Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Koran


Very curious: if one sought for "discrepancies of national taste," here surely were the most eminent instance of that! We also can read the Koran; our Translation of it, by Sale, is known to be a very fair one. I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite;—insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran. We read in it, as we might in the State-Paper Office, unreadable masses of lumber, that perhaps we may get some glimpses of a remarkable man. It is true we have it under disadvantages: the Arabs see more method in it than we. Mahomet's followers found the Koran lying all in fractions, as it had been written down at first promulgation; much of it, they say, on shoulder-blades of mutton, flung pell-mell into a chest: and they published it, without any discoverable order as to time or otherwise;—merely trying, as would seem, and this not very strictly, to put the longest chapters first. The real beginning of it, in that way, lies almost at the end: for the earliest portions were the shortest. Read in its historical sequence it perhaps would not be so bad. Much of it, too, they say, is rhythmic; a kind of wild chanting song, in the original. This may be a great point; much perhaps has been lost in the Translation here. Yet with every allowance, one feels it difficult to see how any mortal ever could consider this Koran as a Book written in Heaven, too good for the Earth; as a well-written book, or indeed as a book at all; and not a bewildered rhapsody; written, so far as writing goes, as badly as almost any book ever was! So much for national discrepancies, and the standard of taste.

Norman O. Brown writing in his essay The Apocalypse of Islam agrees with Carlyle (Heroes)and instead of leaving it with a shrug and saying the faithful Arabic speaker must have more a sense of the poetry than we ferengi, maintains that this is just the point - it should not make ostensible sense. There is no understanding it. He finds his thesis proven by the selection of Sura 18 (The Cave) for the regular Friday reading. This is a farrago of fragments of myth and legend drawn from all extant sources distorted as are the elements of mundane events in the dream. What came ye into the desert to seek? Narrative? Brown depreciates the only sura in the Koran that has a story that is slightly sequential Joseph, sura 12.

The strict sect of the Kharidjis, on this point and on others the voice of rigorous Islamic consistency, condemned sura 12 on the ground that narrative has no place in revelation.

Not that Islam has no stories. The Sufi teaching stories are superb. Idries Shah has made several collections of them. However the Koran is like all the core texts of religion; it’s about presence. Everything will perish save His face (28:88). To put it in Bergsonian terms, it’s as though through the rolled up duration of a single life universal history manifested itself but fragmented beyond narrative. Says Brown again:

The miraculous character of the Koran is self-evident in the immediate effect of its style, its idjaz, literally “the rendering incapable, powerless”; the overwhelming experience of manifest transcendence, compelling surrender to a new world vision.

The formal constraint of meter is what makes the poet break past the usual cliché, in the Koran you are obliged to make the sense out of indications and power, in short to become the sense. First there are the 7 Sleepers, of Ephesus perhaps, who are in the cave dormant, dreaming history with their dog, the friend to man or was it 5 and the dog, or 4 and the dog:

(Some) will say; They were three, their dog the fourth, and some say Five, their dog the sixth, guessing at random; and (some) say; Seven, and their dog eighth. Say (O Muhammad): My Lord is best aware of their number. None knoweth them save a few. So contend not concerning them except with an outward contending, and ask not any of them to pronounce concerning them.
(18:23)

O.K., sure or is this a stricture against pedantry and an ironic injunction?

Then from nowhere Moses turns up, then Alexander the Great, then Gog and Magog. The latter must have a copper wall erected against them. Carlyle was right, this is not a book, this is God lying back on the couch while Mohammed is saying ‘very interesting’and ‘how does that make you feel’. I mean this is a book that reads you, you do not read it; comprehended as it is in what the Bible calls your reins or what old Jimmy used to call ‘me water’, as in ‘I feel it in me wather’. Your liver was then the organ of deepest apprehension not this flighty romantic organ, the heart.

One of my abiding memories is of lying in bed in the Al Arab Hotel just inside the Damascus Gate listening to the cry of the muezzein in the early morning; beautiful singing and more than that: controlled steady yearning.

Muezzein at Medina

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