My education progresses.
I have been thinking about Allah’s commandment to read, and the particular power of the words in the Qur’an. I have also been thinking about the life of Muhammed. My substantive introduction to his life is through the eyes of Geraldine Brooks. The overall impression that remains with me is the sense of Muhammed using daily events as the template for Allah’s pronouncements. Imagine what it would be like to be a person who is aware that your words will carry forward?!? There is care in many of the commandments, while some seem uttered in haste. Muhammed is (was) after all, just a man, like the rest of us &emdash; subject to human desires and temptations. I imagine that questioning this (the basic fact of Muhammed’s humanness is as controversial for Muslims as arguing for Jesus’ humanity is for Christians (someday I should watch – or read! – The Last Temptation of Christ).
My second look at Muhammed’s life is through Anthony Quinn (playing Hamza) in The Message, a Hollywood movie released in 1976 and approved by three levels of Islamic scholars.
The first command Muhammed receives is: “Read.” Kindof a challenge for an illiterate, eh? It isn’t clear if Muhammed does learn to read himself, but what is clear is that he understands the power of the written word. This is also the advice I am consistently given when I ask questions about Islam. “Read!” I have read some excerpts of the Qur’an in English; those that I have read are similar to parts of the Old Testament (including some parts taken from the Jewish holy book, the Torah) and the New Testament (added by Christians), especially Revelation (about the end times). One confusion: is there a contest between judgment by Allah and judgment by men? “Only Allah can know your heart,” says my friend. Yet the Qur’an is full of admonitions to punish and discipline “unbelievers.” How can it be both ways? It is so competitive.
It was competitive at the time Islam came to be. Muhammed was not well-received and his followers were severely persecuted. The idea of one god instead of many gods was threatening to the entire social and political order. “The real god is unseen, not made of clay.” Some of the beliefs stated in this movie (and thereby approved by high Islamic religious sources) are:
“Girls should not be forced into marriage but should be able to choose;” and “God made women to be the companion to man. She is equal.”
“Stop the burial of newborn girls.”
“All men are equal” referring to slaves and free.
“Jews have equal rights as Muslims.”
At one early stage, when the persecution is severe, Muhammed advises some of his followers to go to Abyssinia, where “there is a Christian king, no one is harmed in his country.” The followers who seek sanctuary there have to argue to gain the King’s protection. They convince him by such statements as, “You believe in one god like we do;” “God has said it all before, to Noah, Moses, Jesus, now he says it again, to Muhammed;” and, “At one time all religions were rebellions.” The Qur’an cites the story of Mary, telling it in essentially the same way as the Christian bible does.
The main group stays in Mecca with Muhammed, but eventually they are also forced to flee. I like the story of Muhammed being protected by a spider’s web and a bird’s nest. 🙂 Spiders are very important in many American Indian religions (scroll down at the link), and birds in some of them.
The “tala el bedru” is the happy call of the women when someone special arrives. I guess it is not only for Muhammed, but also when travelers from the village return home safely? A camel decides the location of Muhammed’s house, a choice that “can offend no one.” Hz. Bilal, a former slave, is the first to sing the call to prayer &emdash; the use of a human voice used to distinguish Islam from Christianity (which uses a bell) and against the militarism of a drum: Hamza, one of Muhammed’s uncles, is an important and powerful early convert. He says, “there is too much blood in a drum.” Would that such anti-violent sentiments had carried forth with more force!
I am with the story up until this point. I haven’t been offended, or disagreed with anything. Then Muhammed decides (is told by Allah) to go to war against Mecca. 🙁
I have not yet seen the rest of the movie. In the interim, I have been reading John Berger and considering his discussion of time. My speculation is that Muhammed experienced life deeply, in such a way that he accumulated presence. He reinforced his own energy through his perception and insight of relatively mundane daily events. The words he then uttered were received powerfully because listeners felt their “truth” &emdash; they realized &emdash; and could not deny &emdash; the applicability of what was said to their own lives. They could not avoid the logic.
The force of this accumulation, its concentration, penetrates across/through time. It is re-concentrated by believers, who add to the accumulation, preventing dissolution, therefore keeping the power of the words recorded in the Quran alive. Herein lies a specific problem. The words uttered by Muhammed referred to his time, his era, his locality, his place. It is the same challenge Christians face with translating the bible into contemporary times. Literality is dead, it is frozen in time-space, a perennial monologue, an example (?) of the poetry Bakhtin critiques: Poetry “acknowledges only itself, its object (what it represents), and its own unitary and singular language (p. 670a); the word in poetry encounters only the problem of its relation to an object, not its relation to another’s word. In other words, words used poetically refer to language itself, to idea of centralized/unitary poetic language, and perhaps to an object represented–but not to non-poetic language, to other languages in the culture.”
The problem of literality, then, must be engaged constructively. How does one shift from a monologue to a dialogue? How does one nurture the recognition of two (or more!) logics and participate in a synthesis that leads to something new?
My education progresses.