‘Levels of Meaning’ – Reflections on Christianity from a Muslim perspective
LEVELS OF UNDERSTANDING
Raficq Abdulla has been a legal adviser to various corporate organisations and institutions over several years. He is now a Visiting Fellow of the Faculty of Business and Law at Kingston University. He is also a writer, public speaker, and broadcaster on a number of topics including Art, Shari’ah law, Islam, identity, poetry and spirituality & the sacred. He was a trustee of the Poetry Society and Planet Poetry until his period of tenure expired in November 2008 and is a Deputy President of English PEN. He is a former Non–‐Executive Director of South West London and St. George’s Mental Health NHS Trust. In 1999, Raficq was awarded an MBE for his interfaith work between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. He is also the founding partner of Silverdale Consulting. Educated in an Anglican environment he writes from an informed position regarding his own faith.
Raficq has written and presented a large number of programmes on Islam for BBC World Service radio, including The Four Caliphs, Rumi, The Conference of the Birds a new interpretation of the allegorical poem by the 12th–‐century mystic poet Fariduddin Attar, and a series on the life of The Prophet Muhammad. He has contributed to live current affairs programmes such as News Hour on the World Service. As a writer, he has published Words of Paradise, a collection of new interpretations of Jalaluddin Rumi’s poetry, and a new interpretation of the allegorical poem by the medieval poet and mystic, Farid al–‐Din Attar, Conference of the Birds. He has been a regular reviewer of books on Islam and has published articles on a number of topics including issues concerning identity, Islamophobia, and the aftermath of the Salman Rushdie affair. He has written on Ruskin, Islamic Art, poetry and topics dealing with Muslims in the contemporary world as well as screenplays for Channel 4 including the award–‐winning films Blood of Hussein and Born of Fire.
As a public speaker, Raficq has addressed a wide variety of national and international audiences in the UK, Canada, the USA, Spain and Dubai on a variety of issues including Islam, Muslims, Shari’ah Law, Art, Identity, Poetry and Spirituality. He has spoken on the 13th century Muslim mystic poet Rumi and the 20th century German poet, Rilke during 2007 and early in 2008 he narrated his interpretation of parts of a poem by the 15th Century Persian mystic poet, Jami both at St. Ethelburgas. In May 2008 he was the narrator at a concert in St. Ethelburgas in memory of the German/Jewish composer Victor Ullmann who was killed at Auschwitz in 1945. He has presented his own poetry including his interpretations of Rumi and Attar at a number of poetry venues including Dartington, London and Ledbury.
“The crux of the Christian faith, the Incarnation, is similarly the ruin of all reason – the truth that, in some mind-warping paradox, the eternally unintelligible Other became finite and fleshly. Unlike the Hegelian Idea, God is sheer impenetrable otherness, and the claim that a man could incarnate him in time is thus wholly absurd.” Terry Eagleton: The Ideology of the Aesthetic p.182
My parents did an unusual thing for people from their background ‐ for South African Muslims ‐ they decided to remove me ‐ their ten year old son ‐ from a country that was moving inexorably towards becoming an apartheid state and place him in the English boarding school system. It was not an uncommon practice in those times for English people of a certain class but it was unheard of within the Muslim community, at least in South Africa, and it was problematical in terms of my future sense of identity. So, suddenly, I left the comfort of my homes in Durban – I use the plural because I had access to a network of relatives who regarded me as their child along with my cousins (we all had equal standing in terms of care and affection) and was dispatched first to a Prep School in the New Forest (nearest thing to Paradise for me) and then to Epsom College which was an archetype Victorian school for borders including such star facilities as not having central heating, where beatings abounded, and sport, sport and more sport was the flavor of each term. There was much indifferent teaching but also some inspired teachers who were able to help one foster one’s sensibility as a contrapuntal existence to the preponderance of sense which was the trademark of this type of education at the time. School was a place where one learnt the art of survival. In one sense what my parents did was a risky act that required faith both in the system of education with its particular panoply of illusions, imperial expectations and rugged values … and in my capacity to swim in this often‐choppy whitewater. I did and in fact I enjoyed it. In the process, my identity became more complex.
There were many reasons why I was sent abroad at the tender age of ten, but one thing is clear, my parents were not in the least worried about my religious identity being ‘diluted’ by the English Eden they envisaged for me. The fact is that they were comfortable in being Muslims but their sense of self was more than the faith and culture that Islam represented. They were also secular, God was not an ever‐present shadow in everything they did and thought. What was important to them, was a degree of personal integrity which was not a given or automatically given by a faith, but a quality that was precarious and for which one had to struggle all the time in many different ways, distracted as one was by the numerous cares and pleasures of being alive trailing their respective histories. My parents’ lives were founded on a degree of privilege and a lively sense of self and privacy. They were never tempted by the public display of noxious piety that goes for faith amongst many Muslims today. But this did not prevent them from thinking of themselves as being Muslims. Religion and spirituality were founded on a sense of community but their living charge was a private, dialectical and thus developing consciousness of individual concern and awareness, a conjunction of solitude with loving regard for others. I have inherited their legacy, which in my parent’s time was not particularly special amongst many Muslims. Islamism, or Islam as crass political ideology had not taken root at the time.
Faith and identity can be fissile materials when they are too closely aligned with each other to the exclusion of all other aspects of reality. Faith, to my mind is a form of magical thinking, we are born into it, we may choose to exercise it, we may abandon it for ostensibly no faith (which is another form of faith but dressed in the disguise of invisibility), or we may simply ignore it as we live in the moment. But it remains there to haunt all of us one way or another. I suppose it’s the way we create meaning for ourselves, to ward off the horror of pointlessness, the terrifying beauty of a cosmos which is impenetrable and apparently indifferent to our existence both as individuals and as a species. However, in a sense, our need for meaning – as Eagleton suggests in the epigraph above ‐ is an absurd act that creates fantastical stories pointing to a teleology that gives us a measure of comfort in that we posit a possibility or even the certainty of another life after we die. Death is not the final end but a true beginning.
Thus many of us belong to one faith or another, which provides us with norms and realities that make our lives bearable. I was born a Muslim, my parents were Muslims as were their ancestors – amongst whom are numbered Imams and even saints – religion was a given which coloured our sensibilities. One was comfortable about being a Muslim but it was not something that one talked about much or flaunted. In a sense we were secular in that we were open to other influences both faith‐based and empty of faith – music, dancing, partying, travelling, conversation about literature and art, actions that were driven by our wider social and family affiliations and so on. There were anxieties about work, about the oppressive political situation in South Africa, and about aspirations. However, none of these issues were invaded by God or the creedal demands of a particular faith. My parents did not lead a placid life but they took pleasure from being alive in all sorts of ways. These concerns and enjoyments were a normal part of their lives and therefore of mine. One of the off shoots of this attitude to life has been an abiding curiosity about other modes of thinking, believing and ways of living. Yes, I live in my own interesting, problematical and often contested Muslim space, but it’s not a pure space, nor an exclusive one. This curiosity is a sort of bridge into the consciousness of people who hold different values and tell different stories about themselves and about the purpose of life. This openness to others, was further encouraged by my schooling where, amongst other cultural challenges, I attended chapel each day and twice on Sunday, where I sang the Messiah in the choir, where I croaked through interminable Ancient & Modern hymns never quite relating to their substance but at least being familiar with them, and where I listened to innumerable sermons over the years. I was not ‘converted’ to Christianity, but I was acclimatized and I am able to feel at home with the ‘feel’ of Christianity and its special regard towards the Divine. It is from this background and personal experience that I wrote a series of poems around Ash Wednesday and the Passion. Whilst I do not believe in these important Christian tenets, I can imagine their power and deep importance for Christians. The poems and commentaries I set out below are an essay in confluence or sympathetic comprehension. They inevitably contain faulty conceptions and misapprehensions but I hope they convey something of the sensibility of these important stages of the Christian faith.
It seems to me that if one is to move beyond talking or arguing about God, about the nature of the Godhead, about the feasibility of it even existing, one has to set aside language and reason, and resort to imagination in order perhaps to have a sense of the Divine – what Muslims call the “Greater” or Akbar – something that’s always greater than our own finite egos, and yet something that enables us to be aware of depths that lie beneath our quotidian selves. We know and we don’t know, we glimpse from time to time a strangeness about us and in us that comes and goes as it will. There is a Muslim tradition that states that even if we don’t believe in God, we should act as if we believe in Him. We should try to imagine God. This is not quite the same thing as Pascal’s wager, which seems to me to be more an insurance policy, a sort of self–‐protection against damnation. I don’t mean that. I think what I want to strive for is to put myself in the place of faith, to be in sympathy, to empathise with those who have faith, to see the world through their eyes, to feel myself into their consciousness as much as anyone can ever be inside the spiritual cover of another. I am speaking of art rather than science, of dreaming rather than technique, of something that is intangible, personal … perhaps finally inaccessible. The imagination calls out to art – to music, to painting, to colour and form, it evokes another way of perceiving, it excites a sense of beauty and marvellous estrangement, it is aware of our particular temporality, vulnerability and ultimate ignorance even as it reaches out to the Greater, to an overarching awareness.
In these poems I try to attain that sense of speaking‐through and to the “Other” in this case the imagined sensibility of a Christian – there is danger in this, in that it can be a form of self‐indulgence and lead to hubris. But I do believe that if we are reach out to each other, to enter into interfaith dialogue, we should be prepared to see the world as it is seen by the faith of person with whom we engage. Such a dialogue does have some necessary protocols, I believe, and a few important conditions which include patience, stillness and the art of listening without jumping to conclusions or comment. All of them are difficult, at least I find them very difficult since generally I have a running commentary going on in my mind all the time. The words of George Herbert fit the bill with me when he says: “… I am in all a weak and disabled thing…”. To attain a measure of truthfulness, it seems to me, demands a lot of difficult and subtle work on ourselves; that takes time and requires a firm intention and then finally luck or grace to enter a place of awareness and tranquility in oneself. Notwithstanding my own lack, I have tried to imagine a Christian sensibility in the poems I have written, but it’s my own essentially hybrid imagination that is attempting to reach out. I have written five poems mainly centred on what I believe Christians call the Passion in an attempt to sense in part, the Christian Jesus from the vantage of an outsider; I hope the poems convey some of this through the music of their words and the tentative recollections of their meanings. I have included a couple of poems and a quote from others which, I think expand or enlighten what I am trying to say in the poems.
That this journeyman guilt rests in the ear of the heart sorting
contrition as one cards the dust of great suffering for better use,
that this Wednesday pours out it’s liquor on the soul’s perseverance,
that you pray and know not what you pray for, being forgetful,
being too close to the making of each day, the parcel of acts,
the pass of words that mimic thoughts which fail to govern themselves,
you speak and unmake yourself and the idea of the Father
(why should He be manufactured, splashed into place and time?)
is inhabited with desecrations you hardly understand since reflection
is fleet and wayward as the breeze, ah yes, the clinic of suffering,
the distraction of vicarious experience you claim is shared
at this lent time, in this place, this tenement of absorption you call
your fallen state, you act out with the original addiction of an adept,
it brings to you imperfect solace that makes communion with you.
But the night of agony that inhibits the light from this day, spills
you out into a darkness you dread and clasp as a lover whom you
trust but will never truly confess to, even under the ash of this day
as you prepare for the petered out season of determined loss
only saints understand and you scan as temporary pilgrim waiting
for the Word to rise again and abridge God’s sacred tongue.
did sharp–‐edged palms grow in Eden,
and willow and yew and sallow trees?
did they have the opportunity
or did God pass over these fateful
witnesses of the weeping agony to come?
who knows? do we care? surely it is
better to learn to pray as well as
the lisping trees that live right here on earth
and collaborate with the balm of wind and rain,
before the fire takes and turns them to ash.
the evening light is close to dawn, Jerusalem
far from peace no matter the cover of its name.
we are not kings, we do not enter on palms
riding an ass, but we thirst, we thirst to know more
cordially than did Socrates in the confines of the agora.
prayer is necessary, the fingers of prayer
are an aspiration or cloaked hubris,
sin is not wanting but a missing of the mark,
a vanity born too well, a ticket for contrition –
so prayer is placed on the charm of thought.
Why speak in paradoxes?
Why imagine His chronic absence as
fragmented revelation on the spectrum
of God’s necessary unbecoming?
This conversion of black bemusement
does nothing to clothe us with meaning
in the contraction of anguish,
but claustrophobic with agony.
There is a silence, it is not deafening
but simply emptiness,
a terrible impersonal steppe of emptiness
that tears open our ancestral insufficiency.
Held by the transfixion of grief,
the suffering women, ever practical,
show at the end,
as they work to allay the function of our lack ‐
by laying down, bathing,
by clothing the left‐over body ‐
a new exercise of love.
Grieving in the simplicity of their working silence,
they provide humble answer through
an undulating and poignant choreography of hands,
to the catastrophe that excruciated him…that claims us.
The reference to the suffering women ‐ for me, indicates the role of women in the Passion. How they suffered and served with patient humility. They suffered but remained grounded and practical, whilst the men who were Jesus’ followers, had, in a sense, betrayed him and were nowhere to be seen.
this adagio death
a fragment end
a slow returning;
his words were
the furious deep,
out to the Light
he still believed
(did he know?)
exists as infinite
a place of thirst
a time of agony
a tract of love
he spoke for
as do all creators.
These bleak, ambiguous words are both devastating and create a sense of relief, a necessary ending and a completion – at the time they were said they must have created a searing sense of loss for those who loved Jesus.
The Roman Way
Why is she weeping?
Her pale face frozen
by a filigree of tears,
is framed by a dirty
shawl, a faded camel‐
coloured woollen thing.
She looks up with breached
eyes, her long emaciated
hands grip the column
of the cross as if it was
a lover, she looks up
with tenebrous sorrow
it seems, at this nailed
man, another crucifixion,
slumped flesh and bone
drunk on gravity.
A crow stands stiffly on
an arm of the cross gawking
at the face of the man as if
considering the final fumble
of his sagging thoughts.
She must be a relative ‐
mother or aunt – burdened
by the terrible procurement
of belonging – she is an agitated
morsel ingrained with carnal
weeping which sharpens
this bruised and louring silence
that cushions the scene, broken
by the occasional grunt or
shout of centurions throwing
dice who sit on the hard ground
beside her automatic grief,
keeping guard over this dying
or dead renegade, the type, I expect,
who worships an all‐too‐sufficient God.
There are too many of them,
they sink our necessary peace
with the junk of their zealous professions.
Well, I must get on, better arrive home
before the coming storm the thunder beckons.
A FINAL ASIDE & CONCLUSION
It is done. We are back in the quotidian, its cares and distractions, its petty evasions and comforts. The world is left empty. The disciples are left to their guilty selves. Was all of this nothing save an accumulation of betrayal and guilt at the end? Mary Magdalene, one of the suffering women, then goes to the tomb and finds it empty. This is a shocking thing, Mary is bewildered as she is faced by an absence, how can she mourn besides an empty grave? Who had removed the body? She tells the Apostles of this final theft, this blow to all their hopes. She returns to the grave where she turns and sees a stranger who calls out her name – Mary! She turns and recognises him, she calls out “Rabboni!” (Teacher). She is identified by the risen Christ, she is named into a new person who is her true self. The sense of loss and of emptiness, something ended forever but not reconciled, is replaced by one of trust, love and recognition. There is a fine poem by Welsh poet, Saunders Lewis, that hints at this revealing of God and self to Mary. Lewis writes:
About women, no one can know. There are some,
Like this one, whose pain is a locked sepulchre;
Their pain is buried in them, there is no fleeing
From it and no casting off …
… Deep calls unto deep, a grave for a grave,
A carcass drawing a carcass in that unhappy morning;
Three days was this one in a grave, in a world that died
In the cry in the afternoon. It is finished,
The cry that drew blood from her like the barb of a sword.
It is finished. Finished. Mary fell from the hill
To the emptiness of the last Easter …
A world without a living Christ, the horrifying Sabbath of creation,
The abyss of the hundred thousand centuries and their end,
Mary lay down in the grave of the trembling universe.
… All the flowers of memory withered except the rain of blood
… God was extinguished,
In the dying together, in the burying together…”
The cross and Calvary had killed the man Mary had learned to venerate, who had returned her self‐worth. The loss created by his death, the final consummation of Calvary, of the Crucifixion, is compounded by the empty tomb – even the body has disappeared. There was nothing but darkness before her. She goes to tell the others about the terrible news. Then she returns in a state of shock to the tomb and there she turns to see a stranger whom she only recognises as he names her and rescinds her loss. She lives again in a new way, she has been converted. She has learned to love again, anew, in a new deeply felt way. I am reminded of the words of Thomas a Kempis who writes:
“Deepen Your love in me, O Lord, that I may learn in my inmost heart how sweet it is to love, to be dissolved, and to plunge myself into Your love. Let Your love possess and raise me above myself, with a fervour and wonder beyond imagination. Let me sing the song of love. Let me follow You, my Beloved, into the heights. Let my soul spend itself in Your praise, rejoicing for Love.”
The equivalent of these words can be found in the poems and writings of many Muslim mystics. The desire and longing for the Greater is part of the path towards mystical knowledge. They seek Allah, Thomas a Kempis cries out to Christ. Thus Rumi, the 13th century Muslim mystic and poet, who died just over a hundred years before the birth of Thomas a Kempis, writes:
I am you and you are me, you in me, me in you,
oh Beloved do not wonder from your longing breast,
oh Beloved, do not think you’re estranged from me,
do not Beloved, do not exile yourself from home.
Do not oh Beloved, do not taunt my head, don’t tempt
my foot so I become a fool who stamps his cruel heel
upon his broken head. I’m fired with you Oh Beloved
I flow from you as your leaning shadow, you cannot,
my Beloved, plunge your dagger into this shadow of yours.
Cherish this dancing darkness like a tree nurses its own,
letting it sway from the founding path of its trunk.
Bring all the shadows into the sun of your eye so they
will merge in the light of your cheek. My heart’s domain
is disordered by your distance, torn with civil strife;
mount your throne Oh Beloved, remain in charge.
“Reason is the crown”, the Caliph Ali said with the emancipation
of a poet; now take from your grace Oh Beloved place
on your throne a new diamond mined from the shadow of your being.
The words are more ardent, hotter, and seemingly impatient with yearning – this is poetry after all, but the intention is the same. We are all looking for Eden and Eden is like the horizon, seen at a distance and wondered at, yearned for – not to be attained through dogma but perhaps touched on in this life through compassion for ourselves, for others and for the world at large which is a gift, which Muslims are taught to treat with respect as trustees of God’s creation.
The poems I wrote re‐imagining Ash Wednesday and the Passion are in themselves, a sort of gift, by writing them I have learnt to travel beyond the reach of my own implicit norms thereby enriching and placing them in a wider context. This was a journey worth making.
© Raficq Abdulla 2013