Change: a poem from The Poetry of the Taliban

Blood lust, blood sacrifice – the word blood is as powerful as any in the human vocabulary, so much less abstract that birth or death yet richly associated with both, while the sight or thought of blood stirs us at some archaic level of primal imagination. And what of the “irrigation of the gardens with blood”?

The gardens, first, are paradise. Next, they are paradise on earth, perhaps in one’s own village. I have written before of my memories of:

one small white-walled mosque way out on a dry stretch of road between Herat and Kandahar and its small, lush, green garden, all these years later: whatever it was to the inhabitants of that small village, to me it was “oasis” and “paradise” in perfect miniature, and it remains so in memory.

The rivers of Islam’s paradise flow with water, milk, honey and wines: so what place has blood there?

One answer would be found in the hadith, “Know that paradise is under the shade of swords”.

In his book The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict Between Islam and Christianity, named after the hadith in question, the noted journalist MJ Akbar writes:

The only reason why a person could ever want to leave paradise for this earth would be to get martyred again. Death was only a welcome release; there was no possible deed in this life that could equal jihad in reward after death. The Prophet urged Muslims to seek Firdaus, the best and brightest part of paradise, just below Allah’s throne. Allah had reserved one hundred grades of paradise only for the martyrs. The blood of the wounded would smell like musk on the day of resurrection; and nothing could interfere with Allah’s reward.

The blood of the wounded would smell like musk…

For more on musk, blood, martyrdom and the “odor of sanctity”, see my Of war and miracle: the poetics, spirituality and narratives of jihad.

And so blood is linked to paradise by martyrdom.

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The spring of change “requires the irrigation of the gardens with blood” the poet tells us, much as Thomas Jefferson told William Stephens Smith in a letter of November 13, 1787:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

But hold on, the same trope is found in St. Augustine‘s City of God, xx.7:

Through virtue of these testimonies, and notwithstanding the opposition and terror of so many cruel persecutions, the resurrection and immortality of the flesh, first in Christ, and subsequently in all in the new world, was believed, was intrepidly proclaimed, and was sown over the whole world, to be fertilized richly with the blood of the martyrs.

And the imagery continues, in the West, into our own day. When Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico earlier this year, he was treading on “land that was wet with the blood of martyrs” according to Mgr. Fidel Hernández Lara, Episcopal Vicar of the Mexican Archdiocese of León.

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The very earliest Christian accounts of martyrdom, indeed, have a distinctly sacramental flavor, as one sees by juxtaposing Ignatius of Antioch (quoted by Carolyn Forche in Susan Bergman, ed., Martyrs):

I am God’s wheat ground fine by the lion’s teeth to become purest bread for Christ

with Tertullian (Apologeticum in the translation by Lewis Carroll‘s father):

The blood of the Christians is their harvest seed

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Joseba Zulaika subtitles his book Basque Violence — which Leah Farrall kindly pointed me to — with the words “Metaphor and Sacrament”.

Sacrament is a key word for me, obviously, and for the sake of those disinclined to religion, may I point to Gregory Bateson‘s comment in the first paragraph of the Introduction to his Mind and Nature:

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