The word for death in modern Urdu/Hindi and Arabic is maut, in Hebrew it’s mavet, in Sanskrit mirtiu, in Latin mortem, and in Persian it’s faut. And the god for death in ancient Levant and Mesopotamia was called Mot. According to myths from ancient Ugarit (ancient Syria) and Canaan (ancient Levant), Mot and Baal were both sons of the high god El. They got into a fight, and Baal, who was the god of light and fertility, defeated and killed Mot, who was the god of darkness and death. But El managed to resurrect Mot, and since then both Mot and Baal have been involved in an eternal struggle for supremacy. (Sounds remarkably similar to Zoroastrianism.) Also in Hebrew Bible/Tanakh, in both the Book of Hosea and the Book of Jeremiah, Maweth/Mot is mentioned as a deity (or an angel of death) to whom the Hebrew god YHWH can turn over the kingdom of Judah as punishment for worshiping other gods. Nobody knows the linguistic origins of Mot, but variants of this word (ancient Syriac: mauta, ancient Akkadian: mutu, ancient Aramaic, Berber, and Coptic: mwt) have been used for death for at least the last 6000 years in an expanse of area that stretches from Central Africa to Europe to India -a rare word that is shared among Semitic, Indo-European, Dravidian, and African families of languages.
Finally finished reading Torah -the first five books of the Old Testament/Tanakh; the only books attributed to Prophet Mosheh/Moses/Musa (a claim that is contradicted by Torah itself; the usual scholarly consensus is that Torah is a collection of fragmentary oral and written narratives that were compiled and edited/redacted by 4 separate groups of authors: Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist (not their names but their modern designations), between 950 B.C.E. and 500 B.C.E.; earliest oral narratives were of even earlier provenance, and the last redaction was attempted around 500 B.C.E. during, and soon after, the Babylonian exile). Some thoughts:
1. What I found most surprising was that there is absolutely no Satan/devil, nor any conception of heaven or hell, in Torah. Instead, there is Sheol -a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead live a shadowy existence; a concept that corresponds to the depiction of afterlife in both ancient Greek and Mesopotamian myths. Eve is not tempted to eat the apple of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” by Satan, who doesn’t exist in Torah, but instead by a snake acting on its own behest. There is no mention of sin in the story, nor any casting of Eve and Adam from the heavens to the earth; instead it is an etiological story attempting to explain how humans gained wisdom -the knowledge of good and evil. And heavens in Torah is merely an abode of gods -again a concept that fits with most ancient myths.
2. Not monotheism, but monolatry: Again and again, authors of Torah emphasize that their God (called YHWH/Elohim/El Shaddai/Elyon among other names) is the God of the Hebrews, and that He is a god among many gods. He is indeed the mightiest, the most powerful -as was customary in the ancient world to claim that the god representing your city/ethnic community is the most powerful; but He is definitely only the god of the Hebrews. How could a God for all mankind, a just God, decimate the entire land of Egypt “with festering boils on every human and animal,” annihilate all the Canaanites, including women and children, for the sake of a select few?
3. The names given to patriarchs/prophets in Torah are literary conceits/wordplays -a reflection of the person’s role in the story. Thus, Abram means the “the exalted ancestor” and Abraham (Prophet Ibrahim) means “ancestor of the multitudes;” Isaac (Prophet Ishaq) means “he laughs” since his parents laughed when he was predicted; Ishmael (Prophet Ismail) means “he hears” since God later hears his mother Hagar/Hajra’s lamentations; Jacob (Prophet Yaqub) means “he supplants” since he later supplants, through trickery, the inheritance of his twin brother Esau; Joseph (Prophet Yusef) means “he is taken away” since he gets taken away to Egypt; Prophet Mosheh/Moses/Musa means “he who draws out” since he later draws his people out through the sea. Ditto for place names and names of tribes. Tribes are retroactively connected to names and origin stories in order to proclaim the supremacy of the tribes of Israel, and ultimately, the tribe of Judah. So, Esau, whose name means “hairy,” and is shown as a buffoon who’s fond of hunting, is said to be the ancestor of Edoms -a tribe that rebelled against Judah. Arabs are descendants of Abraham’s second concubine, Keturah. The Moabs and Ammons, two of Israel’s closest neighbors and fiercest enemies, are borne out of an incestuous relationship between Lot (Prophet Loot) and his two daughters.
4. With every succeeding commandment and exploit of the God of Old Testament, I couldn’t help but think of Donald Trump. Hear me out: The Lord of Old Testament commands that every sacrifice to Him must be of an absolutely unblemished animal who must be male and exactly one year old; He commands that His temple must be built with the most precious stones and almost all furnishings inside the inner sanctum must be made of pure gold; He causes “festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt,” after He himself claims, repeatedly, that it is He who “hardens the heart of Pharaoh” because He desires to show-off His miracles and His glory to the Egyptians; He first brings the Israels to a land with no water or food, then punishes them for the audacity to ask for water and food; He massacres 3000 Jews for building a harmless golden calf, then 14,700 for questioning Moses, then 24,000 (impaling all the chiefs) for marrying Moabite women and bowing to their gods, and then makes sure that all of the 2 million+ Israels (a highly questionable number, if not the event of Exodus itself) who He had led out of Egypt with promises of a wonderland “flowing with milk and honey,” would wander in the wilderness for 40 years and die before seeing the promised land (the land that is not empty but inhabited by thousands of poor Canaanites who’re about to be slaughtered); punishment for abandoning Him (He keeps repeating that “He is indeed a jealous God”) or blasphemy or even working on the day of Sabbath is death; He kills two sons of Aaron (Prophet Haroon) for offering incense to Him but before His authorization, and then commands Aaron not to mourn them. If this is not fascism, then I don’t know what is.
5. Many patriarchs who are thought to be prophets in Islamic tradition (Loot, Ishaq, Ismael, Yaqub, Haroon) are merely patriarchs/ancestors in Torah. Yet, it speaks of a female prophet: Prophet Miriam, the sister of Aaron, who, after Moses had led Israels out of the Red Sea (or the Sea of Reeds) “took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourine and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them” of the glory of Lord. (If only they knew what was in store for them!)
6. Moses at the mountain: It’s intriguing to me how one narrative gets accentuated in subsequent traditions from a book of competing narratives. So, Quran, in Surah al-A’raf verse 143, narrates that when God appeared to Moses on the mountain Toor, “the mountain crumbled down and Moses fell unconscious.” In Torah, in Exodus 33:21-23, that story appears with a slightly different version of events: The God says to Moses, “there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” But earlier, Exodus 33:11 narrates: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” In fact, the whole conception of God in Torah is entirely different from the Islamic tradition. In Torah, God physically appears to Abraham along with two angels; God fights a hand-to-hand combat with the patriarch Isaac, and then anoints him, Israel (which means “the one who wrestles with God”); God asks Moses to bring 70 elders of Israel to visit Him at the top of the mountain Sinai; God actually physically resides, as a pillar of cloud, with the Israels in the tent dedicated to Him, and physically leads Israels in their wars against other nations; and the covenant that He establishes with Israels is precisely that He will continue to physically reside with the Israels as long as they continue to abide by His decrees and commandments. (This is analogous to ancient Mesopotamian religions where a god physically resided inside the temple dedicated to him and led his nation in wars against other nations. It was dreaded that if the god of the town/temple was not kept happy through daily sacrifices, or if his commandments were not diligently observed, he’d abandon them.)
7. To anyone interested in reading, I’d highly recommend The New Oxford Annotated Bible. It is translated using the oldest extant manuscripts of Torah, and in accordance with the subtleties of Hebrew that was used in the first millennium B.C.E. It points out the contradictions, passages attributed to each of the four possible groups of authors/editors, and the narratives that corresponds to the myths, laws, and events narrated in ancient Canaanite, Egyptian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Mesopotamian steles, law codes, tablets, and manuscripts. All of this is extremely important since up till the 20th century the world was hardly aware of these ancient civilizations, nor had any of these ancient languages been translated. The world’s only source for any pre-Greek history was the Torah/Bible. Now that these ancient texts are being discovered and deciphered, the world’s perception of events and narratives that surround Torah/Bible has substantially changed. So, for example, close to the end of Torah, Deuteronomy 28:15 to 28:68, is a long list of curses that God promises to cast upon Israels if they would not “diligently observe all His commandments and decrees.” Bear in mind that this means that every single member of the nation of Israels must obey almost a 100 pages of these decrees, and if a single one of them slips in any one commandment, then unless he/she is accordingly punished or exiled, the entire nation will suffer. These curses include, 28:30, “you shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her,” 28:53, “you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters,” 28:61, “every other malady and affliction, even though not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will inflict on you until you are destroyed,” 28:63, “so the Lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction,” and finally, 28:64, “The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other.” Up till the 20th century, most followers of Abrahamic religions believed that the Jews suffered their two major exiles, the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C.E and the Roman exile in 70 C.E, because they didn’t remain faithful to the Lord’s commandments. But now that we have several law codes from the ancient world, from the Hittites to the Sumerians, we know that it was customary to include a long list of curses, as a prior warning, at the end of every law code and treaty. In fact, the curses outlined in Deuteronomy, including 28:30 and the threat of deportation at 28:64, parallels the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon, a Neo-Assyrian treaty from 672 B.C.E. We know that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, including at least 10 other kingdoms, were vassals of Assyria. Moreover, we now know that it was customary for most ancient armies, especially the Assyrians and Babylonians, and to some extent, Romans, to deport their subject populations after defeating them. The tragedy of the Israels was that they were sandwiched inside a narrow strip of Levant (the promised land) between the two far wealthier regions of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
8. I remembered listening to this ages ago, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JV2siRpW… I found references to wine at so many places in Torah that I had to look this video up. And as expected, either Dr. Naik has never read the Bible, and just selectively searched and found these two verses, or he is deliberately misleading his audience. There are dozens of places in Bible where God not only expects His audience to enjoy wine during festivals, but also to include wine in their sacrifices to Him. As He proclaims, the smell of wine “is a pleasing odor to the Lord” (Numbers 15:10). It seems that he is misleading because he not only quotes these verses out of their contexts but cuts them down to the few words that he needs. Proverbs are not commandments by God, but a collection of oral “proverbs.” 20:1 is a warning against excessive drinking; its correct translation is, “wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Similarly, 23:20 states, “Do not be among winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat,” this doesn’t mean that meat is prohibited; or 19:13, “and a wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain;” or 23:13, “Do not withhold discipline from your children; if you beat them with a rod, they will not die.” Similarly, Ephesians 5:18 is from a list of instructions written by Saint Paul to a congregation of churchgoers about how to comport themselves inside a church. It doesn’t prohibit them from drinking wine inside a church, but from drinking immoderately so as to not get drunk during a congregation. The whole verse is, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.”
On Fred M. Donner’s excellent (and highly recommended) Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam
The main thesis of Donner’s book is that the early Islamic movement was an ecumenical (a universal) movement that included all monotheists. As evidence, he cites the extant documents (though admittedly few) from the early Islamic era (610 to 690 AD) in where early Muslims mostly use the word al-mu’mineen (the believers) to address themselves, and even when the word muslimeen is used, it is used in the context of its true meaning, i.e. the ones who submit to one God. He cites the early coins issued by Muslims, all of which contain only the first half of the modern Muslim shahadah and do not mention the prophet Muhammad (these coins even contained images, and later the image of an Arab standing with a sword about which scholars dispute if it is the image of prophet Muhammad or the caliph). The word khalifa (caliph) was never used by early leaders of the movement, instead the only word used was amir al-mu’mineen (commander of the believers). Secondly, even all the works written by non-Muslims addressing these nomadic conquerors cite that these people use the words al-mu’mineen or al-muhajiroon (the migrants) to address themselves. Then there is proof that early Muslim armies included Christian and Jewish tribes, mostly Monophysite and Nestorian Christian tribes, in their ranks. He also concludes that, despite the reports (mostly Christian) of looting and destruction by Muslim armies, there may have been looting and pillage and seizing of slaves (more than 4000 slaves worked at caliph Muawia’s properties at Yamama) but there is no archeological proof of major destruction of properties (except in Tripoli in modern Lebanon, which, after a prolonged siege, was completely evacuated of its Christians by Muslims and repopulated with Jews), instead there were churches built at many sites after the occupation of Muslims. It was late only during the period of Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) that coins were issued with the second part of shahadah along with the name of prophet Muhammad (which also shows their nonchalant attitude towards the name of God and prophet and Qur’anic ayahs). It was, Donner believes, an effort by the now victor Muslims to separate themselves from the defeated and vanquished population of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians (though many of them kept working as high ranking officers in Muslim bureaucracies). Lastly, some thoughts on Muslim civil wars (during the second of which Makkah and Medina were sieged twice by Muslim armies and Kaabah was burned to the ground): It was ibn Taymiyyah who in the fourteenth century conferred the title of khalifa-e-rashidun (the rightly guided caliphs) on the first four caliphs, but I wonder if the Muslims alive during the era of the first four caliphs would have agreed. It is strange that for an empire that had conquered half of the known world, nobody came to the rescue of caliph Usman, in fact many Muslims left Medina for Makkah as his house was seized. It shows that he was indeed deeply unpopular because of his policy of awarding important governorships to family members. Even Ali, by the end of his life, had no help from any of the major Muslim sections of army. Hijaz, Syria, Egypt, and most of Iraq had already aligned against him. Perhaps there was a reason he had been repeatedly ignored by the Muslim shuras for the title of the amir al-mu’mineen. Also, the practice of cursing the opposing caliph during Friday sermons was actually started by Ali, and then continued by Umayyad caliphs who issued decrees to curse the caliphs Usman and Ali.
PS: Caliph Mu’awiah in one of his letters to the Arab governors of Persia: “Be watchful of Persian Muslims and never treat them as equals. … As far as possible, give them smaller pensions and lowly jobs. In the presence of an Arab, a non-Arab shall not lead prayers, nor are they to be allowed to stand in the first row of the prayer.”
Zoroastrianism might possibly be the most influential religion in human history. Historians date its beginning to about 1500 BC. It was the first religion in human history to suggest monotheism, belief in one God; that is about 800 years before monotheism took hold among Jews. (As any scholar of Torah will tell you, significant portions of it, including the story of Noah, were borrowed during Jewish exile in Babylon.) Here is a list of beliefs, tenets, practices, symbols that may have been borrowed by Islam, and other Abrahamic religions, from Zoroastrianism:
1. Mira’aj: Zarathusthra was the first prophet in history to narrate a tale of his journey to heavens to meet the God Ahuramazda and receive, according to him, the right religion.
2. It was the first religion to suggest the existence of a devil, Ahiraman.
3. It was the first to posit light as an element of divine.
4. It was the first to posit linear time, of one earthly life; before it all religions took time as a circular entity with possibilities of multiple lives.
5. It was the first to suggest the existence of heaven and hell.
6. The existence of a narrow, almost pin shaped, bridge between the earth and the skies. This bridge needs to be crossed by all humans, and bad ones among us fall off it towards and into hell. This was later borrowed by Islam by the name of pul-e-sirat in Arabic.
7. Nimaz: The division of 24 hours in 5 stages of prayers.
8. Wudhoo: Each prayer must be preceded by an ablution.
9. Ramadhan: Manichees fasted from sunrise to sunset for 30 days before their annual festival.
10. Headcap: They consider hair impure, and were the first to use headcaps for prayers. (They even invented sleeves and trousers for the same reason.)
11. Girban: The existence of a book suspended by the middle of every human’s collar. This book is supposed to contain a list of all our deeds, and is also mentioned in the Qur’an.
12. The belief in a final messiah who will come before the end times to bring the just and righteous kingdom of God to this planet called earth.
13. Finally, it was the first religion to have a series of religious texts in the shape of a book (that was orally transmitted in the ancient Avestan language up till the 4th century AD).
Aeschylus’ Oresteia should be taught in every school at the secondary level. There is a great deal of ignorance about how a democracy works, and this Greek play written almost 2600 years ago explains democracy better than anything else I’ve read.
It is a play in three parts about Agamemnon, the leader of Greek army that sailed to the city of Troy, and his family. Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter in bargain for favorable winds from the Greek gods. Ten years later, when he came back as the conqueror of Troy, his wife, still mourning for her daughter, murdered him. In the second part of the play, their son Orestes avenges his father by killing his mother. For me, the most compelling part of the play is the third and final part in which Aeschylus alters these traditional Greek plays on revenge by placing Orestes in front of a contemporary Athenian court. Through this ploy, Aeschylus doesn’t only examine and question the matricide committed by Orestes but the whole ancient system of justice, of eye for an eye. And suddenly, we see a whole society transforming in front of our eyes. Now, it is not only the gods who play the part of judge and executors but eleven ordinary Athenians are joined with the gods as jurors. Now, we hear arguments on both sides, we see a kind of empathy developing, we hear litigation, diplomacy, and in the end, a compromise -the essence of democracy. Orestes is to be set free, and the Furies, the gods who demanded his execution, are to be given a temple in Athens. Each time I read this play, I feel more in awe of how Aeschylus achieves this great transformation.
I love these Greek plays for not only their literary quality, their exquisite retellings of ancient myths, but the whole interplay between the authors of these plays and their audience. My second favorite Greek tragedy has to be The Trojan Women by Euripides. It is a play about the women of Troy lamenting the massacre of their families and their city. The play was performed in the year 415 BC, that same year an Athenian fleet had slaughtered all men in the island of Melos and enslaved all its women and children. And later that year, Athenians were about to embark in an expedition toward Sicily which ended disastrously for Athens. Euripides, through this play, shows the futility of such wars, of greed for foreign land and strategic resources. He shows us how such wars don’t only result in useless massacres of mostly innocent civilians but also in the moral depredation of its perpetrators: though the Greeks won that ancient war against Troy, none of the leaders of the Greek army returned to a salutary life.
I’m always amazed at how these Greek authors, again and again, relentlessly, criticize in their plays not only their own city of Athens, a city which they otherwise praised to the heavens for its democratic tradition, but also their own Athenian leaders who were almost always among the audience, seated at the very front, and who usually also paid for the production. How in Oresteia, and The Trojan Women, and The Persians, and Antigone, these authors are actually teaching their audience to empathize with the enemy.
The Greek democracy soon died, and with it, at least for a very long time, its tradition of public self-criticism; but yet, these were the very few plays that were kept for posterity and were treasured generation after generation. I feel, it is our duty to maintain this very first of all literary traditions, of self-criticism, of courage against the often very loud calls for wars, of questioning the norms in our society, and of empathizing with the loser and the conquered, in our own literary works.
Your religion is defined by your habits; religion is that which one does habitually. Five good habits: generosity, truth, virtue, eloquence, learning. Ahuramazda [God] is a friend, be a friend to everyone, your character is defined by how you take care of others. One should use wealth to help others and not be arrogant about it. The humblest and the best food is what you just ate. Ahriman [the devil] lives within you; and the fiercest demon is anger.
Meher, the Islamic word for betrothal money promised by a groom to his wife (or her family), has precedent in Torah, where in Hebrew, the word used is Mohar. The practice goes all the way back to both ancient Hittite and Mesopotamian civilizations where law codes specifically state that a groom or his family is obligated to pay an amount that they had mutually agreed upon to the bride or her family. In ancient Aramiac, the word used is Muhra. Moreover, though in Torah, divorce is only mentioned in the context of a husband divorcing his wife, we have court documents from the ancient Jewish community in Elephantine, Egypt (from 500 BC) that shows that laws in practice were very different. That though a divorce was looked down upon, a woman in ancient Egypt could divorce her husband and that both had equal rights to divorce and property. Women could own property in ancient Persia, ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and yes, ancient Arabia. Here is one example from ancient Egypt: “Tomorrow, or another day if Ananiah stands up in an assembly and declares, ‘I hate my wife Yehoyishma; she shall not be my wife,’ silver of hatred is upon his head. He shall give her everything she brought into his house, her cash and her clothes, eight shekels and five hallur of silver, and the rest of her property, and she may go where she pleases. And if Yehoyishma declares, “I hate you, my husband; I will not be your wife,” silver of hatred is upon her head. She shall give her husband seven shekels, and go out from him with the rest of her cash, goods, and chattels, worth … And he shall give her the rest of her property.” (This shows how ignorant those priests or imams are who believe that only their religion brought rights to women. This is because they don’t bother to study anything besides their own few books.)
In 1531, a Palestinian peasant responded thus to an Ottoman caliph’s tax collector: “When your caliph defeats 7 firangi kings, then, and only then, come to us. Until then this order (tax farmaan) to us is like wind from a donkey’s ass.” This was noted in Ottoman tax records, and prompted a fatwa by the sheikh-ul-Islam of the time. In 1975, Monty Python recorded this conversation in their movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which makes them the greatest, and the most learned, comedians in history).
I always cringe when I get to watch folks like Zakir Naik and others disparaging other religions and taking arrogant pride in debating that somehow their religion is superior over all others, that it is the only truth. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (greatest living scholar of not only Islam but Religion and a sufi) says something I really like, “No one religion can ever be the only truth because God’s mercy and justice can never allow majority of His creation to follow a path that does not lead to Him. All religions are conduits to God and each religion is complete unto itself. All beings are manifestations of aspects of God.” It makes sense to me because if you consider just the current percentage of Muslims in the world, it is 23% and if you reckon all of humanity since the 7th century then it would be much less. Can a merciful God allow more than three quarters of His creation to burn in hell? I don’t think so. Also, Muslim means someone who completely submits to God, so whoever completely submits to God is a Muslim. “God has written the mark of beauty upon all things.” – Prophet’s hadith. Our world would be a much better place if we all live by this belief.
Few more snippets and quotes from Nasr’s lectures and books: “The face of God shines everywhere. In the heart of all religions and philosophies is this abiding truth.” “Those who know do not speak and those who speak do not know.” – from Dao (i.e. all that we say about God is nothing compared to what we do not say about God). “To know God is to enable God within to know God.” “The word Tauheed does not only mean One but also the integration of everything into One.” “Evil is separation from the good.” – from Dante’s Divine Comedy. “We all return to God then why not walk this journey with a smile on our face.” – from Rumi’s Mathnavi. “It is us that are veiled, not God. God is a passive lake and we are snowflakes falling upon it.”
Finally, a short poem from Hafiz (1326-1390), who, as his name suggests, was a hafiz of Quran,
I am in love with every church
And any kind of shrine
Because I know it is there
That people say the different names
of the divine.
And Amir Khusraw (1253-1325),
I am an infidel of love; I don’t have any need of being a Muslim.
My every vein is a thread; I do not need the thread of a [Hindu] Brahmin.
Nasir ud-din Tusi’s (1201-1274),
“The need for Justice … arises from the absence of love, for if love were to accrue among individuals, there would be no necessity for equity and impartiality … In this regard, the virtue of Love over Justice is obvious.”
Amir Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (1254-1338) poet, sufi, and compiler of one of the most famous books of Islam in South Asia, the Fava’id-ul-Fuvad, in his divan,
The work of the lover is the work of the heart:
Those meanings are beyond Belief [din] and Unbelief [kufr].
Khwaja Ghulam Fareed’s (1845-1902), who was himself a scholar of Quran and shariah,
Oh! Real-True Beauty, Beginning-Less Light!
Shall I call you Mosque, or Temple, or Convent?
Shall I call you Pothi, or shall I call you Quran?
Shall I call you Rosary (tasbeeh)? Shall I call you Caste-String (worn by Brahmans)?
Shall I call you Dasrat, Bichman, or Ram?
Shall I call you Sita, my Darling One?
Shall I call you Maha Dev? Shall I call you Bhagwan?
Shall I call you Gita, Granth or Veda?
Shall I call you Beloved of Every Heart?
Shall I call you Houri. Fairy-lass, or Handsome Lad?
Shall I call you Blush? Shall I call you Kohl? Shall I call you pan?
Shall I call you Beauty? Embellishment and Adornment?
Shall I call you Tablah or Tambour?
Shall I call you Dholak? Shall I call you Metre or Note-Beat?
Shall I call you Love? Shall I call you Science?
Shall I call you Without Color? Shall I call you Without Any Likeness?
Shall I call you Without Form? Shall I call you Ever-Every Moment?
On 14th April, 216 AD a boy was born in Babylon who at the age of 23 came to call himself the last prophet among a long line of prophets which included Adam, Noah, Jesus, Buddha, and Zarathustra. His name was Mani. He traveled from Syria to India, (even met and managed to convert the king of Makran, now Baluchistan), wrote books unfolding his cosmology which really is more complex than the plot of Game of Thrones. Between 3rd and 8th centuries, miraculously, his religion Manichaeism, became widely popular in a large swath of area -from Spain and North Africa to Southern coasts of China. Its spread over the Eurasian landmass only rivals that of Islam and Christianity and its success was in fact more remarkable in that it was achieved without military conquest. Here are the commandments of Manichaeism: the honor of Fasting, Prayer, and Almsgiving; the honor of the commandment that we kill not, that we eat no flesh, that we make ourselves pure; and the honor of the commandment of blessed poverty, humility, and kindliness. It also prohibits blasphemous speech, eating of meat, and drinking of alcohol. Another interesting fact: their annual festival was preceded by a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset.
The night is dead.
The flowers you perched
At the warm youth of love
Have withered in disgust.
Their putrid scent of might
Has shunned its pungent delight.
We’ve suffered an ordinary lust.
The sun is upon us,
Lingering at our window
Of ignorant bliss;
Daring to stare with sardonic slight:
“Ah! Two naked bodies cloaked with plight.”
For we were the brave few
willing not only our souls,
but pouring our glistening bodies
over the trifle abstraction of dreams.
How foolishly limpid,
flippantly intrepid was youth,
and how phlegmatic,
was a heart’s surrender.
Surah 24, Ayah 35 of the Qur’an states, “[God is] Light upon Light and He guides to His Light whom He wills.” In the drawing attached to this post, the chant of “Allah Hu” is used to symbolize the presence of lovers of God. These lovers of God are performing a zikr in order to create a sama and receive God’s guidance towards His presence. I’ve used “Allah Hu” to symbolize their batin – their inner, hidden, spiritual and real self. And at the center of the drawing, at the heart of batin, is the haqiqah – the God symbolized by light.
It is the difference between seeing with the eyes and seeing with the heart. For these lovers of God, these walis, the presence of Allah is everywhere. The rhythmic chanting is their tariqah, their path, to experience the haqiqah, the real. It is through this chanting, this zikr, that they connect with God and achieve wajd, a form of ecstasy. And through wajd they subsume their nafs, their ego, into the singular reality of God.
It is through the chanting of “Allah Hu” that a mystic steps through maqams, spiritual stations, to achieve hal, the spiritual state that brings them near to God. The ultimate goal of the chant is “fana-fil-lah” – annihilation in God. A state that cannot be explained, only experienced. Prophet is said to have experienced such a state during miraj through heavens until he was finally in the presence of God. For a mystic, the chant of Allah is his miraj through which he ascends to God.
The rhythmic chanting of “Allah Hu” also excites the primordial memories of the Day of Alast. The day when, as Quran states in 7:171, God asked, “Am I not your Lord?” and everything in nature responded, “Yes, we witness it.” The central concern of the zikr is to evoke remembrance of the real identity. Humans are in the sleep of negligence and have forgotten their true identity. It is through zikr that they achieve the primordial state of union with God.
As I sat inside the waiting room of the Lansing Funeral Home, I could not help but notice the absolute silence of the place. It was nine o’clock on a Wednesday morning in the first week of March. The sky outside the long casement windows looked as if the dull grey of the clouds had melted inside its soft blue. It was a typical Lansing day of spring with its soothing chill and calmness that settled in the air after a night of heavy rain. On my way here, I noticed a secondary school a block away, yet no cackling children, not even a bird. The management had decorated the mortuary with stems of purple wisteria stretched around the outside walls and edges of windows, and there were carefully pruned butterfly bushes on the lawn. The waiting room had two sofas, a coffee table with a glass top in the middle, a well-stacked book case, and a long flat-screen television tacked above the mantelpiece. Two white porcelain flower vases, with a blend of yellow, pink, and blue lilies, were resting on the mantelpiece. I looked at Faisal. He was sitting at the sofa across from me, thumbing over his I-phone. He was dressed in all black: black jeans, shirt, shoes, socks. I wore a pale white shirt with its ends hanging over my blue jeans.
I was up till four o’clock last night talking to my wife in Pakistan, and in any other case, would probably have still been sleeping. But Faisal’s father died last evening due to a heart attack, and he called me at eight this morning, wondering if I could help him wash the dead body. I hardly even knew Faisal. It had only been two weeks since I had started working as a delivery driver at the pizza place on Holland drive where Faisal was one of the other three drivers. Twenty minutes later our boss, Mr. Sajid, called me to go help Faisal. I wondered why he couldn’t help Faisal himself. He told me later that he had not had the courage. I wondered what made him think I had the courage to wash the dead body of a person I had only met once. It had only been two days when the engine of Faisal’s car gave away and his father came to tow the car home. They were Afghanis. Though they had been in Lansing for more than two years, somehow I was the only guy who agreed to his request.
The dead body was already inside the bathing room. We were waiting for the local imam to help us wash it according to the traditional Muslims rituals. The imam soon came donned in papery white shalwar kameez and hugging onto a little prayer book under his folded arms. He shook our hands, looked at Faisal with some consternation, then asked, “Why are you dressed in all black, son.”
Faisal said, “Because I thought black is what we are supposed to wear.”
Imam said, “No. It is for Christians. We are Muslims. It would be better if you could go change it.”
Faisal rushed out to his car. I looked at the dark screen of the television and picked one of the brochures placed over the coffee table. It said, “At Lansing Funeral Home we offer a variety of American made eco-friendly caskets and shrouds. We also offer an extensive selection of biodegradable urns suitable for earth or water burial.”
We finally went inside the dressing room twenty minutes later when Faisal came back dressed in a blue jeans and loose grey t-shirt with a red buffalo embossed on it. He was a tall muscular guy about the age of twenty with a carefully trimmed pencil-thin beard. Inside, the walls looked medieval with naked bricks patched with cement; a pale rubber tube came out of a tap fixed over a fairly deep washing sink with slight patches of light blue on it. A diagonal crack ran through the middle of the sink. The dead body was laid over a raised and slightly inclined stony platform in the middle of the room. The imam stood by the head whispering his prayers. To my surprise, I did not feel any fear. I still remembered the hard scabby touch of the guy’s palm. He was a short skinny guy with a bald pate, a long oval face with small restless eyes and a pointed nose; a fast talker. I could now see pockets of long auburn hair over his chest, a taut ballooning gut with a big navel, lean muscular arms. But I could not identify those restless eyes, the person I had met only for a brief minute, with the dead body lying beneath me. The imam twisted the sink faucet, soaked two small white towels, and placed the rubber tube over the body’s right shoulder. A soft gush of warm water mixed with soap cascaded down the body. He looked at me and said that the right side of the body should be washed first. I began to scrub its hands, but as I moved up toward the shoulder, the body started to slide down. All three of us rushed to hold it, pulled it back up, and steadied the head back over the stony headrest. Faisal stood over the side of the head and gripped the shoulders. I hurried with my hands, and once I was done, I took over Faisal’s place. For a short skinny man, the body was really heavy. It took all my strength to keep it stable and resting. It felt pathetic; and I kept thinking, I never want to die. I glanced over at the imam. His lips were moving in a frenzy but to me it seemed meaningless. We were the ones with absolute power over the body. There was nothing we could not do with it. I felt that that day, we conveyed our sense of dignity through our hands and eyes. I thought that one day I would lay at its place, at the mercy of others, probably strangers. Once we had rubbed the body with dry towels, imam sprayed an ittar with the scent of camphor over its armpits and private parts. We cloaked the body with three separate pieces of white cotton cerements; tying the two ends, by the head and the feet, together.
Once we were out, Faisal held me in his arms, and thanked me. I wanted to go home but he asked me to drive with him to the mosque and I couldn’t say no. A small group of men were seated inside the mosque reading Quran. From across the wall, I could hear voices of women reading Quran. Their lilting rhythmic Arabic coalesced into a soft hum of dirge. I picked up a copy and attempted to read but it had been a while and my Arabic had become rusty. Half an hour later, few sharp cries mixed with low keening voices reached out from the wall. It meant that the dead body had arrived. It was almost noon. We had to wait another hour to start the group namaz in honor of the dead person.
After the namaz, I stood outside the mosque and gazed at the washed blue sky, birch and maple trees with freshly sprouted leaves over their stems, fresh spills of bird feces over the parked cars. Nothing seemed more repulsive, at that moment, than my own body. People started to walk out hoisting the open casket over their shoulders. I watched with my hands folded over my chest. I saw Faisal walking toward me with a tall girl. She was his sister, Rubab. She thanked me in a thick Farsi accent with a forced smile over her lips and a hoarse quivering voice. A film of dried tears was still visible over her milky white cheeks. Her fingers were bunched inside her palm. The air was beginning to fill with dull voices of old engines and shutting car-doors. I walked with Faisal toward his car. It was an old eighties’ Mustang. There were four other cars and the funeral bier in the shape of a Lincoln van. We proceeded toward the cemetery like a row of timid lethargic ants. “Man,” Faisal said, “he was watching a movie with us last night. How could a thing like this happen?” I thought it was time to speak but failed to locate a single word that stood up to the gravity of the situation. I thought about my wife. I thought about her voice last night and how it was stained with the ache of solitude. I longed for her embrace. I thought about my four year old son. I had not seen them for three years now.
There were many more people at the cemetery. Mostly white men and women from his pizza place and ours. A grave had already been dug. They came toward us, some hugged, some held our hands in condolence. An old white woman with a black scarf said to me, “He was a hard-working man but each body has an expiry period. His heart expired. There was nothing you could do.” A stocky middle-aged man in coffee-brown shalwar kameez walked toward us and said, “Please hurry. The son and close relatives are supposed to carry a man inside his final resting place. There should not be any delay.” It was essentially a Christian cemetery with a small area circumscribed for Muslim bodies. I jumped inside the six feet deep grave with Faisal. Six scrupulous arms handed down the body to us. We carefully placed it down. As instructed, tilted it towards its right facing Mecca, ballasted its back with a row of bricks, untied both ends. We were pulled out by eager outstretched hands. As we started to shovel sand inside the grave, a large flock of birds flew above us, parasolled us with the curtain of their shadow, and liberally spilled their droppings over the cemetery. One slimy sulfurous drop splashed right over the nape of the dead body. All hands paused for a moment and everyone looked at each other. All eyes turned to Faisal. He pushed his shovel, scooped more sand, and poured it inside the grave. Everyone followed him.