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Of Alice, Angels and Apsaras

[ by Charles Cameron — squeezed between the space of astronomers and the paradise of the believers, is there yet room for the dancing play of poetry, music and imagination? ]

My first question for you today would be — do you believe in Alice?

And further to that, do you believe in the Red Queen?


Two things collided to cause me to write this post today. First, Emptywheel opened her blog post on Putin’s outing of an American spy today with a quote from Lewis Carroll:

‘I declare it’s marked out just like a large chessboard!’ Alice said at last. ‘There ought to be some men moving about somewhere–and so there are!’ she added in a tone of delight, and her heart began to beat quick with excitement as she went on. ‘It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played–all over the world -– if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is!’

I can’t really ignore Lewis Carroll when he crops up in my morning feed like that: he’s a Christ Church man and a poet, as I am, and it would be rude of me to ignore him. And besides, what he’s on about here is the world-as-game concept, which is never far from my mind — hence my inclusion of that question about the Red Queen.


And second, mermaids.


It gets more interesting, you see. Because what collided with that first question was a conversation @khanserai aka Humera Khan was having with @mujaahid4life aka Abdallah via Twitter, in which the Harry Potter books were discussed and the topic of unimaginative clerical fatwas on games and works of fiction came up. At which point, Abdallah pointed us all to this now-archived fatwa regarding the permissibility of eating mermaid flesh:

Ruling on eating mermaids

A mermaid is a creature that lives in water and looks like a human. As to whether it really exists or it is a mythical being, that is subject to further discussion.

It says in a footnote in al-Mawsoo’ah al-Fiqhiyyah (5/129): From the modern academic resources that are available to us, it may be understood that the mermaid, which is called Sirène in French, is a mythical creature that is described in fairy tales as having an upper body like a woman and a lower half like a fish.

See the French Larousse encyclopédique on the word Sirène.

The encyclopaedia goes on to say: The widespread notion in ancient times was that the wonders and animals of the sea were more and greater than the wonders of dry land, and that there was no kind of animal in the sea that did not have a counterpart on land. This was confirmed by Prof. Muhammad Fareed Wajdi in his encyclopaedia, quoting from modern academic sources. See: Daa’irah Ma’aarif al-Qarn al-‘Ishreen: Bahr – Hayawiyan. End quote.

Al-Dumayri said in Hayaat al-Haywaan al-Kubra: Mermaid: it resembles a human but it has a tail. Al-Qazweeni said: Someone brought one of them in our time. End quote.

Many of the fuqaha’ mentioned mermaids and differed on the ruling concerning them. Some of them said that they are permissible (to eat) because of the general meaning of the evidence which says that whatever is in the sea is permissible. This is the view of the Shaafa’is and Hanbalis, and is the view of most of the Maalikis and of Ibn Hazm and others. And some of them regarded it as haraam because it is not a kind of fish. This is the view of the Hanafis and of al-Layth ibn Sa’d.

Ibn Hazm (may Allaah have mercy on him) said in al-Muhalla (6/50): As for that which lives in the water and cannot live anywhere else, it is all halaal no matter what state it is in, whether it is caught alive and then dies, or it dies in the water and then floats or does not float, whether it was killed by a sea creature or a land animal. It is all halaal to eat, whether it is the pig of the sea (i.e., a dolphin), a mermaid, or a dog of the sea (i.e., shark) and so on. It is halaal to eat, whether it was killed by an idol-worshipper, a Muslim, a kitaabi (Jew or Christian) or it was not killed by anyone.
What’s outside the box?

And it goes on… ending, mercifully:

And Allaah knows best.

Sometimes I think those might be my favorite words evvah!


Are mermaids real enough for religious scholarship to address them?

Is Alice?

John Daido Loori Roshi, late zen master and abbot of the Mountains and Rivers Order’s Mt Tremper abbey, once gave a teisho using a passage from Alice as his koan:

Many Zen koans contain references to myths and folktales of ancient India, China, and Japan. Since Westerners generally are not familiar with these stories, koan study without extensive background information is often a frustrating and exasperating process.

In this dharma discourse, Abbot John Daido Loori fashions a koan, complete with pointer and capping verse, from a classic of children’s literature, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The koan revolves around Alice’s encounter with a caterpillar who explains the magical properties of a special two-sided mushroom that to Alice’s eyes appears perfectly round. Alice’s struggles with this dilemma make for a stimulating story that mirrors the conflicts and dualities we face in our everyday life.

You can read it here.


All of which brings me to the question of the place of deep imagination in a sometimes shallow world.

Alice, do you believe in her? Mermaids and Macbeth mean something to sailors and theater-folk, respetively. Angels? If angels, then the djinn, too? Christian scripture speaks for the existence of one, the Qur’an of both — is one more probable, more real, perhaps, than the other?

And what of the gandharvas and apsaras — middle panel — the celestial musicians and airy dancers who move to their music? Is there any poet who can claim never to have sensed them?


And thus we come to Robert Graves and the muse as he depicts her, in his book The White Goddess, and in many poems such as this:

In Dedication

Your broad, high brow is whiter than a leper’s,
Your eyes are flax-flower blue, blood-red your lips,
Your hair curls honey-colored to white hips.

All saints revile you, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean;
Yet for me rises even in November
(Rawest of months) so cruelly new a vision,
Cerridwen, of your beatific love
I forget violence and long betrayal,
Careless of where the next bright bolt might fall.


But here the waters are getting deeper…

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