Sunday, August 20, 2006

Poetry and Islam

Maybe I should begin with a warning that this post is rather inflammatory, with comments both critical and in praise of Islam.

To start with the critical, I find it hard to totally dismiss the controversial remarks of someone like Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who argues that it is dangerously sentimental to refuse to consider the possibility that some religions may simply be morally superior to others. He asserts, for example, that Buddhism is superior to Islam:

You cannot deny that the Israeli occupation is at least part of the problem. The Israeli settlers are themselves religious extremists who are putting us all in danger. Their notion of God as some omniscient real-estate broker is one of the principal sources of conflict between the West and Islam. But anyone who thinks western or Israeli imperialism solves the riddle of Muslim violence must explain why we don’t see Tibetan suicide bombers killing Chinese children. The Tibetans have suffered every bit as much as the Palestinians. Over a million of them died as a direct result of the Chinese occupation of their country. Where are the Tibetan suicide bombers? Where is their cult of martyrdom? Where are the throngs of Tibetans seething with hatred, calling for the deaths of the Chinese? They are not likely to exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? Religion.
To switch to a radically different perspective, though, and a much longer historical perspective, one that sees the dare-I-say beauty of Islam, I think any artist, but especially any poet, has to acknowledge an enormous debt to Islam. Thinkers like Joseph Campbell have long argued that something unique in human history was born sometime around the 12th Century in southern Europe and northern Africa, something that arose out of the unique meeting there of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic influences.

Campbell essentially argues that Islamic culture opened the Judeo-Christian mind in a way that ultimately resulted in the Renaissance, and this opening was first visible in the flowering of poetry—from the Provencal love poetry of the troubadours through Dante to the central stream of “Western” poetry that continues to this day.

But the argument goes further and says that the Islam-inspired troubadours, with their praise of an individual’s love for another individual (as opposed to both spiritual and carnal love and desire for everyone) made possible the Renaissance assertion of individual vision.

In effect, the troubadours made possible not only Dante and Keats, but Galileo. It’s not a coincidence that Provencal poetry is also one of the origins of the figure of the jester, that archetypal questioner of authority (including Shakespeare’s king-mocking fools), and the jester itself may go back to Islamic-Sufi figures like Mullah Nasrudin, whose “jokes” are often compared (to bring this post full circle) to Zen koans. As one of Nasrudin’s stories says:

“Nasrudin, is your religion orthodox?”

“It all depends,” said Nasrudin, “on which bunch of heretics is in power.”

1 comment:

Beverly said...

I love this post. It reminds me of Karen Armstrong's book, A History of God, which makes some of the same points. She has her own love-hate thing going with religion.

The three Abrahamic religions seem to have never fully grown up, still fighting adolescent pangs with their agressive assertions of superiority and exclusive claims on truth. Yet they're full of such vitality, creativity, they get such a hold on people's minds, inspire such aethestic extravagance, where would we be without?