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Sunday surprise: three entangled faiths

Monday, June 20th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — two exhibits linking the Abrahamic faiths ]
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For disciplinary as well as doctrinal purposes, the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — are generally thought of separately — a separation which the two exhibitions this post revolves around are intended to bring into question.

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One: Of gods and men: how Egypt was a crucible for multiple faiths

For instance, there’s a “stele of Abraham” in the British Museum show from last autumn that is worth pondering:

stele of Abraham

The accompanying text tells us:

On public display for the first time will be a gravestone, or stele, for a man called Abraham. “It commemorates someone with a Jewish name and yet it bears Christian symbols inside a classical frame next to the ankh symbol, the ancient Egyptian sign of life,” said O’Connell. “What is more, the engraving on it says he was ‘the perfected monk’ and is written in Coptic Egyptian.”

More about the show:

Curators at the London museum will use a series of items, many never put on public display before, to demonstrate the level of “entanglement” of religious symbols and rituals; with Egyptian emblems regularly appearing in classical Greek designs, depicting Jewish stories that were decorated with Christian crosses and Roman wreaths.

“Over the last 10 or 15 years in scholarship, there has been growing interest across the disciplines in looking at the way religions interacted, rather than just in isolation,” said Elisabeth O’Connell, a keeper in the museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan and a co-curator of the exhibition. “It is becoming clear that a lot of religious history has been founded on our modern distinctions simply being projected back.”

Note in the next paragraph the use of the terms ” troublesome” and subversive”:

Two hundred of these troublesome objects, many deliberately ignored by scholars in the past, have been gathered together to challenge the conventions of religious history. From architectural fragments, jewellery, paintings, gravestones and toys, to the paraphernalia of religious worship, they are all subversive evidence that faiths were once amalgamated in a way that was accepted by the ordinary people of Egypt, regardless of their birth-race or family’s religion.

Those are the Guardian writer’s words — Vanessa Thorpe‘s — not the words of the curators, but it seems the exhibit is intended to emphasize the “melting pot” side of Egyptian religion across the millennium after the fall of the Pharaohs rather than the separations:

“If you only take the work we have from Dioscorus of Aphrodito, it blows apart these distinctions,” said O’Connell. “He was a lawyer and poet, who lived in Egypt and wrote in Greek, although he was a Christian Copt.

“He is a great example of what was going on widely, because he used biblical sources and also wrote Homeric verse, one of them dedicated to a man with a Christian name, Matthew.”

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Much the same impulse appears to have been behind a British Library exhibit in 2007:

Two: Sacred texts that reveal a common heritage

For the first time, the oldest and most precious surviving texts of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths have gone on display side by side at the British Library. They include a tattered scrap of a Dead Sea Scroll and a Qur’an commissioned for a 14th-century Mongol ruler of modern Iran who was born a shaman, baptised a Christian, and converted first to Buddhism, then Sunni and finally Shia Islam.

Here’s a two-page spread of that “Mosul Qur’an“:

quran
reduced image via the British Library

The Guardian article continues:

The exhibition also has some exotic private loans, including an embroidered 19th-century curtain which once covered the door of the Ka’bah, the shrine which is at the core of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a hand embroidered Jewish bridal canopy – and a gold shalwar kameez worn by Jemima Goldsmith in 1995, when she married the former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan.

Phew, pop-cultural enthusiasts will at least have had the shalwar kameez to give them comfort!

More:

Graham Shaw, the lead curator, said: “We were determined not to create faith zones, but to show these wonderful manuscripts side by side, and demonstrate how much we share – not least that these are three faiths founded on sacred texts, books of revelation.” Many exhibits are among the oldest of their kind, including a Qur’an made in Arabia within a century of Muhammad’s lifetime.

The exhibition also shows how calligraphers and manuscript illuminators shared influences and styles. The microscopically detailed decorated capital letters of the Lindisfarne Gospels are echoed in Islamic and Jewish manuscripts, while Christian and Jewish texts borrowed Islamic-inspired decoration, so that a 14th century Qur’an and a translation of the gospels into Arabic are indistinguishable at a glance, and two 13th-century French texts, one Christian, one Jewish, use virtually identical images of King David.

And this part tickled my fancy, and will surely find a place in my book on Coronation and Monarchy if it ever finds a publisher:

A later psalter owned by Henry VIII outrageously uses his portrait as the great Jewish king – accompanied by Henry’s court jester, William Somer, beside a text which translates as “the fool says in his heart ‘there is no God'”.

The wise fool Will Somer or Sommers wasn’t quite a member of Henry VIII’s Royal Family, but stands nearby, in the arch far right, in this detail from a family portrait of 1545 or thereabouts:

detail Will Sommers Family_of_Henry_VIII_c_1545

Let the man keep his own silence or speak for himself

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — regarding the conflicting reports on Imran Yousuf’s religious affiliation ]
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Perhaps:

Maybe:

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If the Orlando Marine hero Imran Yousuf is a practicing Muslim, that would tend to balance out the Muslim claim of the shooter, Omar Mateen. Yousuf might be Muslim, he might be Hindu, he might be — who knows? He’s certainly a Marine, which (Semper Fi) is a faith or fidelity of its own. In the meantime, let’s let the man keep his own silence, or speak for himself.

Orlando Tweets Two

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — on a variety of other perspectives ]
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Once again, my point is that there’s a whole lot of going on going on, and it’s worth getting a wide-angle view.. which means multiple perspectives, including those not your own:

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Politicking:

Joshua Green, Trump seems to regard Omar Mateen as “Afghan” in the same way Judge Curiel was “Mexican”: foreign/un-American, even though both born in US
Charlene Deveraturda, The Atlantic’s ISIS Expert Graeme Wood Slams Trump For “Hurt[ing] The Fight Against ISIS” With Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

Both Al-Jazeera‘s and Joshua Green‘s tweets offer us examples of DoubleQuotes thinking.

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Guns:

Program on extremism, ‘Orlando Shooter Legally Bought Guns Despite Previous Flags by FBI’
Rob Crilly, Orlando shows arc again. Hate-filled young man with access to guns picks his victims and then selects poisonous ideology to add “meaning”
Bill Maher, #Orlando Conservatives:”Don’t say it has anything to do with guns!” Liberals:”Don’t say it has anything to do with Islam!”
Maajid Nawaz, Saying this has nothing to do with Islam (libs) is as ignorant as saying this has nothing to do with guns (cons).Both need reform
Piers Morgan, Obama’s about to make the same speech he’s made about guns 20 times in his presidency. Just more pointless rhetoric, sadly.
Steven Crowder, Orlando timeline: Anti-Gay Muslim commits mass terrorism. American gun-owners condemn it. Liberals try to take their guns

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Islamic responses:

Shadi Hamid, Muslim organizations in the United States unequivocally condemned the Orlando assault
Usama Hasan, Does #Islam condemn #gays to death?

and in ISIS perspective:

Cole Bunzel, ISIS’s A’maq news agency claims Florida attack was “carried out by a soldier of the Islamic State”
Will McCants, ISIS uses term “fighter” for Orlando attacker rather than “soldier” (Paris/Brussels) or “supporter” (San Bernardino) for whatever it’s worth

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And finally, barely mentioned in the welter of opinions about Orlando — the other shoe:

JM Berger, We may have narrowly escaped having two very similar massacres on the same day, apparently unconnected
JM Berger, The fact that one was prevented and one was not is largely a trick of fate. We need robust reporting on LA incident as well

Orlando Tweets One

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — on the variety of possible motives ]
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On twitter alone, there’s far too much going on as we scramble to understand the Orlando massacre for anyone to make a useful summary, although I must say that Rukmini Callimachi‘s twitter feed since yesterday has been superb. My own first assortment of relevant tweets focuses on the question of motive, but even with that narrowed focus it’s too extensive to present visually tweet by tweet, so I’m mostly going to post relevant texts with links. First, though, I’ll let Jeffrey Goldberg set the overview:

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Mental Illness:

Yaroslav Trofimov, Orlando killer’s ex-wife says he was a wife-beater with a short fuse who liked to work out and wasn’t religious.
CBSN, It is definitely mental illness…no one ever expected that he would do this.

Mental illness or mental instability may arguably be present in many or all cases of rampage shooting, suicide bombing, etc — it’s a judgment call, and one most properly made by psychiatric or psychological professionals who have observed and interacted with the subjects personally. Sadly, however, continued use of this explanation as the explanation for acts of this kind avoids recognition of other factors in what is inevitably a multifactorial situation — and also contributes to the popular misperception that “mental illness” is a shameful failure of character rather than a complex of medical conditions.

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Susceptibility to violence:

Lilith, Was Orlando shooter’s domestic violence history a missed warning sign?

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Islamism:

JM Berger, Orlando gunman tied to radical imam released from prison last year, say law enforcement sources
Program On Extremism, Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS, official says

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Homophobia:

Mona Holland, His father says he wasn’t religious, but was furious abt 2 gay men kissing a week or so ago in public
Murtaza Hussain, “Ty Smith & Chris Callen recalled the eventual killer being escorted drunk from the Pulse bar on multiple occasions”
Matt Pearce, “Do you think he was gay?” The shooter’s ex-wife was silent for three seconds. “I don’t know.”
Frances Traynor, speaking from experience, the most virulently homophobic are the most deeply closeted

It seems to me we may have two different forms of enantiodromia to consider here — enantiodromia being the Jungian term for sudden psychological reversal, a pattern I’ve explored elsewhere. The two versions here, which in practice might well be one, but which we can distinguish for analytic purposes, would be (a) psychological, ie the sudden revulsion at forms of sexuality one previously found acceptable and (b) religious, as in a sudden, emotional conversion experience or repentance by which someone non-religious is precipitated into a religious enthusiast.

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Anti-semitism:

Molly Crabapple, According to the Trump fans in my Twitter replies, somehow the homophobic Orlando murderer is the fault of Jews

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And finally, Rebellion against Empire:

Excerpt:

An al Qaeda fighter made a point once in a debriefing. He said, all these movies that America makes, like Independence Day and Hunger Games and Star Wars, they’re all about a small scrappy band of rebels who will do anything in their power with the limited resources available to them to expel an outside, technologically advanced invader. And what you don’t realize, he said, is that to us, the rest of the world, you are The Empire, and we are Luke and Han. You are the aliens and we are Will Smith.

Rumi One: the poet and his poems

Sunday, June 12th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — first of four posts on the poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, hugely popular, perhaps soon to be the pivot of a blockbuster movie ]
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Rumi has been in the news recently and in Rumi Three I’ll say a bit about why. But first, in this post, Rumi One, I’ll say something about the poet and his poems — leaving his ineffable spiritual attainments ineffable, since if they’re anything, they’re ineffable — and in Rumi Two I’ll consider a current attack on Rumi and “Rumism” in Turkey, little observed in the western press, which may be of interest to the poet’s many followers here. Rumi Four will contain some recommended readings.

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Let’s start with some praise of Rumi from Will McCants:

It’s a powerful poet who turns a scholar to the study of his language, the better to read him.

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I’ve been reading Rumi at least since the first Arberry translations of his Mystical Poems came out in 1968, and in the mid-eighties between then and now had the delight and privilege of doing a joint poetry reading with his more recent translator / popularizer, Coleman Barks, at Lake Tahoe.

I’m in no way surprised — but yes, delighted — that a scholar of McCants’ stature should appreciate Rumi so warmly, and envious of his ability to read the Divan, the Masnavi, the Discourses in the original. Did not the great poet Jami write of Rumi’s Masnavi that it is “the Qur’an in the Persian tongue”?

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Here’s the poem with which Chicago University Press introduces Arberry’s Mystical Poems of Rumi:

My verse resembles the bread of Egypt—night passes over it, and you cannot eat it any more.
Devour it the moment it is fresh, before the dust settles upon it.
Its place is the warm climate of the heart; in this world it dies of cold.
Like a fish it quivered for an instant on dry land, another moment and you see it is cold.
Even if you eat it imagining it is fresh, it is necessary to conjure up many images.
What you drink is really your own imagination; it is no old tale, my good man.

Set beside this, another comment of Rumi’s, considering his poetry:

I am affectionate to such a degree that when these friends come to me, for fear that they may be wearied I speak poetry so that they may be occupied with that. Otherwise, what have I to do with poetry? By Allah, I care nothing for poetry, and there is nothing worse in my eyes than that. It has become incumbent upon me, as when a man plunges his hands into tripe and washes it out for the sake of a guest’s appetite, because the guest’s appetite is for tripe.

The secular mind may think of that second quote as something of a pose, imagining the poetry of a great poet to be the poet’s own primary concern — but the poems of Rumi themselves, like the poems of St John of the Cross, speak of a love of the divine of which the poetry itself can be but an offshoot, a byproduct.

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There are none so happy, I would suggest, as those who keep company with the lovers of the divine beloved, and it is that companionship that I see depicted in the poem of Rumi’s I most treasure:

Little by little the drunkards congregate, little by little the wine-worshippers arrive.
The heart-cherishers coquettishly come along the way, the rosy-cheeked ones are arriving from the garden.
Little by little from the world of being and not-being the not-beings have departed and the beings are arriving.
All with skirts full of gold as a mine are arriving for the sake of the destitute.
The lean and sick from the pasturage of love are arriving fat and hale.
The souls of the pure ones like the rays of the sun are arriving from such a height to the lowly ones.
Blessed is that garden, where, for the sake of the Mary’s, new fruits are arriving even in winter.
Their origin is grace, and their return is grace; even from the garden to the garden they are coming.

Indeed, that grace, that garden is woven throughout Rumi’s poetry:

The springtide of lovers has come, that this dust bowl may become a garden; the proclamation of heaven has come, that the bird of the soul may rise in flight.

And where is that garden, when is that springtide of lovers?

Alfred North Whitehead was thinking of education as a stepped-down version of that same garden when he wrote:

The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future. … The communion of saints is a great and inspiring assemblage, but it has only one possible hall of meeting, and that is, the present, and the mere lapse of time through which any particular group of saints must travel to reach that meeting-place, makes very little difference.


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