge of Sufi themes and practices (and, I ought to add, themes and practices also found in Shi’a Islam, whose relationship with Sufism is long and complicated), especially as revealed in Persian poetry, helps a lot in enjoying this movie. This is a philosophical, ‘mystical’ even film, and much of the pleasure of watching it comes from an awareness of the multiple layers of meaning and significance at work. That said, it is not as philosophically challenging as, say, an Abbas Kiarostami film. The story is straight-forward enough and can be appreciated on the external- zahir- level. Like Majidi’s other films, this one is visually beautiful, especially the scenes shot in the countryside around Tehran. There is also a political undertone- Afghan refugees and their struggle with immigration law (and anti-immigrant sentiments) is central to the film, and will strike American (or European or South African or Mexican or…) viewers as terribly familiar. While Majidi does not assault state power as head-on as Panahi, the critique is certainly still there, and quite effective. But at heart this is a film about something that transcends any particular political situation: the love of man for God, the love of one person for another, (the two having a way of mingling together and overlapping) love that both transforms and consumes, love that is not safe but all-consuming.

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.

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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.

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.

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… [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)