Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Postmodern Gardener

[A bit long: 1818 words]

In the 18th chapter of the Quran, a story is told of a man who owns a pair of gardens. They are of date-palms, vineyards, and sown fields that are verdant and well-watered. The owner has a couple of conversations of note. In the first, he boasts to his poor neighbor about how superior his properties are. In the second, he says of his estate: “I don’t think this will ever perish, and I don’t think the Final Hour will ever come to pass.” He concludes, “But should I ever indeed return to my Lord, I will surely find better than this in return.”

The Quran draws attention to named and unnamed personalities, some apparently prepared to go down with their idolatry, a choice, as we read, that never turns out to be good for them. The details of their lives are explored by commentators but are obviously left out of the Quranic narrative. I don’t think the purpose is to save space, but to spare the narrative of any distraction, however factual a detail may be, with the result of finely drawn archetypical personages and contexts that are meant to provoke meaning for the “rest” of the generations, regardless of the peculiar details each generation confronts.

Scriptures have a history, and the Quran’s role in that history reflects in the circumstances of its advent but also in its style and content. It is intuitive in “finality” to expect, or at least notice, the freeing of the text of “secular” details anchored to certain times, context, and emphasis (such as ancestry), with the aim of producing a purely sacred-centric scriptural effect—a salvation narrative that focuses on choice and performance—without the feel of a “history” text, with strange names and specificity that can lose a reader.

Take for example the man above. Nowhere in the Quran does one find the likes of this landlord who surely has a name, parentage, and geographical origin we are not told of, yet he sounds eerily familiar. He’s a person brazen in his rejection of finality and ultimate accountability but who has eye-rubbing certainty that if this speculation about Judgment Day happens to be true he’ll receive the good end of the deal. In other words, the braggart expects reward without striving; will don the silk-brocade raiments of Heaven for having rebuffed its existence; and be honored to behold the glorious Countenance of God, though he cast aspersions on the prospect of His Meeting or is apathetic of the possibility, an indifference that shows up in his assumptions and comportment.

To a consumer of contemporary literature, drama, pews, and popular culture, this fellow’s temerity is hardly exceptional. Our world is increasingly peopled by those who are attracted to the idea of religion and some of its sensations and identities but boldly resist the notion that religion has a path and has terms. A supersized, duty-free zone has been hewn in which people may comfortably ignore or rebuke core tenets and principles of a faith but insist to define themselves by it or, more severe, define it according to themselves.

What seems like hypocrisy here is actually something else, for the issue is not duplicity per se or of poseurs covering an inner lie. Nor is it a matter of confusion caused by conflicting texts or competing sacred paradigms. It is a daylight mindset that falls under the awning of “postmodernism,” an overused catchall term that points to a manner of thought at odds with such venerable aspects of human life as religion and tradition, and has seeped nearly everywhere, including the House of Islam, one particular aspect about it.

With roots in literary criticism and architecture, the main lecture of postmodernism is that there is no essential narrative of life that has an unchanged interior. Like a John Barth or Kurt Vonnegut narrative, life’s story is so desperately tethered to its “modernities” or implausible circumstances, to apply it foreverly is a kind of autocracy against which postmodernism vaguely leads the revolt. While this is intriguing on certain levels (especially in context-driven legislation), the problem, however, is in the raucous handling of the essence of religion and postmodernism’s curious and attractive power (fools gold maybe) it offers to people to decide on their own who God is (if that belief keeps some meaning) and what He asks of us and how we determine that.

Postmodern handling of Islam is clearest when it comes to the person of the Prophet Muhammad, from within and without. We see some of it now, as Muslims chat with pom-pom laxity about the authenticity of hadith and the Prophet’s role as teacher and lawgiver. They unwittingly borrow arguments of mainly dead, well-bred, futilitarian Orientialist scholars, like Goldziher, Juynboll, Schacht, and their incarnations (“higher critics” as Arberry calls them in disparagement). Or they parrot tautologies cultured in the former, and now aging, departments of Soviet atheism—once fervently espoused by Arab Marxists as they sipped gin in Damascus or Cairo cafes within eyeshot of Soviet military advisors. (People old enough and who have lived in the region may remember this.) Postmodern arsonists need to torch the validity of the Prophet’s Sunna, the normative prophetic behavior, because, frankly, it’s in the way; because it is the thing that gives color, timelessness, and definition to the final spiritual arc of the religion project, known as “Islam.” To confuse the matter, postmodernists sometimes insist on their “Islam” by demonstrating what they believe is their attachment to the Quran, a book that plainly cannot be understood without the Prophet on one’s shoulder.

The ordering principle of life, for a believer, is the existence of God, His oneness and incomparability, and humanity’s constant state of return to Him. But ordering principles have problems surviving without a path, an identifiable and ritualistic way in which the subscribers of the Principle decide to take. In other words, Truth (in human trust) requires something to do, something that brings meaning and definition to one’s day. The human creature has an inner, abstract world and also an outer organic “body” that functions in space and time. It makes no sense that revealed religion would neglect the latter and speak only to abstract sciences and heady discussions (popular in freshmen dormitories). It is implausible to expect belief to survive internment in the heart with no external “visible” signs.

There’s a reason that entry into the fold of Islam passes through a dual testimony, a simple catechism in which one first affirms the oneness of God and His sole right of worship, and then accept and “witness” or “testify” to the authentic role of a man, a mortal, as His messenger and prophet, whose teachings unpack scripture but also define what it means to believe and what it means to live this way in a limited earthly life. It is inconceivable that religion would be revealed to the world without a path, and this path would be without a teacher, whose path far outlives him. This teacher would not only receive missives from God Himself and experience revelation and given leave to penetrate some of the mysteries of the dominion (malakût) and be honored to see the sacred in what normally passes as profane, like eating with a certain hand, donning a shirt in a certain way, or bowing down to the earth whispering certain words that unlock secrets that can only be learned through revelation and taught by one who experienced it, with proscriptions and obligations that do nothing but help a person’s knock on God’s door be answered. He teaches what can be passed down to those who understand the necessity of preservation. When the last Messenger passed away, the task to record and preserve his teachings became the most compelling emergency, not because of local climes or habit, but because the loss would have been irreparable. A methodology then emerged. Islam’s success here is unquestionably unique.

It is the “All-Merciful” who established Himself on the Throne, per Quran. In other words, God chose, by His mercy, to engage existence by way of Mercy. How, then, would Mercy make sense if we were to receive something as important as guidance and then lose it?

If the path of Islam suffered severe shadowing after the passing of the Prophet and as the caravan of time moved away from him, this would have happened:
“Christianity in the second and third centuries was in a remarkable state of flux. . . . Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the realm of theology. In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in only one God; others, however, claimed that there were two Gods; yet others subscribed to 30, or 365, or more. Some Christians accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as a revelation of the one true God, the sacred possession of all believers; others claimed that the Scriptures had been inspired by an evil deity. Some Christians believed that God had created the world and was soon going to redeem it; others said that God neither had created the world nor had ever had any dealings with it. Some Christians believed that Christ was somehow both a man and God; others said that he was a man, but not God; others claimed that he was God, but not a man; others insisted that he was a man who had been temporarily inhabited by God. Some Christians believed that Christ’s death had brought about the salvation of the world; others claimed that his death had no bearing on salvation; yet others alleged that he had never even died.” (Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.)
Back to the gardener, the Quran does not state explicitly what theology this man holds to, but we do know that he believes, perhaps vaguely, in “my Lord,” but apparently not in what his Lord asks of him (the path). After getting some sound advice from his humble neighbor and obviously passing on it, thunderpeals from above envelop his fecund lands, as we are led to believe, and ruin his fields and orchards, uprooting vines upon their trellises, and drying up the brooks. Looking upon the desolate slopes, ashen and dead, the man’s conversation changes for the third and final time. He wrings his hands and laments with pathetic anguish over what he had invested in the land (paramount on his mind) and then communicates his regret that he ever “ascribed partners to my Lord,” an idolatry spawned by bizarre narcissism. At that point, however, the pruner was beyond help, which is how the passage ends.

NOTE: The Quranic narrative of the gardener is in Surat al-Kahf, 18:32-43. Commentators have proffered who the two men were in the story. Some of the accounts are quite ornate.


Anonymous irving said...

An excellent and cerebric essay :)

11/19/2006 1:06 AM  
Anonymous Maliha said...

Wow. Mashaallah. That's an awesome essay.

And I learnt something else, inconsequential to the overall message you are trying to impart...

I always read the gerdener's second proclamation as a combined negation of both: the day of judgement *and* the prospect of him receiving something better than what he has.

Splitting it up, the way you did, is amazing, because it opens so many doors that have been shut to me.

Thank you!

11/19/2006 6:32 AM  
Anonymous Maliha said...

Okay I went back to re-read it and now I have a there a technical reason why he couldn't be negating both?

this is why I should have taken my arabic grammer class more seriously.

My prior understanding of it; rhymed with what I heard most of my non Muslim friends say in debates about the afterlife. That this is "it" and "it" can't get any better than this...going along the "religious people made up God and the afterlife to make themselves feel better.." et al.

Okay, sorry for clogging up your comment box...

11/19/2006 7:37 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Maliha, I don't think one can read that the gardener is denying the mortality of his garden and existence of accountability in the Hereafter and THEN reward therein should Judgment day be true. The negations are repeated mâ azunn (deep z with a dot) to indicate his negation of the end of his garden and the existence of ultimate accountability each. But when he speaks about the possibility of reward in the Hereafter, it is stated in the affirmation: wa la'in, "but if" with an emphasis. I looked into a couple of commentaries just now, and they each say this. Hope this makes sense.

11/19/2006 11:17 AM  

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