Monday, March 30, 2015

Moby Dick Ch. 1: Loomings

The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.  This will (hopefully) culminate in a large book report on the whole book.  I will also include illustrations I find on the internet or in books.

The novel begins by introducing the narrator, who says, “Call me Ishmael.”  This name is significant because it is from the Bible, and Moby Dick is full of biblical references.  Ishmael was the other son of Abraham, brother of Isaac.  It was not Ishmael who received the main promise from God.  He became a wanderer, apart from Abraham’s community.  Interestingly, however, Muslims revere Ishmael as a spiritual ancestor, unlike Jews and Christians.  By telling us to call him Ishmael, the narrator is perhaps saying that he is, in some ways, a rebel, a vagabond from American Christian society of the 19th century.

The narrator is tired of society and life, and so decides to “see the watery part of the world.”  Ishmael is depressed in body and soul, and he sees a kind of salvation at sea.  He says humans have a mystical longing for water, and it is there we can find renewal.  “Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert,” he says, “try this experiment.”  The “experiment” is to join the crew of a whaling ship, and head to sea.

Ishmael decides to go as a crew member, not a passenger, for one primary reason: They pay you, and he is poor.  But his deeper reason is spiritual.  “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” he says, “By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open.”

Thus begins Moby Dick.


The Qur’an Surah 24: Light

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

The 24th surah of the Qur’an was composed in the context of some domestic problems Muhammad was having.  Aisha, the prophet’s wife, was left behind by a caravan, found by a young man, who escorted her home to Medina.  Immediately, rumors began to circulate that the prophet’s wife was sleeping with this man.  With this situation as its context, “Light” is primarily a meditation on marriage, adultery, and privacy.

The punishment for adultery is harsh—one hundred “strikes.”  However, one can only be convicted of adultery on the testimony of four witnesses—a pretty rigorous standard.  The prophet refers to the “false accusations” against his wife, and says that she is innocent, because her accusers could not produce the necessary four witnesses.  He further says that those who bring slanderous and false accusations are “rejected by God.”

The surah also gives regulations regarding domestic privacy: “Believers, do not enter other peoples’ homes until you have asked permission to do so and greeted those inside.”  A bit later, regulations for hospitality are given: “When you enter any home, greet one another with a greeting of blessing and goodness as enjoined by God.”  I find it interesting that the prophet uses the occasion of a terrible breach of privacy and trust, to lay down some guidelines for maintaining privacy and trust among his community of faith.  This seems very wise.

This surah also contains a famous passage which some fundamentalist Muslims have used as justification for (almost) totally covering up women.  However, reading the full passage makes this interpretation problematic.  It says; “Tell believing men to lower their eyes and guard their private parts: that is purer for them…And tell believing women that they should lower their eyes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what is acceptable to reveal.”  This passage is about the modesty of both men and women, the main difference being that women must cover their “charms”, which seems to be jewelry.  The idea for women to completely cover themselves comes not from the Qur’an, but from later Hadith literature.

The surah takes its title from the very beautiful “Verse of Light” (v. 35-36) which I will close with: “God is the Light of the heavens and earth.  His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fueled from a blessed olive tree from neither east not west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it—light upon light—God guides whoever He will to his Light; God draws such companions for people; God has full knowledge of everything—shining out in houses of worship.”

Ottoman Qur'an manuscript from 1869

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Tradition of Reciting/Singing the Qur’an

One aspect of the Qur’an that I find really fascinating is its essentially oral/aural quality.  Although it exists in written form, it has from the very beginning been a text that has been recited and sung.  This tradition goes back to the prophet Muhammad himself.  In an early revelation from God, he is commanded not to write, but to recite.  Even the very word “Qur’an” can be translated “the recitation.”  It is this oral/musical quality that distinguishes the Qur’an from other religious texts like the Bible.  While the Bible contains musical/poetic parts (like the Psalms), most peoples’ experience of the Bible is as a text to be studied rather than a poem to recite.  Also, unlike the Bible, which most Christians know only in translated form (i.e. English), the Qur’an is always recited/sung in the original Arabic, giving its audience a direct, historical, and aesthetic connection to the prophet and, according to Musilm faith, to the actual language of God.

To understand more about the significance of reciting the Qur’an, I’ve just read an article by scholars William A. Graham (professor of Middle Eastern studies at Harvard) and Navid Kermani (fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin) called “Recitation and Aesthetic Reception” from The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an.  Here are some things I learned.

The name of the formal discipline of reciting the Qur’an is Tajwid, which means “rendering excellent.”  Within this broad tradition are two major schools: the Murattal (which is more conservative, measured, and less melodic), and the Mujawwad (which is more ornamented and musical).  Various kinds of recitation form the heart of Muslim worship and prayer (both public and private).  Here's a Muslim man explaining the two styles of Murattal and Mujawwad:


Memorization and recitation of the Qur’an is also an important part of Muslim education.  Learning to recite passages of the Qur’an is a common, shared experience of many young Muslims around the world.  Learning the art and science of recitation provides a kind of linguistic bridge that spans across cultures and languages throughout the world.  Reciting the Arabic text connects Muslims throughout the world, of which there are approximately 1.5 billion.

Memorization and recitation of the Qur’an is an important part of Muslim education.

The sounds of recitation in Muslim societies and communities permeates most aspects of everyday life.  From public recitation to the more modern forms of radio, television, and the internet, these poetic Arabic sounds are a fundamental part of the Muslim sonic landscape.  During festivals and holidays like Ramadan, recitation forms an integral part of religious and communal life.  Graham and Kermani write: “The powerful presence of the rhythmic cadence of Qur’anic recitation is everywhere evident in traditional and much of modern Muslim society…the book lives on among its people, stuff of their daily lives, taking for them the place of a sacrament.  For them these are not mere letters or mere words.  They are the twigs of the burning bush, aflame with God.”

Reciting the Qur'an is an important part of the celebration of the Muslim holiday Ramadan, which also includes feasting.

How, then, do Muslims respond to these all-pervasive recitations?  The Qur’an itself describes the impact on listeners as powerful and transcendent, giving goosebumps and then an inner calm.  It is also meant to evoke a kind of cathartic response that prepares the listener for “remembering God.”  Muslims view the Qur’an itself as a miracle from God, a text so incomparably beautiful that it confirms the message of the prophet.  

This sense of the beauty, or aesthetics, of the recited text has fused piety and poetics in unique ways.  Graham and Kermani write: “God gave to each prophet the gift most highly valued by his people.  Moses was legitimized as prophet by turning a staff into a snake, thereby surpassing the magic presented at the Pharaoh’s court in Egypt where magic was held in high esteem.  Jesus’ miracle was raising people from the dead at a time when healing was highly valued.  And Muhammad was prophet to a people who valued their poets most of all; thus his miracle had to be a literary one.”

Muslim apologists and theologians formulated extensive arguments for their faith based on poetics.  The recitation and study of the Qur’an launched a renaissance of early and significant studies in linguistics and poetics.  The Iranian ‘Abd al-Qahir al Jurjani (died 1078)’s seminal work Evidence of the Qur’an’s Miraculous Character was a pioneering work in the field of textual linguistics, presenting an almost structuralist theory that was way ahead of its time.

The language and style of the Qur’an has had an enormous influence on Muslim literature and poetry.  Contemporary Arabic poets like Adonis are deeply inspired by the poetry and rhythms of the Qur’an.  In Egypt, Qur’anic recitation has reached near pop culture status: “The best reciters participate in live-broadcast international competitions and are revered throughout the country.”  Graham and Kermani close their article with this statement: “The recited Qur’an is and has ever been the epitome of aesthetic as well as spiritual perfection for the faithful.”

Adonis is an important contemporary Arabic poet.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Anti-Club "Women’s Night" Playlist!

On Friday nights I DJ at Mulberry St. Ristorante (aka The Anti-Club) with my friend Phil.  Last night, we focused on playing music by female artists.  Here's our "Women's Night" playlist...

"Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin


"Crazy For You" by Best Coast


"Wildestdreamz" by Liphemra


"Grilled Cheese" by Cherry Glazerr


"Ozma" by Shannon and The Clams


"Julie Oulie" by Peach Kelli Pop


"Dream Boy" by The 5.6.7.8.s


"Give Me Some Credit" by Ann Peebles


"Johnny One Time" by Brenda Lee


"Harley Davidson" by Brigitte Bardot


"Remember" by Lali Puna


"What a Little Moonlight Can Do" by Billie Holiday


"Love" from Robin Hood Soundtrack


"Human Behavior" by Bjork


"Jolene" by Dolly Parton


"I Fink U Freeky" by Die Antwoord


"I Don’t Want to Go to Sleep Either" by FM Belfast


"The Other Shoe" by Fucked Up


"I Could Have Danced All Night" by Julie Andrews


"Goodbye California" by Jolie Holland


"Superstar" by Carpenters


"Doo Wop (That Thing)" by Lauryn Hill


"Los Angeles" by X


"Alfie" by Lilly Allen


"I Like Boys" by Missing Persons


"Oblivion" by Grimes


"Barracuda" by Heart


"Drunken Butterfly" by Sonic Youth


"I am Woman" by Helen Reddy


"Put a Little Love in Your Heart" by Jackie DeShannon


"TKO" by Le Tigre


"Lie" by Miss Chain and the Broken Heels


"I Don’t Care" by Summer Twins


"Summer Hatin’ (Happened So Fast)" by Benny the Jet Rodriguez


"Notes of Urgency" by Hot Cha Cha Cha


"Unhooked Generation" by Freda Payne


"Drain the Blood" by Distillers


"No More Words" by Berlin


"Hangin’ on the Telephone" by Blondie


"Your Kiss of Fire" by The Surpremes


"Happy Virus" by Hundreds


"Friendship Train" by Gladys Knight and the Pips


"(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me" by Sandie Shaw


"These Boots are Made for Walkin" by Mrs. Miller


"Maps" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs (acoustic)


"Is it Wicked Not to Care?" by Belle and Sebastian


"Berlin, dein Gesicht hat Sommersprossen" by Hildegard Knef



"Love Minus Zero (No Limit)" by Joan Baez


See you next Friday at The Anti-Club!