Friday, March 27, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 23: The Believers

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

"Repel evil with good."

-- The Qur'an, Surah 23, Verse 96

The 23rd surah of the Qur'an contains many of the classic motifs which (I'm learning) are repeated throughout the text.  The surah takes its title from numerous references to believers-- before, during, and after the time of the prophet.  It begins with the oft-repeated idea that God's provision for humanity is revealed in creation--in human life, the natural world, and the cosmos, the "seven levels of heaven."

Then the surah gives a few cases of prophets who came before Muhammad, whose purpose was to bring people back to faith in God (this is another motif throughout the Qur'an).  These prophets include Noah, Moses, Aaron, and Jesus.  In the case of each prophet, some people believed, but many did not.  These passages also contain the motif of argument.  The unbelievers give their objections to the prophet: he is a liar, he speaks ancient fables, etc.  In each case, however, the prophet is ultimately vindicated by the retributive justice of God.

The surah ends in the present day (of the time of the prophet), as Muhammad encourages his followers to learn from prior prophets, and from creation, to have faith in God.  Verses 57-61 give a fairly concise description of what this faith entails: "Those who stand in awe of their Lord, who believe in His messages, who do not ascribe partners to Him, who always give with hearts that tremble at the thought that they must return to Him, are the ones who race toward good things, and they will be the first to get them."

In the tradition of apocalyptic literature, the surah also makes reference to the "Day of Judgment," the end of the world, and the promise of resurrection.  After the resurrection, those who have faith in God will enter paradise, and those who do not will enter hell.  As if to temper this harsh idea, the last verse is an affirmation of God's ultimate mercy: "Lord, forgive and have mercy: You are the most merciful of all."

Manuscript page from Surah 23: The Believers (Al-Mu'minoon)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Unique Features of the Qur’an

As someone who grew up going to a Christian church in America, the Bible was my main “template” for what a holy book is supposed to be like.  I think this is probably the case for a lot of western readers.  Lately, I’ve been reading the Qur’an, and while it shares some similarities with the Bible, it is a unique literary form and has its own unique features.  To supplement my reading of the Qur’an, I’ve also been reading a collection of recent academic essays called The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an.  In previous posts, I’ve written about the main themes of the Qur’an, it’s historical context, and different approaches readers have taken historically.  Today, I read an article called “Structural, Linguistic, and Literary Features” by scholar Angelika Neuwirth, who is the chair of Arabic Studies at the Freie Univeristat of Berlin.  For this post, I’d like to share a few things I learned about some unique features of the Qur’an.

Structure of the Qur’an

Unlike the Bible, which tells a more-or-less chronological narrative of sacred history, the Qur’an is not structured chronologically, a fact which tends to frustrate western readers.  It is organized into 114 suras (sort of like Bible books) which read more like poetry than narrative.  Each sura has a title (like The Cow, The Bee, The Prophets, etc), which is followed by an introductory invocation called the basmala: “in the name of God, the compassionate and merciful.”  Suras are further subdivided into verses called aya (plural: ayat), a word meaning “visible sign of a transcendental reality.”  As with the Bible, verse numbers were added later, mainly for purposes of memorizing and reciting.

Here's a page from an English translation of the Qur'an.  Notice the title, invocation, and verses.

The Oral Nature of the Qur’an

Professor Neuwirth writes: “It is essential to understand that the Qur’an is not meant to be a book to study, but a text to recite.”  Though it exists in written form, the Qur’an is meant to be literally sung aloud.  This is its primary worship function, and has been since the beginning of Islam.  The text itself has a musical, lyrical quality that makes me want to learn Arabic.  There are lots of videos on Youtube of people reciting/singing the Qur'an.  Here's a beautiful one:

Literary Patterns in the Qur’an

In a previous post, I wrote about recurring themes in the Qur’an.  It is equally important to understand the recurring literary motifs, or patterns of the text.  Some of these include: many references to the “final judgment” or “end of the world,” lists of signs from God in both nature and history, stories of prior prophets (many of which are taken from the Bible), debates between believers and unbelievers, references to specific events from the life of the prophet like the Battles of Badr and Uhud, and the farewell sermon of the prophet.

Arabic calligraphy from "The Family of Imran" (Al Imran), the sura featured above in English.

Different Kinds of Suras: Meccan and Medinan

Scholars divide the 114 suras of the Qur’an into two broad categories: Meccan suras (which originate from the early part of Muhammad’s ministry in Mecca), and Medinan suras (which come form the later part of the prophet’s life, in Medina).  The early Meccan suras, according the professor Neuwirth, “reflect a scenario situated locally in a Meccan public place, most probably close to the Ka’aba.”  Later Meccan suras reflect an increasing interest in the Biblical heritage.  Medinan suras tend to be longer and more complex, reflecting regulations and debates of the emerging Muslim community.  It is also important to note that the suras (as they appear in most Qur’ans today) are not in the order in which they were originally written.  This division between “Meccan” and “Medinan” suras is an academic one.  

Mecca and Medina today are cities in Saudi Arabia.

Scholars are still trying to reconstruct the exact process by which the suras were collected and constructed.  It is an ongoing and exciting field of scholarly inquiry.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”: A Science Fiction Movie With (Almost) No Special Effects

These days, it would be almost unheard of to see a science fiction movie with no “special effects.”  Especially with the advance of digital technology, it is a given that major science fiction movies will be “dazzling” spectacles of the latest technical wizardry.  Movies with few or low-cost effects are judged accordingly, and often don’t do well at the box office.  Speaking as a die-hard science fiction fan, I love my special effects...when I want to be entertained.  But movies have not always been for mere entertainment.  It’s almost hard to imagine (given the pervasiveness of the Hollywood model), but there have been times and places in the world where movies were high art.  Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky was a filmmaker of this sort.  This month, for the Hibbleton Gallery film series, we’ve been screening the entire filmography of Tarkovsky.  I’ve written posts on his films Andrei Rublev and The Mirror.  Last night, we watched “Stalker,” one of the most unique science fiction films ever made.

The film is based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which posits a strange twist on the “alien invasion” story.  Instead of a full-scale conquest (like Independence Day or Ender’s Game), the aliens have visited an area and left odd (and mostly invisible) traces of their presence—small pockets where the laws of physics don’t apply, a room that grants your innermost desire, and “messages” that are only perceived by the soul.  The film follows a “Stalker” (or, guide) who leads a writer and a physicist into “The Zone” where the aliens came (and left).  The Zone has been surrounded by military and police, and is totally off limits to curious civilians.  To visit The Zone, one needs a trained Stalker who can help you sneak in and navigate the strange (and dangerous) world of The Zone.  

Contrary to expectations, The Zone is not some utopian or even other-worldly-looking place.  Tarkovsky filmed it in Estonia, in and around a ruined chemical plant that was still leaking poisons into a nearby river.  The film feels post-apocalyptic, as the three main characters navigate fetid pools of discolored water, trash, and the discarded junk of industry and war.  One of the most poignant images of the film is a field where there are rusting/decaying World War II era Soviet tanks, overgrown with plants and moss.  The Zone is a ruined, traumatized landscape, but one gets the impression that this ruin was made by man, not aliens.

What the aliens offer, through the guidance of the Stalker, is a slow process of inner meditation and exploration.  Instead of facing external obstacles, the characters’ journey is mostly inward, as they must address deep metaphysical questions about life, meaning, spirituality, creativity, etc.  The most significant journeys, Tarkovsky is suggesting, have to do with the intersection of one’s own soul and the world.  The Stalker, who is a Christ-like spiritual guide, says at one point:

“Let everything that's been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it's tender and pliant. But when it's dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death's companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.”

Living under an oppressive Soviet regime that censored a lot of its country’s art, Tarkovsky had to learn how to talk about things that mattered to him not directly, but poetically.  In this way, he was like Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Moshen Makhmalbaf, or Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski, who actually learned to become better filmmakers precisely because of the limitations they were working under.

Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, “Stalker” is about a multiplicity of things.  It is a spiritual/scientific/artistic quest, a journey toward enlightenment and mystery, a subtle commentary on oppression and art, and a meditation on the potential in mankind to either ruin or save the world.  The visuals of the ruined factory and its surrounding landscape are hauntingly beautiful.  A while back, I curated an art exhibit on postindustrial photography called “Charming Decay.”  It featured ruined and abandoned factories, rusting machines, and other products of abandoned industry.  To me, there is something both tragic and beautiful in an abandoned factory, overgrown with plants—suggesting that even the harsh, oppressive, and even poisonous creations of humans are not what ultimately “win.”  What wins, ultimately, are the soft things, the things we think of as “weak”—things like plants and small creatures, and things like poetry and art and real human love.

With (almost) no special effects, “Stalker’ is that rare gem of a science fiction film that succeeds entirely on its own unique terms.  The only real special effect occurs in the closing scene of the film, when a little girl, the “mutant’ offspring of the Stalker, works a tiny miracle that is, precisely because of its seeming smallness, more epic and transcendent than any digital wizardry.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Mirror"

This Monday, as part of the Hibbleton Film Series retrospective of the entire filmography Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, we watched The Mirror.  Each of Tarkovsky's films before this one fell into a pre-existing genre.  The Steamroller and the Violin is in the tradition of Soviet social realism.  Ivan's Childhood is a war film.  Andrei Rublev is a historical epic.  Solaris is science fiction.  Although, in many ways, these previous films transcend the boundaries of genre, they still use genre as their original framework.  With the Mirror, however, Tarkovsky totally abandoned the idea of genre and created a wholly unique, abstract, difficult, and ultimately transcendent film.

The opening scene of the film, which features a stuttering young man learning, through meditative hypnosis, how to speak clearly, serves (I think) as a metaphor for Tarkovsky the artist overcoming his own internal hang-ups and boundaries, and finally beginning to speak with his own unique and clear voice.

The film is more like a poem than a drama.  It is non-linear and instead of plot, it features (like poetry) a series of visual and auditory revelations.  Tarkovsky's father was a poet and it seems as if the film is a kind of homage to his parents.  Though his father (as the film portrays) was largely absent during Tarkovsky's childhood, the poems remain, and give crystallization to both personal and collective memory.

The film feels both deeply personal and deeply socially conscious--a kind of meditation on family, and Russian history and society.  Scenes drawn loosely from Tarkovsky's own life are interspersed and overlapped with real footage of Russia's wars and various political and social upheavals, suggesting (in true Soviet fashion) that the personal and the collective are connected.  In this mixing of the poetic and the documentary, The Mirror reminded me of more recent (and lesser-known) Jean-Luc Godard films like Notre Musique, which seems to draw some inspiration from this film.

Like late Godard, the film is a visual pastiche of color, black and white, literary and artistic references.  It is packed (but not over-packed) with meaning.  It is a beautiful film to look at, listen to, and reflect upon.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Major Themes of the Qur'an

To supplement my current reading/writing project The Qur'an: a Book Report, I've been watching documentaries and reading academic stuff about the holy book of Islam.  I'm currently reading The Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an, which is an excellent (and recent) collection of essays by modern scholars on various aspects of the Qur'an.  Last week, I wrote a post about the historical context of the Qur'an, which went into the life of Muhammad, aspects of 7th century Arabia, the formation of the text, etc.  Today, I read an article by scholar Daniel Madigan (who teaches at Georgetown) which lays out the main themes of the Qur'an.  Western readers unfamiliar with the Qur'an are often curious about the "main points" of the book.  Here they are (and I must say that the themes Madigan identifies gel with what I've read so far, which is 22 surahs):

1.) God is one, absolute.  As can be seen from a quick glance at the rest of this list, the main subject/theme of the Qur'an is God.  The Qur'an posits a monotheistic view of the divine.  There are no other gods.  This is the view of Judaism and (kind of) the view of Christianity (although the Qur'an has problems with the Trinity).

2.) God is creator.  As in the Bible, God is seen as the creator of the universe, the earth, and all living things, including human beings.  Throughout the Qur'an, creation (or the natural world) is seen as evidence of God's existence, power, and provision for humanity.

3.) Faith is the acknowledgement of God as sovereign creator.  In the Qur'an, faith means believing in the one God and his creation, and responding with gratitude.

4.) In creating, God reveals.  Many times in the Qur'an, elements of nature are said to reveal aspects of God's character.

5.) God has no partners, no equals.  In direct contrast to polytheists, the Qur'an posits that the one God is absolutely self-sufficient and powerful.  He needs no other gods.  For example, while the Qur'an accepts Jesus as a prophet, it denies his divinity, because this goes against the idea that God is one.

6.) God sends messengers (or prophets) to humanity.  This is another constantly recurring theme in the Qur'an--that God sends human messengers (or prophets) to remind people of God's existence and power, and to encourage people to acknowledge God and follow him.  Muhammad was merely the last in a long tradition of prophets that includes Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jonah, David, John the Baptist, Jesus, and many others.

7.) God gives life, causes death, and raises up.  While previous polytheistic cultures saw death in terms of fate, the Qur'an posits that God is the one who gives life and death.  It also repeatedly says that human beings will be resurrected at the end of time, to be judged.

8.) God is the most just of judges.  After humans are resurrected at the end of time, they will be judged based on their faith and deeds, and sent to either heaven or hell.  This dualism (heaven/hell) is also an important doctrine of orthodox Christianity.

9.) God is merciful.  While God is just in his judgment of humans, he is also repeatedly described as merciful, forgiving, and compassionate.  There are over 500 references to God as forgiving in the Qur'an, and nearly every surah begins by calling God "the merciful, the compassionate."

10.) God is the guide for humans.  Like the Bible, the Qur'an gives very specific laws and regulations for ordering individual and community life.  There are regulations regarding marriage, inheritance, food, etc.  Also, like the Bible, many of these guidelines must be placed in the context of their time (7th century Arabia).

11.) Believers must struggle to ensure that Islam is recognized.  This last theme is controversial, as it relates to struggle (or, jihad) on behalf of Islam.  Like in the Old Testament, armed conflict is sanctioned, however there are some important restrictions in the Qur'an.  Surah 2 says "fight those who fight you, but do not begin the hostilities" and a bit later "if they desist, then God is forgiving, merciful."  Surah 8 says "if they are inclined to making peace, then you too should lean that way."  Like the culture-bound community guidelines, the Qur'an's comments on conflict and war must be firmly situated in their historical/cultural context (7th century Arabia), when Muhammad and his followers often came into conflict with the more powerful Quraysh tribe.

Anyway, those are some of the main themes of the Qur'an.

The Qur’an Surah 22: The Pilgrimage

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

This surah takes its title from a story about the origin of the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim is encouraged to undertake in his/her life.  According to this surah, it was Abraham who first instituted the pilgrimage, after he turned the Ka’aba (the sacred black cube in the center of Mecca) from a place of idolatry (or polytheistic worship) into a symbol of monotheism.  It was Abraham who called the followers of God to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.  In other words, this tradition is very old.

Upon arrival at the Ka’aba, pilgrims pray, purify themselves (by wearing white garments), and circle around the Ka’aba seven times.  This practice of the pilgrimage, which is one of the “Five Pillars of Islam,” continues to be a very important part of the spiritual life of Muslims, and a way for believers from all over the world to come together in an act of spiritual solidarity and devotion.  Every year, millions of Muslims make this sacred pilgrimage.

Pilgrims on Hajj in Mecca (2008)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Anti-Club Playlist 3/20/15

On Fridays, I Dj at Mulberry St. Ristorante in downtown Fullerton with my friend Phil.  Here's what we played last night...

"Ragged Wood" by Fleet Foxes

"Everyday" by Buddy Holly

"It Aint Me Babe" by The Turtles

"Memories" by The Chantels

"I Wanna be Loved by You" by Marilyn Monroe

"Let the Good Times Roll" by Derrick Morgan

"Good Times" by Matt Costa

"Henry’s Got Flat Feet" by Hank Ballard

"Sh-Boom" by The Crew-Cuts

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" by The Staple Singers

"Society of Enoch" by Peach Kelli Pop

"Sally Cinnamon" by The Stone Roses

"Melody Day" by Caribou

"Come on Feel the Illinoise!" by Sufjan Stevens

"Another Green World" by Aloa Input

"Killer Queen" by Queen

"Ziggy Stardust" by David Bowie

"San Francisco" by Foxygen

"I’m Giving You Your Freedom" by The Supremes

"Lovey Dovey" by Clyde McPhatter

"Your Abracabra" by Ian Dury

"Gunfighter" by Spindrift

"Satan Taps My Head" by The Abigails

"Les Cactus" by Jacques Dutronc

"Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter" by Herman’s Hermits

"Just Like Honey" by The Jesus and Mary Chain

"Still Ill" by The Smiths

"Roadrunner (Once)" by Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers

"Johnny Thunder" by The Kinks

"Third Dystopia" by Youth Lagoon

"Space" by The Beta Band

"Theme from Shaft" by Isaac Hayes

"Here Today" by The Beach Boys

"In the Tall Grass" by Future Islands

"I Found a Reason" by The Velvet Underground

"The Boy With the Arab Strap" by Belle and Sebastian

"Who the Fuck" by Liphemra

"It’s Not Easy" by Hunx and His Punx

"Death of Me" by Box Elders

"Helium Bar" by The Weirdos

"Hold Me Close" by Sam Coffey and the Iron Lungs

"Police on My Back" by The Clash

"Pookie Smooches" by Pookie and the Poodlez

"Whittier Blvd" by Thee Midniters

"Lipstick" by Ariel Pink

"If You Leave" by OMD

"Atomic Bomb" by William Onyeabor

"Sweet City Woman" by The Stampeders

"Three Cool Chicks" by The 5,6,7,8s

"99 Red Balloons" by Nena

"American Music" by Violent Femmes

"Give Me Just a Little More Time" by The Chairmen of the Board

"Green Onions" by Booker T and the MGs

"Never Hate Again" by HOTT MT

"Please Please Please Let me Get What I Want" by The Autumns

See you next Friday night at The Anti-Club!