W8: The Voice of the Ass

The Voice of the Ass

“The most objectionable of voices is the voice of the ass.” (31:19) 

 

They were laughing uproariously, and it made him sad.

All it had taken was one note, one single little emission that swelled from the surging tide of emotion in him and burst joyously, audibly, from his throat… and then they were upon him, jeering and braying and stamping, with every screeching cackle, more and more viciously on the violently shrinking emotion inside him that had tried to escape the shell of his body and lay itself bare for all to see, hear, and share.

“Your voice is the ugliest voice I have ever heard,” guffawed one of his tormentors.

“It’s the ugliest voice God has ever heard,” corrected another.

“God covers His ears when you speak!” hooted a third, and the donkey tried to cover his own ears to the taunts, but he heard every one, and this one hurt him most of all.

 

That night, he found it impossible to sink into sleep. He shifted, and sighed, and sobbed, and tentatively, very tentatively, reached out for comfort from his God, as he had done on so many lonely nights before. But he heard nothing back. That night, God seemed far, far away from a creature such as he, one who, he realised, demeaned the one he worshipped by the very act and expression of his worship.

“If God is not by my side as I had thought, I will just have to travel to his,” he said to himself. Then he got up and left the warmth of his home, intent on making his very own night journey to God.

 

The donkey soon learnt he had undertaken a journey that could not be completed in a single night. It was an arduous journey; many times along the path he stumbled, and looked around in despair, and the moonlight was so very faint and the darkness loomed, and he felt sure he was lost. He passed the rushes by the river and they whispered, whispered, whispered in beautiful tones but when he listened, they had no words for him. He passed a camel waking from a dream, whose smile radiated with sleepy peace until her eyes lit upon him, and glared.

“What are you doing stumbling around in the dark like that?”

“I – I’m just looking for something…”

“What could you possibly be looking for?”

He was about to say, “God”, but the memory of the laughter came back to him, and he knew he was unworthy, so he said instead, “Singing lessons.”

The camel snorted, shook her head, and settled back into slumber, leaving him quite alone.

 

Night passed, and many days and nights after that, and he met all manner of beings along the road, who ignored him, or were cruel, or were kind, but could not help.

“Singing lessons,” he found himself repeating for the millionth time to a rose by the wayside. He did not notice the tear that welled up until he saw it drip onto a blushing petal.

“Oh, don’t cry,” said the rose. “You know, I think I just might know someone…”

The donkey tried valiantly to stem his snuffling as the rose called out to the nightingale. So absorbed was he in reflecting upon his own exhaustion, hopelessness, and hunger that he did not hear them conferring, or the voices calling out to him.

“OW!” brayed the donkey, his head smarting from the nightingale’s sharp peck.

“You’re going to have to learn to pay attention,” noted the rose in dismay. “Be a good student for the nightingale, please. I know you’ve had a hard time, and you should know it’s not going to get easier, but…” the rose was unable to finish her sentence, as the donkey erupted in expressions of profuse gratitude, relief, amazement, enthusiasm.

 

The rose had been right: the journey was nowhere near its end, and it was a whole new dimension of difficult. The physical difficulties were formidable as the donkey worked hard at his daily exercises, and the inner challenge was immense.

“I’m getting no better, am I?” sighed the donkey miserably at the end of yet another day.

“You’re fine,” said the nightingale, who was frankly impressed.

“This is terrible,” groaned the donkey, “but I should say it’s not as bad as when I was stumbling around alone in the dark. I’m so glad to have you now. You’re the best spiritual guide I could have found.”

“I’m your singing teacher,” amended the nightingale, bemused.

“Right!” said the donkey, pleased.

 

Years passed, and the creatures of the village were assembled in eager anticipation, craning their necks as they awaited the arrival of the famous qari’ who was to grace the village this day.

The reciter appeared.

A ripple ran through the crowd. A murmur struck up and grew in volume. Finally, the full sentiment was shouted, audibly, across the heads of everyone present: “The qari’ is a donkey? That can’t be!”

A familiar sensation assailed the donkey, but froze and fell away in the face of self-assurance painstakingly built up over the years. The donkey took a deep breath and smiled. “I’ll show them.” All he had to do now was let the Divine Word pour out of his soul through his throat, and it would captivate all within earshot. He opened his mouth, and began.

He barely heard the first boos and hisses, so preoccupied by his own panic was he. What was going on? What was going on?! The Divine Word, normally a running river of light, gurgled forth in fits and starts. His own voice, normally so beautiful that hearing it made him carry on even more beautifully, was weird and warped, twisting like the fear and shame that swelled inside him.

The famous qari’ fell silent, then fled on quaking legs.

 

He ran and ran and ran away from the terrible noise he had heard back in the village, the awful voice that had once been his. He ran blinded by tears so that eventually he collided into a solid mass and landed on his rump.

“It’s you!” grunted whatever he had run into. “What a ruckus you’re making. Sounds like you never did find whatever it was you were looking for.”

“Wh-what?” heaved the donkey mournfully, nursing his scrapes.

“Singing lessons, was it?”

The donkey looked up at the camel he had met a lifetime ago, and the memory of mocking laughter came back to him, and so did the memory of his first and secret answer.

“No… it wasn’t…”

The donkey studied the camel studying him sceptically, and thought about his journey, which he realised all of a sudden had not been towards God after all, but away instead from the shame heaped on him by his peers. And as the journey went on and the shame receded into a distant memory, he had not advanced towards God then either, but further and further in fascination with his newfound voice, his new image, his new and shiny self.

He looked wordlessly into the camel’s placid eyes, and as the jeers of a few minutes ago echoed and echoed in his ears, he realised he had yet to take even a single step on the journey he had set out on so many years ago.

What had he been doing stumbling around in the dark like that?

By this time, his teacher the nightingale had caught up to him, and perched by the camel looking very cross indeed. “What was that back there?”

“Vanity,” it dawned on the donkey.

The nightingale, not hearing, went on, “That wasn’t what I taught you.”

But that was all he had learnt.

“I’m sorry,” murmured the donkey, pensively picking himself up from the ground. He nodded, very respectfully, to his two companions, then turned, thoughtfully, and walked away in a new direction.

 

The camel and the nightingale looked askance at each other.

“Odd fellow,” said the camel.

“He’s alright,” replied the nightingale wearily.

“Wonder what he’s looking for,” mused the camel.

“Somehow I think this time he knows.”

They watched the donkey get smaller and smaller, until he disappeared in the distance.

The end.

The two main themes from the readings that inspired this creative response were, firstly, that of sama’ and “the power of the voice” (Ernst 180) and secondly, that of the Greater Jihad (Renard 98). The concept of writing this story through the eyes of the donkey came from the combined ideas of i. the unsuitability of the donkey’s voice as expressed in Ernst, who writes, “Many stories are told to illustrate the power of the voice, starting with the effect of the recitation of the Qur’an, the divine names, and religious poetry. Numerous hadith relate that the prophets have all been endowed with beautiful voices of remarkable intensity… In contrast, ugly voices are to be avoided. After all, in the Qur’an God said, “The most objectionable of voices is the voice of the ass” (31:19).” (180) ii. the notion, repeated over and over, that it is not just humans who love and praise God but everything around us in nature as well, such as the plants and animals, making me feel that a donkey could participate in this story just as much as a human would.

Much of the initial part of the story is concerned with the “rules” and outward manifestations of worship and communing with God, in a reflection of not only how sama’ acts as an instrument through which one arrives at ecstasy and some sort of union with God, but also of how it is governed by complex rules and understandings that try and determine who may effectively use sama’ and how. But the larger question of the story, that is much more fleshed out at the end but really tries to make an appearance from the very beginning, is how all these prescriptions and the concern about who, how, why, and so on is really centred on the fact that the material world, with all its entanglements, is very difficult to transcend. One may start off guided by the ‘right’ intentions and so on but the phenomenal world is so much more engrossing than the noumenal and one finds it very, very hard to extricate oneself and move towards a more enlightened understanding of or intimacy with the divine. I especially tried to express this in the first journey the donkey takes, wherein he parallels it to the tariqah, or the path from the external world to haqiqah (the ‘real’) as we learnt in lecture. Just as the Sufi shaykh is the invaluable guide on this path, the donkey feels that his teacher must be guiding him closer to his goal, but sometimes we just lack the complete consciousness to see and be aware of where we really are, and the fact that the supposedly spiritual journey is still subject to and submerged in worldly concerns.

The donkey’s failure on his return to his village illustrates how the success he had experienced just prior (as he gained fame as a reciter) was all illusory as true spiritual ascendancy was not after all within him, because he was too preoccupied with the worldly manifestations of success itself, and what it could do for him in terms of society rather than spiritually, bringing him closer to God (which he did intend, but the readings seem to teach that our pure intentions may be hijacked by our nafs). Finally, he realises that he must start over and embark on a true struggle, or greater jihad, against the ego or lower self (nafs) that has been driving him all the while. Yet I feel I must point out that the greater jihad does not start at this particular point, when he realises his vanity and preoccupation with himself; rather, he has been engaged in this jihad all along, but the whole circuitous initial journey just demonstrates how long and tough the journey overall really is, in order to even get a fraction closer to a consciousness of what is going on in one’s soul. While the donkey may at that point feel like he has taken one step forward and two back, the journey he took to develop a beautiful voice really was a part of his larger journey – as Renard writes, “The farther the mystic advanced, the more vividly he understood the infinite distance between himself and his Creator.” (230) In other words, it is not a simple, linear journey that the donkey in the story undertakes, but really the most intense, difficult, complex, and rewarding journey of all.

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