I was raised a Shia’ Muslim. Depending on who you listen to, the essential difference between Sunni and Shia’ Islam is that upon the prophet’s death, Shia’ followed what they believe to be the oral transmission of the prophet regarding succession by following Ali, his son-in-law, while Sunnis followed the more dominant group at the time (and since then) when the collective of chieftains deemed Ali too young to rule and elected Abu Bakr, one of the prophet’s companions to succeed him.
The lineage of Sunnis remained political rulers of the empire, while on the margins the Shia’ followed a lineage descended from Fatima, the prophet’s daughter. That’s why the term “muslim fundamentalist” is a supreme irony. Because almost as soon as breath left the body of the prophet, the Body of Islam fractured and within a single generation there were countless factions and factions within factions.
To be sure there existed in the rough center of this matrix an outline of a figure—to this day in paintings and images his face remains blank, mere outline—called “Mohammed,” but one Mohammed has very little to do with another.
The classical Islamic arts eschew, in fact, representation. They are calligraphy, geometry, and architecture. As Lilian Karnouk writes, “Islamic art is an adventure in non-figuration dictated by a rejection of the Pythagorean idea of man as “the measure of all things.” The Islamic artist opts for an aesthetic process rooted in religious transcendence: an art based on harmonies of the formal elements of line, surface, and color arranged to a mathematical perception of time and space. His intention is to attain the visualization of a thought which does not represent man or nature but life understood as energy and motion.”
Islam as a system of belief, like poetry itself, incorporates doubt and questioning into its “fundamental” fiber, because at the “foundation” of organized belief—the end of prophethood and the beginning of lineages of authority, you had to make a choice.
One significant verse of the Qura’an appears near its beginning “This is the book. In it there is no doubt.” Growing up under the shadow of such an authoritarian dictum I continually wondered at my own doubts, engagements with faith, forays away, through, and within dogmatic teachings. Only last year, in a new and wonderfully acclaimed translation I read a new rendering of the same verse: “There is no doubt this book is a guide for the faithful.”
I have a feeling I had better learn Arabic because those two renderings do not read the same.
My father told me once about the story of “one hundred and four” books revealed by God to prophets through the ages to all the various peoples of the world. Four of these books are mentioned by name in the Qura’an, but a Muslim would believe there a hundred others out there whose names we do not know—that perhaps the Bhagavad-Gita is one, or the Lotus Sutra, who can say.
The hundred books or course call to mind the “hundred names of God,” of which ninety-nine are named in tradition, the last one being secret. Always this dark place, the place of unknown, the place you cannot go. A place where you are not sure what is what.
This sense of unsurety is built into the very way we celebrate the revelation of this Qura’an. During the month of fasting—Ramadhan—we celebrate Lail-util-Qadr, the Night of Majesty, on which the scripture was said to be first revealed. But scholars do not agree on the actual historical date, saying only it is an odd-numbered evening in the last third of the month. So traditionally we celebrate the occasion on three separate evenings—the nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-third evenings. It sounds manic and amazing and it is. It’s a miracle of unknowing and allowing the mystery of that subsume the centralization or systemizing of a single day.
The beginning and ending of the lunar months of the Islamic calendar are similarly fraught with disagreements. Many people believe the month itself has not started unless the very first sliver of the moon is officially sited. For those of us who live in the west, we more often than not depend upon of the visions living far away, on the other side of the world. In the final days of the fasting month I can still remember my father on the phone with Iran or Pakistan, waiting to hear if the moon had been sited there. Had it been it would signal the end of our fast, thousands of miles away.
The tricky moon was also the site of one of the prophet’s major miracles. While Jesus fed the masses and Moses parted the sea, Prophet Mohammed’s miracle was, appropriately, centered upon the night sky—he pointed to the moon once and it broke into half.
The written scripture itself was revealed to a man said to be illiterate. He was commanded to read by the Angel and protested that he could not read, and so came the first revealed verse of the Qura’an: “Read: in the name of Your Lord Who created you.”
The chronology of the Qura’an is similarly disguised in its written form. The prophet came down from the mountain and dictated it to scribes; eventually these verses were organized into chapters, and the chapters themselves were given a canonical order. This order, unlike the long deliberative process surrounding the compiling of the Bible as we now know it, did not change from the first arrangement and is the one thing that all of the sundry sects of Islam do share in common and mainly agree upon.
It’s the word and not the man or his flesh or even the definitive understanding of the word itself that reigns supreme in the Islamic consciousness. There hasn’t seemed to have been the same kind of lively tradition of commentary and cross-commentary on Qura’anic scripture as there as been in Judaism. The real heart of the controversy around Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was not after all on the caricature of the prophet, but rather on the triggering plot device—that Satan had managed to corrupt the scribe taking dictation of the Qura’an inducing him to introduce false verses into the scripture.
In such a fundamentally decentralized religion where even the satellite in the sky could break into pieces, when the one thing that everyone could hold onto was called into question, even fictionally, all hell broke loose. Literally. The great shame is that the novel remained widely unread in the Muslim world, when it is the one book that comes so close to describe the fever and fervor of Islamic thought, the “art based on harmonies of the formal elements of line, surface, and color arranged to a mathematical perception of time and space” of which Karnouk spoke.
It remains the province of poetry, an art made for the doubting and the doubtful, to create structures for meaning, to privilege and plumb the notions of bewilderment, doubt, and interrogative spirituality. Though Islam requires five daily prayers and an obligatory pilgrimage, the Prophet also said, “one hour of work towards attaining knowledge is worth sixty years of worship.”
And what is that worship towards? The famous hajj, obligatory on every adult Muslim, is towards the Kaaba, the House of God, a black square structure at the heart of the Mecca Masjid. The house itself—like every mosque—is empty inside.
Kazim Ali, originally published in XCP 20 (2008)