What do we know about the Arabs to whom Muhammad was speaking? In truth, not much. Though we have some archeological findings and external testimonies, the transmission of their oral culture was interrupted and overwritten by the transmission of the Quran, the way of Islam, and the Arab conquests. Only a few cultural favorites survived long enough to be preserved as the Arab culture morphed into a literate one, and of these it was primarily the poems that survived. So if I want to know anything about the outlook of Muhammad’s audience, I know I’m going to have to get into their poetry.
First it must be said: I have no talent for poetry. I love language, yet to me poetry looks like the art of writing potent, incomplete thoughts. I’m very basic, just wanting a fun meter and rhyming scheme, and thus have never graduated beyond Shel Silversteen. So what is the likelihood that I’m going to understand the high poetry of another culture, another land, another century? Pht! Arabic classical poetry is full of place and people names, culture references, and trope imagery that I’ve had no exposure to. I know what a hyena is, but do I know what the Arabs of the 600’s thought a hyena was? So I needed a book to guide me and teach me some keys for interpretation. I chose The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritualby Suzanne Stetkevych.
My review in short: very compelling analysis and insight into the pre-Islamic culture and the post-Islamic memory of it. The book is highly academic and you’ll have to be familiar with lots of specialists and their jargon (or else have to keep Wikipedia open) in order to understand it. Also, you should understand at least the basic logic of the tri-consonantal roots system in order to engage with her analysis of the Arabic, though the more Arabic you know, the better you’ll be able to follow the book’s analysis.
I was born a Christian. “Impossible” say most Protestants, “no one can be born a Christian, but you have to be born again.” Christianity, after all, is a faith of Knowledge and Ideas. It’s a set of beliefs you must opt, that you must “confess,” which then manifests in a distinct way of life. Or at least, that’s the popular self-conception. Yet still, when I look at my life I really can only draw the conclusion that I was born a Christian. More specifically, I was born into the community of white evangelical protestant Christians, which is a very distinct culture. It is one riddled with paradoxical ideas, suppressed anxiety, good intentions, and mixed results.
I’ve thought about explaining my spiritual background to you, my readers, because it is integral to my view of the world and is very relevant to contextualize my interests and reactions to the Quran in my Quran project. But with each attempt to lay such out, I have always gotten hung up on needing to explain the context for my context. So here is my attempt to lay a foundation for a later personal self-exploration. Grant me a little grace and patience as I try to introduce you, briefly, to the paradox of being born into a confessional faith.
Every time I go to the second-hand book store, I always go to the history section and look to see what books on Arab history they have available. As I’ve said before, good histories of the Arab world and Islam tend to fall into an academic niche with academic price tags, so I always hope to find a discounted copy. That’s been very rare…actually basically null. What I usually find are modern East-vs-West think pieces, in which I’m not interested. The one book that is always available, however, is Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, and it was one of the first books that I bought when I started learning Arabic.
My review in short: A great book for newcomers to this culture and history, but only if they plan to continue on.
With Halloween today, I decided to take the liberty and promote the content of someone else whose field of expertise is very relevant to the hallowed theme of this eve: death.
Death is something that our culture has sensationalized and stigmatized. In both these extremes, we have little sense of the pragmatic realities of our bodies after we die. Caitlyn Doughty’s campaign of corpse education asks people to grasp the truth that corpses are humans too, and to reflect on how our thoughts and feelings about corpses reflect that which we recognize and wish to forget about our humanity.
So that’s my recommend, but if you want more today, I have a little spooky story too…
“What I looked for in a wife,” as told by a grown man to a group of young teenage girls. There is something rather wince worthy about having older men tell young girls what qualities they should adopt to be attractive in his eyes, but I’m afraid as a young Christian teenage girl, one is rather inundated with such speeches. And while some points about maintaining one’s female attractiveness are rather self-serving for men to preach, I will defend that four out of every five points are usually universal human values. Good work ethic, a habit of self-care, cleanliness, empathy for other people –qualities that are universally good whether applied to a man or woman. And in some sense it’s a practical strategy to try and harness a teenage girl’s excitement for romance to motivate them towards thoughtful self-improvement. Surely there are better ways of doing that than having a grown man teach it to them, but it’s what happens.
There was one man whose version of this lecture I heard many times. I didn’t mind it so much from him, because of his list of ten things, nine were of that general good character type. But then, at the very end, was his last point: that she must be mysterious.
“Well, the Bible has that too,” is a common response people have when you try and discuss the question of weird passages in the Quran. It is a pretty solid way to shut down the conversation. This is not because it is necessarily a good point of contention, but because it reveals a wide chasm of understanding that must be bridged before the conversation can be resumed. It reveals a lack of knowledge of the individual nature of religious documents and an assumption that “Sacred Scripture” is a genre in which you can find the same general similarity of content, form, style, and intent.
Genre : a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.
“genre,” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2019. Web. 13 September 2019.
Sacred scripture is an incredibly diverse category. If I was to submit a definition for “scripture,” it would be “any writings set apart and given authority by a group of people to determine their culture.” The nature of the writings can have a lot of variety, and furthermore there is even more variety in how its adherents set about interpreting and implementing it. I wish I could tell you something about all the Sacred Scriptures out there, but my experience as of writing this is only with the Bible, two-thirds of the Quran, and a smidge of Book of Mormon. But material in the Christian Bible alone is diverse enough to examine the variety I’m describing. So let’s take a look at the Bible: what genres does it contain? What materials does it use? What attitudes do its adherents hold about those materials? And why does this matter when comparing religious documents?
Just this past week my husband introduced me to “The Prophet’s Song” by Brian May of Queen.
…And now I’m a little obsessed with it.
It so happens that the next surah I’ll be reviewing in my Quran series is called “The Prophets.” As I’m digesting and organizing my thoughts on that surah, this song resonated deep with my experience reading the Quran. The music and lyric content are so on point with the tone and themes, it’s just blowing my mind right now.
Look at those lyrics! Phrases like “cold night will fall…summoned by your own hand,” “these kings of beasts,” “married his own, his precious gain…and death all around will be your dowry,” “hopes of the young in troubled graves,” “So grey is the face of every mortal,” scream loud to me. The prophet condemns the world for having lost its grasp of love and charity in its love for material things. There is a call to purge in order to reap a fortune of peace. The rejectors who rely on their treasure are guaranteed destruction and a destination in hell.
And yet, while this song fits the Quran to a T, it clearly is derived from Genesis imagery. Then again, its vision of prophethood doesn’t derive from Genesis at all. This song comes from an understanding of apocalyptic prophethood, and it is very interesting to pause for a moment and recognize how ingeniously Brian May writes his own apocalypse in much the same way as biblical prophets. Continue reading →
Most of the time, I write about the Quran, not Muslims. Today, I want to highlight someone who presents on Muslims. On Slate’s Youtube channel, an American born Muslim named Aymann Ismail created a series of videos recording the perspectives and experiences of Muslims who are living and transitioning/growing up in the western world. Though I have no real authority to designate anyone’s perspective as “normative Islamic belief,” I think it’s safe to categorize Ismail as a liberal outlier. Given the season, and the freshness of Maryam in our minds, I thought it would be nice to share Ismail’s video on the inclusion of Muslims in Christmas, and the inclusion of Christmas in Muslim households.
Here we are, a third of the way through the Quran’s body of text, and the presence of polemic and violent attentions against the enemies of Muhammad has been near-constant. This dismays me, I must admit. In approaching the Quran I had hoped to find more contemplative or instructive materials for its believers. A believer can still pull instruction and contemplative material for themselves through the judging of others, but that is a problematic lens to look through. It attaches cynical assumptions about unbelievers into the moral derived. With all these passages, it can be tempting for us who are outsiders to denounce that Islam is a hostile and violent religion, but I want to argue that we should not do that, for various reasons…
I’m not going to be ready in time to post about the Quran this week. It’s just been a weird week. I’m traveling and haven’t devoted the right amount of attention to my blog to get a good surah post done. I thought I’d write about something less intense for today. Last night I’d been talking with my husband about a social interaction that day within a group of men. A good social interaction, in which I felt extremely comfortable and enjoyed myself as “one of the guys.” My husband asked me what that felt like, and I found myself struggling to encapsulate how I quantify that phrase. I’d like to ramble a bit and process it, going back into my childhood to figure out where this feeling comes from in me.