Thursday, October 25, 2007

Joseph Campbell: functions of mythology - part 1

In a recent post titled poet or priest, prophet or clown, I revisited the concluding chapter of Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. I looked at Mohammad through the lens of Campbell's categories of mythological manifestations, characterizing him as a prophet with a clown shadow.

Since that post however, I have wanted to complete my task by looking at the other set of categories that Campbell identifies in his conclusion. These categories relate to the functions of mythologies, as discerned through "the long view of the history of mankind" that Campbell undertook in the first three volumes of his Masks of God. Others will surely see different functions or will see the same functions in different lights, but Campbell has laid them out in a neat and clear form accessible to the educated layperson. They are four in number:

1) "eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being"

2) "to render a cosmology"

3) "to support the current social order"

4) "to initiate the individual into the order of realities of his own psyche"

I want here to begin to look at Islam in light of these four functions with a view to assessing what lasting merit it may have for today, which aspects are worthy of being retained and which aspects must be shed. Muslims will do their own work on this but there is no law under heaven that says that I cannot make a start, albeit from the standpoint of a non-Muslim. It is, after all, work that I need to do so that I can "have my story straight", so to speak, when interacting with Muslims.

Here is a longer quote from Campbell relating to the first function:

Professor Rudolf Otto has termed this recognition of the numinous the characteristic mental state of all religions properly so called. It antecedes and defies definition. It is, on the primitive level, demonic dread; on the highest, mystical rapture; and between there are many grades. Defined, it may be talked about and taught; but talk and teaching cannot produce it. Nor can authority enforce it. Only the accident of experience and the sign symbols of a living myth can elicit and support it; but such signs cannot be invented. They are found. Whereupon they function of themselves. And those who find them are the sensitized, creative, living minds that once were known as seers, but now as poets and creative artists. More important, more effective for the future of a culture than its statesmen or its armies are these masters of the spiritual breath by which the clay of man wakes to life.

I actually find passages such as this one in Campbell's writings quite numinous in themselves. He writes of the numinous in a tone that evokes it. The passage may, however, have absolutely no numinous quality to a different reader. There is always an element of personal taste in this, just as there is in the equally mysterious - and clearly related - phenomenon of falling in love. We only truly respect God when we respect this personal peculiarity of the numinous.

For Muslims, the numinous is present in the Quran, in the person or the life of Muhammad, in the vast literature of the traditions or ahadith, as well as in the further elaborations of poetic expression and architecture. Where a Muslim tells me he finds the numinous in those places, I can but respect that. I believe that the vast consensus in the modern Western world is that Muslims are or should be quite free to find the numinous wherever that may be. However, "official" or mainstream Islam does not reciprocate. It consistently fails to understand that Jesus - as the Christ - is divine or numinous to Christians, and that a respect for His divinity is a fair exchange for a respect for divinity as the Muslim sees it. I have witnessed the occasional rare Muslim who does actually understand this but it is, I believe, a rarer thing in the Muslim world than in the modern post-Christian world.

While Islam might offer plentiful opportunities to Muslims for experiencing the numinous it has a bad record when it comes to respecting the different ways in which the numinous is evoked in other cultures and faith traditions. This intolerance is built into its core dogmas and the monotheistic aspect of it promotes this especially. This is a fault that lies with Christianity as well and is best exemplified by Jesus' saying: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." The modern post-Christian world has largely grown out of that intolerance while, sadly, the Muslim world seems to be becoming all the more entrenched.

The maverick Muslim, Stephen Schwartz, in a recent article on Moderate Islam and Its Muslim Enemies refers to and quotes from a work of a respected Sunni Muslim scholar known as Tahawi. According to Schwartz, this ancient document ("almost 1,100 years old") provides "a defining summation" of "the essential principles of mainstream Islam". Below is an opening excerpt from this opus [my emphasis]:

We say about Allah's unity, believing by Allah's help that:

1. Allah is One, without any partners.
2. There is nothing like Him.
3. There is nothing that can overwhelm Him.
4. There is no god other than Him.
5. He is the Eternal without a beginning and enduring without end.
6. He will never perish or come to an end.
7. Nothing happens except what He wills.
8. No imagination can conceive of Him and no understanding can comprehend Him.
9. He is different from any created being.
10. He is living and never dies and is eternally active and never sleeps.

Tahawi: Statement of Islamic Doctrine (Al-'Aqida al-Tahawiyya)

It is really only at point 8 that Tahawi firmly asserts the numinosity, the profound mystery and awe that surrounds what we call God. As soon as God is defined or delineated - whether as One, as Three, as Living, or Dead - then the awe and the mystery are diminished. A statement like "Allah is One, without any partners" is, in and of itself, an act of deicide, an act of killing God by limiting God's possibilities. It has been the great mystics, like Rumi and Hallaj and Hafiz, who have reaffirmed God's numinosity by reminding Muslims again and again of the truth of point 8 above.

However, point 1 - "God is One" - is a very very powerful idea that has always gripped humanity and been expressed in many and diverse ways, not simply in the way of Islam. As anyone with but a cursory knowledge of history knows, however, it is an idea that has produced more violence, chaos, confusion, rivers of blood and hateful divisions than has any other. This is because every numinous idea, every archetype, has an inbuilt shadow, a flipside of itself. The more we strive for unity, especially in a blind and forceful way, the more we produce its opposite, the more that things fall apart.

In the Christian world, this issue came to a head with the Reformation when the central unified authority of the Church was challenged. Protestantism eventually resulted in as many variants of Christianity as there are Christians. Still, though, the Pope exerts an enormous influence as a residual symbol of unity and centrality. Midnight mass at St Peter's cathedral remains a powerful focal moment for the Christian world, no matter even if one no longer "believes".

Islam seems to be struggling to find such a centre and this is expressed through the great longing for a renewed caliphate. Mecca works up to a point but it is a place and not a living person. If Islam were to achieve its own Reformation, I'm convinced it would take a reverse form to the Christian one. Instead of breaking up a central religious authority and placing power in the reading of the sacred text, Islam would need to break up the authority of that sacred text and seek authority from a new religious leader and a new religious institution, comparable to though not an exact mirror of the Papacy.

This seems to me, an outsider, to be somewhat akin to a US Presidential race. I hear the different Muslim voices, from this or that school, from this or that geopolitical world, each struggling to define or contain what Islam is, what is its enduring reality. I know that the Christian Church prides itself on being built on solid rock (as in the person of Peter) and I wonder if the Islamic central authority is not continually being undermined because it is built on shifting sands. If, after 14 centuries, no one really knows what the "real" Islam is, might it not be best to abandon what seems to be a futile project? Many brave Muslim apostates are saying "yes" to that proposal. Others more loyal to the original mad enterprise might grasp precisely at those shifting sands and see God's mystery most clearly expressed there. A Presidential race has a timeframe. No matter the confusion in the lead-up, a day will come when resolution is finally achieved (or perhaps slightly delayed as happened in the 2000 fiasco). There is no such clear final day for the Muslim world and perhaps this is why the "end of days" is so longed for, especially by many Shias, for this is precisely when a saviour-leader will appear in the return of the hidden imam or Mahdi.

So, for many Sunnis, it is a renewed Caliph that they seek while for many Shias, it is a renewed Imam. The one is the political leader or statesman, while the other is the seer that Campbell favours in the quote above. Muhammad is revered because he is seen as having embodied both of these leadership functions. Osama bin Laden clearly believes he can be a "new Muhammad" and no one else around even holds such an aspiration. He expresses and embodies, then, a powerful combination of numinous archetypes: there is a frail Jesus quality to him and a successful warrior side to him (the sep11 attack has to be rated a great military and symbolic success, however "evil" its source or intent). There seems to be no corresponding warrior-saint on the modern post-Christian side to combat him. Bush is on his way out and neither of the front-runners, Clinton or Giuliani, seem likely to fit the bill. The world hangs in the balance but we know that some resolution at least will come at the end of 2008. At least when it comes to the US Presidential race. It's harder to say what will happen in the Muslim world and when. It looks like a painful and unresolved stalemate will persist.

Campbell sees this numinous function of mythology as the primary one, the one that vivifies and permeates all the others. The key to our survival on this planet rests with our discovering a mythology that can embrace both the Christian and Islamic monotheistic mythologies as well as the many other valid forms of expression of the numinous. As Campbell suggests, this mythology will need to be discovered, almost as if stumbled on, by accident. It will take the right kind of sensitive souls to see it and recognize it for what it is. For this particular soul at this particular time, it is inconceivable just what shape it might take. I stubbornly long for that bonfire, I hope and pray to see it happen, not as a real-life conflagration, as a holocaust of human self-destruction, but as a willing sacrifice of all of our frames of reference by which we seek to ensnare the ultimately unsnarable.


Phoenix illumination miniature from the Aberdeen Bestiary
via wikimedia commons

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

fleurs trinitaires

This is a follow-up to an earlier post on trinity flowers. I've been looking out for threefold patterns in Islamic arts and crafts and I was especially intrigued by the Turkish panel shown below:


Velvet panel, Turkey 17th century. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Not only does it have a pattern based on vaguely triangular shapes - similar to the French fleur-de-lys emblem - but it features an Escher-style repeating pattern in which the foregrounds and backgrounds "mirror" each other. I was moved to make a simple design derived from this panel, using the vector graphic program Inkscape:


fleur-de-lys trellis rendered in Inkscape

I went on to use this design as a decorative element at my article on The Forgotten Cup.

As I did further research on the fleur-de-lys emblem, I was led to the following further example of it within Islamic arts.

fleur jar

Albarello with fleur-de-lys decoration. Syria, 14th century.
Musée du Louvre, Paris. via wikimedia commons

From the wikipedia article on the fleur-de-lys, we learn that:

The use for ornamental or symbolic purposes of the stylised flower usually called fleur de lis is common to all eras and all civilizations. It is an essentially graphic theme found on Mesopotamian cylinders, Egyptian bas-reliefs, Mycenean potteries, Sassanid textiles, Gaulish coins, Mameluk coins, Indonesian clothes, Japanese emblems and Dogon totems. The many writers who have discussed the topic agree that it has little to do graphically with the lily, but disagree on whether it derives from the iris, the broom, the lotus or the furze, or whether it represents a trident, an arrowhead, a double axe, or even a dove or a pigeon. It is in our opinion a problem of little importance. The essential point is that it is a very stylised figure, probably a flower, that has been used as an ornament or an emblem by almost all civilizations of the old and new worlds.

Michel Pastoureau: Traité d'Héraldique, 2006.

This emblem, then, is quite ancient and can carry many meanings. It could be said to represent a natural threefold quality that expresses itself in many other ways but especially in the various triune deities. Islam repudiated such a triunity, not only in the Christian version (which Mohammad understood as God, Jesus and Mary) but in the pagan Arab version as the three goddesses Uzza, al-Manāt and al-Lāt.

Various esoteric meanings have been assigned to the number three (see this table of comparative numerology) but it is common to associate it with energy, movement, dynamism and change. By contrast, the number four stands for solidity, stability, conservatism and stasis. Both the numbers 7 (via addition) and 12 (via multiplication) are seen as syntheses of these opposites.

It seems to me that Islam, by consciously repressing triunity and three-ness, turned its back on change, on any idea of an evolving consciousness whether in the form of further advances in empirical knowledge or further clarifications through revelation.

And yet, such a powerful archetype, such an important aspect of deity, must have tried to "creep in" somehow and get a foot in the door of the two-way dialogue between Allah and Mohammad. It seems to me to be doing just that when those bizarre Arabic letters turn up at the start of Koranic chapters or suras. The first two suras (after the fatiha or opening) have three such letters: Alif Lam Mim. In all, three suras start with 1 letter, 10 with 2, 14 with 3, 2 with 4, and 2 with 5. It seems, then, that the theme of two (dialogue) is fairly strongly outweighed by the theme of three (in this case, a third party observer of the dialogue).

There is much talk about whether Islam can achieve some kind of renaissance or reformation that would render it better suited to the modern world. For Islam to change, I believe it must return to this issue of the triune nature of deity and come to a better understanding of this mystery. Reformers might look to those Islamic trinities like Rumi's water of life, the one who pours, and the one who drinks or Bayazid's wine-drinker, wine, and cupbearer or his even simpler (though more abstract) lover, beloved, and love. Perhaps the trinity flowers or today's fleurs trinitaires could be used as meditative tools, images for contemplation of how Islam might be transformed or understood in more modern and dynamic ways.

I can offer these flowers or fleurs but, as a non-Muslim or Kafir, I cannot take this any further. With God's grace, these flowers can shed seeds and take root in the good earth but it is up to a devout and modern Muslim to gather in whatever harvest emerges. In that task, he or she might take heed from the Word of God:

It is He who looses the winds, bearing good tidings before His mercy, till, when they are charged with heavy clouds, We drive it to a dead land and therewith send down water, and bring forth, therewith all the fruits. Even so We shall bring forth the dead; haply you will remember.

Koran 7:55 (7:57 in most editions), trans A.J. Arberry

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Friday, October 12, 2007

the view from here

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small
contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.

Rumi: Mathnawi III:3762-3766
trans Coleman Barks, via sunlight

The provincial elections in Ontario, Canada (see to and fro, forward and back), have concluded as predicted by late polling. The central and heated issue was the Tory proposal to provide public funding to faith-based schools. The clear response from the people was "no" and it is not a great stretch, I believe, to add that the "no" was strongly conditioned by the presence of Muslim schools in the mix. This was effectively a "no" to an independent Muslim presence in the Canadian education scene. Many a Muslim will see it as a "no" to an independent Muslim presence in the Canadian body politic.

Here in Australia, we have long provided funding to non-governmental or "private" schools. Many, though not all, of these schools are faith-based. Catholic schools form the largest sector with the remaining referred to simply as "independent" schools.

Although most are non-aligned, some of the best known independent schools also belong to the large, long-established religious foundations (Anglican, Uniting Church, Presbyterian) but in most cases they do not insist on their students’ religious allegiance. These schools are typically viewed as 'elite schools'. Many of the ‘grammar schools’ also fall in this category. They are usually expensive schools that tend to be up-market and traditional in style.

On the other hand, many independent schools are quite new, often small, and not necessarily traditional at all.

source: wikipedia: private schools in Australia

Here in Australia, when we have heated debates over public funding of private schools, the issue always revolves around money alone: the fairness of giving extra money to "rich" schools that can manage without while allowing government schools to become more and more neglected and "run down". Catholic schools are exempt because their population base is not wealthy to start with. Catholic schools are funded because it is deemed perfectly appropriate that Catholic parents want to send their kids to schools embued with a Catholic Christian atmosphere.

Here in Australia, Anglican parents can also send their kids to schools embued with an Anglican Christian atmosphere; Maronite Christian parents can do so too; and so also Egyptian Copts. And so also Muslims of any persuasion. Every school must abide by certain standards. No school can operate outside the basic guidelines set by the state departments of education. Even home schooling is constrained this way.

As an Australian coming from the experience here, I am stunned by this Canadian voice. Mind you, I can understand it and I am also sensitive to the difference in circumstances between Canada and Australia, especially as regards the relative proportion of Muslim migrants in our populations. However, I can also understand a resentment that must be growing among Canadian Muslims. And, indeed, among every other faith group (besides the Catholics) excluded from the Canadian table.

A strong and probably fairly influential voice opposing Tory's idea came from Canadian political scientist, Salim Mansur (again see details here). I have a great deal of respect for Salim Mansur in many of his views but on this issue I have profoundly mixed feelings. I open my hand in sympathy with his firm stand against Islamist intolerance and supremacism, but I close my hand against his rejection of the core inclusivist ideas behind multiculturalism. That concept originated with or was first most clearly articulated by Jesus of Nazareth as His teachings have been passed on to us in the canonical texts of the Christian faith. It is most succinctly embodied in the idea of leadership within communion and most clearly inaugurated at the Last Supper.

Later, during the Middle Ages, when England was pushing toward a national identity, the Christian Last Supper was transformed and re-envisioned at King Arthur's court and in the image of the Round Table.

Round Table

Apparition of the Holy Grail at King Arthur's Round Table @ wikimedia commons

In the context of the Canadian provincial election, the head of the table is the Canadian identity or nationalism. Only one other knight is allowed to sit at the table: the knight representing the Roman Catholic faith. John Tory proposed that all other knights be invited. No one had any in principle objection to any of the other knights. The only knight rejected was the Knight of Islam and, in order to exclude this knight, all other knights were excluded. Because we wouldn't want to make an exception of Islam, would we?

Everyone knows this is the reality. Nobody is fooled, not for a moment.

At present, ordinary Muslims rely heavily on funds from Saudi Arabia, and therefore from Wahhabism, in order to preserve their faith identity in a foreign land. How else will they develop their own integrated identity unless 1) they are clearly accepted as valid and valued members at the Round Table and 2) they are provided with fair funding that would allow a development of their faith independently of what should now become, for them, a "foreign land" (despite the reality that it houses their Mecca)?

This is all one God-awful mess and this "no" vote has not fixed it at all but only served to clarify it. Light - or consciousness - is more important than power and if John Tory has - albeit unwittingly - shed light on this issue, then he has shown the greatest leadership of all. For that, at least, he is to be commended.

I only hope that this "no" vote is really a "not yet" vote, that Tory's real error was to bring up this issue in the heat of an election. Though, would anyone have paid attention within a less volatile context?

When multiculturalism is rejected, when the Round Table is cut down to one (or two) seats only, then a highly dangerous situation is created, one that will surely lead humanity to a long long sleep. Perhaps this is the core Islamic idea (that Allah cannot tolerate any partners) that has led to the long long sleep of the Muslim world itself. If so, then this core idea has killed our Round Table culture more surely in this "no" vote than any number of sep11 incidents might achieve in themselves.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

trinity flowers

In a recent post titled the forgotten cup (and expanded into an article titled The Forgotten Cup), I was exploring parallels between Judaic, Christian and Islamic themes relating to the triune nature of deity. Orthodox Islam does not, of course, recognize any Divine Trinity and, indeed, quite specifically and emphatically denies its validity. However, this theme is an archetypal one, embedded in the very nature of the human psyche and its mythopoetic imagination. Somehow or other, the Divine Trinity must express itself, even within Islamic culture and especially within Islamic arts. An exquisite example of this is shown below:

Muhammad Mahdi: Flower Study, Iran c.1750 @ State Hermitage Museum

The main flower in this arrangement is a red and yellow iris. In its commentary on this painting, the State Hermitage Museum explains:

The iris, for instance, was a holy flower of Islam - some of its leaves point upwards towards Allah, while others drop down towards the earth; yet others are level, as if indicating Man himself.

Already, the symbolic significance of this flower has a three-fold aspect: Heaven above, Earth below, and Humanity in between. However, the trinity is further emphasized in the three stamens that surround the central pistil of the flower. In an odd reversal of usual sexual symbolism the central pistil is the female part of the flower despite its evident phallic shape. As a symbolic feature, it represents the Unity inside the Trinity and is a close parallel to the central and containing cup already discussed. Archetypal symbols have this tendency to shift from masculine to feminine and back again almost like a breathing in and a breathing out.

The main iris flower is depicted in a very naturalistic manner, quite resembling an illustration in a scientific work on botany. However, that is where the naturalism ends. The leaves emerging from the left-most stem are also naturalistic in shape but they are not iris leaves. My own botanical knowledge is too limited for me to recognize the plant but I do know that iris leaves are more grass-like or sword-like, highly elongated and nothing like the leaves depicted here. They do bear a resemblance to celery leaves or to the leaves of some herbs like flat-leaf parsley. They may be intended as a contrast to the flower that pleases the eye while this plant pleases the palate.

The group, then, contains two naturalistic elements but belonging to two different plant species. A third element, the flower between the herb and the iris, is a decorative fancy, an almost abstract mandala, though it closely resembles a naturalistic flower. Again, my botanical knowledge is limited but I very much doubt that there exists in nature a flower with five outer and six inner petals as this one displays. My guess is that it is a transitional symbol, bridging the natural and the abstract, and thus again bridging the earth and the heavens.

Finally, there is the long flat leaf at the right of the composition. This can no longer have any pretense to being naturalistic, it is frankly symbolic. It seems to be the final abstract point resulting from a meditation on the actual iris flower and herb. Here, the unity expresses itself primarily in its overall containing aspect, the envelope or larger container of the trinity, rather than as a central nub (the smaller cup in the Russian icon discussed previously). The three flowers within this arrangement sit like peas in a pod, a quite unnatural placement. The flower colours are also alternating from pink (for girls?) to blue (for boys?) and back to pink again.

Christian icons of the type of the Russian icon of the trinity are designed to provide a window into the world of the divine, the archetypal world within the human soul. Certainly, this small Islamic artwork (the original only about the size of an A4 sheet of paper) has this quality. As one enters it, one plunges into a veritable ocean of lively possibilities, a boundless meditation on three-ness, one-ness, nature, symbols, male-ness, female-ness, and much much more.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

to and fro, forward and back

Thy gentleness says, "Come forward!" Thy
severity says, "Go back!" Let me know at once, which of them
speaks the truth?

from Rumi: Ghazal (Ode) 1310
trans William C. Chittick via Sunlight

The Canadian province of Ontario is due (tomorrow) for a general election in which an aspiring Premier is John Tory of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. As part of his campaign:

[Tory] has promised if elected to spend $400 million on funding for Jewish, Muslim and other religious schools provided they follow the Ontario curriculum, submit to provincial standardized testing and use certified teachers.

The commitment was hailed by religious groups, but has also proved controversial, with even some Tory candidates admitting it will be a tough sell on the hustings.

James Cowan: John Tory grilled on faith-based schools proposal

In his latest Toronto Sun article, Salim Mansur has spoken out very stongly against this idea:

Unintentionally fragmenting the existing school system, as Mr. Tory's proposal would do, weakens the one institution that pulls the divergent communities of Ontario together, and strengthens those elements in our society that pull us apart on ethno-religious grounds.

Salim Mansur: How stupid is this idea?

In a somewhat inchoate response on the CCD forum, Edmund James begs to disagree with Mansur's negativity. He defends John Tory as "the type of executive and leader who excels because he listens to the people and can be persuaded" and insists that his "faith-based idea wasn't stupid" partly on severe (security) grounds, because it is "better we know what the Muslim world funded by Saudi Wahhabists and/or other fundamentalists are teaching and doing"; and partly on gentle (community cohesion) grounds:

The point being we go in stages rather than forcing immigrants to become full Canadian immediately though many try. And one of the the attractions to this grand country, and the USA , is because we are open to reasonable religions, private schools, hopefully funded. The Catholics had a good thing going; they have excellent teachers and higher marks, in general, than the public schools; but why exclude the others?

Edmund James on CCD forum

This prompted Mansur to reply at length, explaining his writing priorities as follows [my emphasis]:

The matter of opposing in print publicly Mr Tory's policy, as I have done, was far more important than wasting my ink on the "reform" proposal that others were weighing from varying perspectives. Moreover, I was in a position to state publicly what others were not going to touch upon for fear of being labeled bigots, i.e. write without any equivocation about the perils of Muslim faith-based schools receiving public funding and getting entrenched in our society to the detriment of everyone. This was not fear-mongering on my part as you suggest; instead it was placing the interests of my country in the broadest terms ahead of any partisan or sectarian loyalties in assessing factually and objectively what Mr Tory's policy amounts to for Ontario and Canada.

He also restates his position with greater clarity and emphasis:

A proliferation of faith-based schools (once public funding is available such proliferation would be the expected result as given by the laws of economics where demand for them would grow since supply would be made available at public expense) will invariably affect our social environment that is largely secular, and affect it for the worse. But most importantly, my concern of what follows arises from the reality of the post-9/11 world.

You should know better, and surprisingly your partisanship has blinded you on this matter of what Islamism (radical Islamist ideology on a rampage worldwide) in our province would do as Islamists receive public legitimacy by receiving public money to spread their toxin. The fact that Wahhabi funds are readily available from Saudi sources to Islamists in our midst does not warrant providing the same people with our tax money. The two matters cannot be conflated except by partisans like yourself who have lost their perspectives and their logic. The external funds available to Islamists in Ontario needs to be closed, and this is much more of a federal (Ottawa) responsibility than it is provincial in jurisdictional terms, and we should all be putting pressures on Ottawa to take this matter seriously and find the means to stop Wahhabi funds sowing discord and peril in our society.

Salim Mansur: CCD forum

Since I have been banned from the CCD forum (I was never given a reason for this but I suspect that I'm seen as a Karen Armstrong look-alike with leftist sympathies for all things Islamic) I cannot enter the fray with a comment and, in a way, the affair seems far too local - too literally "provincial" - to justify my own involvement. However, I detect deeper or more subtle layers of meaning in this conflict that resonate with the wider conversations on Islam.

In particular, a major division among progressive Muslims has been witnessed recently by Melanie Phillips at a discussion which began with Ibn Warraq reminding us of the immutability of the Koran and its central place in Islam as the word of God, thus leaving little or no room for reform. He was then opposed by more optimistic reformers:

They argued that the concept of the absolute authority of the Koran itself was a profound misapprehension, because every statement of what it meant was merely a matter of interpretation. It was therefore a question of whose interpretation should be regarded as authoritative; and since there were reformist traditions in Islam, it followed that it was possible for there to be an Islamic ‘renaissance’ of Islamic values which renounced the jihad and the cult of death. In other words, while the words of the holy text are regarded as divinely inspired, the religion itself is simply contestable commentary. And so, theologically speaking, there is everything to play for.

Melanie Phillips at her diary

As I read this, however, I couldn't help but notice that Ibn Warraq is named and is a clearly visible, present, identifiable, and articulate proponent of his own position (along with equally visible colleagues such as Ali Sina, Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali) while his opponents are simply referred to as "they". Nothing clear and convincing is coming from the side of the Muslim world that holds out hope of reform or renaissance.

Whatever "new" interpretation this side comes up with, it will have to be convincing to "the West" as well as to fellow Muslims. Initial efforts by the likes of Tariq Ramadan have failed miserably, sounding to our ears as so much taqiyya or Islamic dissimulation. More sincere but ineffectual efforts by the likes of Zuhdi Jasser must also be dismissed (see the Koran according to Jasser).

So, what is left then? It seems to me that Salim Mansur now remains as a kind of "last man standing" and perhaps Edmund James is expressing a frustration that Mansur is holding back too much. Perhaps part of the heat of this debate comes from these deeper roots. It may be time for Mansur to emulate John Tory by listening more carefully to people and allowing himself to be persuaded.

I watch with a mix of patience and frustration as God calls him - and us - both forwards and backwards.

Janus, illustration from Dr Smith's Classic Dictionary, 1895
with thanks to Timeless Myths

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

cutting the crap

I said, "Show me the ladder, that I may mount up to heaven."
He said, "Your head is the ladder; bring your head down under your feet."

from Rumi: Ghazal 19, trans A.J. Arberry, via Sunlight

In his notes to this translation, Arberry explains the second line above as meaning "prostration in prayer, the subjection of reason to spirit". Me, I read Rumi in my own way. I prefer to take his meaning more directly: to see - in this instance - a head under a foot and not, as Arberry would have it, a head submitting to Allah or spirit. A foot is a foot and a spirit is something almost diametrically opposite to that. To me, Rumi (through the divine guide or Friend) is simply advising that the best way to reach heaven or attain things we yearn for is to begin with reality, to begin simply with "what is".

Our feet, after all, are what connect us to the earth. As we walk about, the pressure on our feet is a constant reminder of our heaviness, of this gravitational pull of body to earth, and of our inevitable rootedness in reality. Of course, it is also human to aspire to something other than the reality we are in. We express that in our longing for the Beloved, in our ambition to climb higher and higher, thus achieving more and greater things. However, we go nowhere so long as our heads remain in the clouds of imagination and aspiration. The journey must always begin with the here and now, with things as they are.

Here in Australia, I believe largely as a result of our British heritage, we like to link "spirit" with dung of one sort or another, especially when mocking vaporous idealism. We exclaim: "what a load of bullshit!"; or more sharply command: "cut the crap!"

In the Islamic world, there is no one better at trying to get Muslims to bring their heads down under their feet than Wafa Sultan, the forthright realist of brief but potent Arab television fame. (Those powerful five minutes remain at YouTube.)

As brave as she is, however, Sultan is stronger on rhetoric than on fact. For example, she does say in her speech that:

We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people.

transcript from her appearance on Al Jazeera TV, February 2006

Unfortunately, this is not strictly true, especially not the last and more general sentence. It is justly claimed that it was Jews who carried out the first act of modern terrorism in the King David Hotel bombing. Many innocent civilians died, Jews included. Since I am an Israeli sympathizer, I understand what drove the Jews to do this. I don't see it as a petty act of revenge but a necessary and desperate act of survival for the Jewish people. Others less sympathetic might see it as a case in which Jews did indeed "protest by killing people".

Salim Mansur is another solid realist in the Muslim world, less flashy but equally determined, working in the quieter but more precise ways of the academic. For me, his strongest "cut the crap" message to the Muslim world is contained in a little known essay titled Muslim on Muslim Violence: What Drives It? (available from the Center for Security Policy). In it, he documents the genocidal atrocities perpetrated by Muslims on their so-called brothers-in-faith, starting in the first century of Islam and more recently expressed during the violent breakup of Pakistan in 1971. He attributes this self-destruction to a political corruption of the original message of Islam at the time of the Karbala massacre and he asks that Muslims take a hard look at this turning point in their history when this "official" Islamist ideology was adopted.

The difference between the two realities, that submitted by Sultan and that by Mansur, is that the first locates the error right in the heart of Islam, right in the very opening page of the Quran (the Fatiha). She has, as a consequence of this and of other experiences, turned her back on Islam as a spiritual path. Mansur, on the other hand, is loyal to the forces opposing this "official" political Islam, forces largely contained within or expressed through the Sufi traditions. In this way, he can still identify as a Muslim although most Muslims (being so largely politicized and under the sway of "official" Islam) would deny him that identity and thereby feel free to attack him in a violent physical way. Despite a loyalty to what he would see as the pure essence of Islam, he remains an apostate in the eyes of "official" Islam.

In terms of realism, of who has put their head more firmly under their foot, I have to favour the lady here. She may be making some slight errors in her enthusiasm to communicate forcefully, but the overall tenor of her message is, to my mind, correct. I believe that Mansur sees an ideal - or more correctly, an idealized - Islam, an Islam that might have been. There are enough elements in the Islamic faith tradition to keep that ideal alive for him.

And it is indeed a beautiful ideal, an ideal of brotherhood in faith, a transcending of all boundaries of race or tribe. It is an ideal very purely communicated by the likes of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a modern Sufi of British origin, who promotes a world consciousness of Oneness. His message can be accessed through The Golden Sufi Center.

However, some ironic questions arise: Is this not precisely the message that Islam is meant to convey? Is the world now not divided precisely along the lines of who - or what - can best deliver this message of Oneness?

Wafa Sultan certainly doesn't see Islam as fit for the task. Salim Mansur might see Sufi Islam as fit. Vaughan-Lee is careful to downplay his Islamic allegiance in favour of a New Age purity, wearing his stark white outfits, sitting next to flower displays, and speaking in a tone of studied gentleness. There seems to be no fighter in him, not even of the spiritual sort. But still, he is a Sufi and a Muslim.

By contrast, Robert Spencer likes to quote Rumi on his allegiance to Muhammad thus:

Root and branch of the roses is
the lovely sweat of Mustafa [that is, Muhammad],
And by his power the rose’s crescent
grows now into a full moon.

quoted in Spencer: The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion,
and also at his blog:
Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 6, “Cattle,” verses 1-83
original source is Annemarie Schimmel: And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety

It is clear what Spencer's intent is here, especially in the context of the Quranic verses on which he is commenting and which actually have no connection whatever to Rumi's lines. Spencer has merely found an excuse, any excuse, to point the finger at Rumi and tar him (and his fellow mystics such as al-Hallaj) with the same brush as he tars Muhammad himself. The message is: Don't trust the Sufis for they are as much "Muslims" and just as "bad" as any other Muslims.

And Spencer does have a point. For those, especially, who are appalled at Islamic violence, a sweet pure mystic like Vaughan-Lee is very attractive and his ideal of Oneness also. However, should one be tempted thereby to affirm the shahada (the affirmation of Muslim faith) then there is no going back for the gentle Sufi has brothers in Islam who forbid apostasy and will see to it that you stay put.

As outsiders - poor benighted kufrs that we are - we must take Islam for the reality that she is, both her good points and her bad. We cannot but respect Islam as a long-standing institution within humanity's history but the political ideology is, as Spencer keeps reminding us, a solid and real part of what Islam is. It is there at its very roots, in the Quran and in the life of Muhammad.

I love some of the good things, especially many of the lovely lines of wisdom of Rumi. However, I love the humanist in Rumi, not the Muslim. If, to his sensitivities and in his time, Mustafa did smell sweetly it is no longer true today. Too much of the dung at the heart of Islam has been uncovered. There is simply too much crap there to allow for a sweeter smell. Yes, perhaps there is a pearl inside that dung heap, but I have yet to discover it myself or have it shown to me.

For me, Rumi and his opus stand apart and independent of Islam. The wisdom, the pearls, therein can survive many a refiner's fire, whether that of the Islamists or the more recent one of those commercializing him. A few days ago the 800th anniversary of Rumi's birth was celebrated thus in Konya, Turkey:

rumi birthday

Whirling dervishes perform a sema ritual during a ceremony to mark the 800th birthday of the Sufi mystic poet Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi in Konya, Turkey.
Photo: AP @

When I saw this photo, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry and, indeed, I wondered whether Rumi himself would know which was appropriate. After some thought, I've decided that from his grave there would issue loud and hearty laughter: he would go with the guffaw.

Similarly, when it comes to Islam: I must also go with the guffaw.

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