Washington, CT. Prone to the seductions of whatever sultry lark might punish me, I am known to sucker to the dares of certain scoundrels who I hazard as friends, but who cannot be summed up in such prosaic terms. In this prison, we are all innocents. The particular partner-in-crime for the current donnybrook is one of the many who assert my cheek habitually turns too far.
This time they’ve really done it. Were it not for the stakes at hand, I could simply abandon the original boast and chalk it up to but another close brush with the sorry effects of petulant oaths. Unfortunately, the subject at hand is the debate of the hour, and I am nothing if not loathe letting the militants get their clammy paws over mine on the bat. As a result, I have soldiered on, cranial ball peen hammer in hand, starting every day with another installment of that epic chronicle on the wages of defiance known as the Koran, or, as it is referred to amongst the factotums at the Department of Homeland Security: Exhibit One in the Greatest Threat to our American Existence Imaginable.
While the Muslim Faithful might pray toward Mecca several times a day, the hordes at the DHS follow one primary directive: Say “Boo!” three times during the current news cycle and adjust your tie. No fear shall go un-plumbed. The fact that their huge new headquarters occupy an historic Mental Hospital is just one of the many clues that hint at the forces of farce at work. But this is for another axe to grind.
My provocateurs suggested to me that my tolerant attitudes toward the Muslim might be a wee-bit shy of reality. I countered that their unseemly militia doggerel was misplaced, and that something as profoundly beautiful as the Alhambra surely cannot be all malign. Talking past one another like a couple of Black Irish drunks in a late night bar room clutch, I finally suckered to their insidious agenda and told them I was going to immediately begin reading the Koran to prove them wrong. By the tone of their bleary giggle, I knew this would not go smoothly. Damn them roundly. Damn them squarely too.
I harbor a soft place in my desert soul for these Bedu, you see. Son of the Great Basin sagebrush ocean, I admire their tenacity and facility with life beyond the frontiers of comfort. I see them as cousins to the Digger Shoshone, a people whose most admired role models were those who gave away the greatest number of possessions. The fact that the Digger Shoshone were cousins of the Comanche, whose principle virtue was the professional killing of Texans, will be left for another loving essay. Though the Bedu might sneer at such a comparison, to the Digger, not the Comanche of course, but they are inescapably partisans of a life where wealth hovers at the edges of survival. Needless to say, the desert molds kinship like no other place on earth. How can one not be moved by a people who have existed for so long within the jinn-infested privations of such an inhospitable place as the Empty Quarter? Sure, they might be belligerent, fighting one another with a ferocity equal to their resistance to the occupying Imperialist du jour, but they are also legendary for their hospitality. As far back as Abraham, we witnessed the Bedouin etiquette of protecting and providing succor to the stranger. These folkways of guardianship over one’s visitors, friend and foe alike, are highly ritualized.
Wilfred Thesiger’s classic book “Arabian Sands” details one of the more interesting aspects of desert hospitality. Traversing the southern extremity of the Empty Quarter, from Yemen to Dubai before any other European had done so, Thesiger retained what was termed a Rabia, literally, a “companion”. To cross the Arabian Peninsula, one not only had to confront the desert expanse, one also had to navigate the lush antipathies of tribal enmity. The various tribes were constantly at war with one another and so when one was determined to run the gauntlet of tribal skirmish lines, one was advised to hire on a rabia, a paid companion of sorts, or representative of the hostile tribe whose territory you were about to enter. In return, this hired brother took an oath: “You are my companion and your safety, both of your blood and of your possessions, is in my face”. Even a rabia from a small and weaker tribe would be afforded the respect of brotherhood and sanction by even the most powerful tribes. Thesiger, knowing this, went properly equipped and survived his epic trek across the shifting battle lines of tribal warfare. Like his fellow Brit Colonel Lawrence, he came away from his trials in the Rub Al Khali with a durable respect and love for these xeric libertarians of the Arabian Sands. To view the pictures of languid sheiks lounging near their fishing dhows moored at Abu Dhabi, before this era of luxury resort, offshore banking and indoor equatorial ski slopes is to gain a glimpse of the loaded definition of the word “Progress”. The Bedu shall surely come to rue the day the first oil-financed crane arrived. In the meantime, the monetized and commodified ritual of Arabic hospitality continues apace.
American Corporations feign to follow the tradition today, but their hired rabia would appear to be of murky face and altogether too civilized for such homely traditions. Royal Technocratic Bedu awash in greenbacks seem to have forgotten the clarifying effects of washing their hands in the desert sands because they are swamped in the sooty money of the international oil trade. Mere sand will never fully erase the unctuous grime of the oil game. Sometime during the 70’s, Jet-setting Rock and Rollers or Greek shipping magnates were shunted aside in favor of the Sheiks living large and cavorting in playgrounds stretching from Gstaad to the Cote d’Azure. These scions of King Faisal have come to believe they hold the keys to the modern era. To hold onto such fleeting pleasures, they have been assiduous in suppressing dissent, often brutally so. Together with their fellow despots across the post-Ottoman Empire, they have refined the arts of torture and forgotten incarceration to a level of professionalism that we ourselves contract out as the spirit moves.
Still, in 1983, the Connecticut Corporation United Technologies attempted to follow protocol by hiring a photographer, Wayne Eastep to document their search for the ameliorative possibilities of the rabia. Mr. Eastep ably traversed the desert and produced a remarkable photographic document entitled simply “Bedouin”, recording the life of the vanishing Bedouin. The book was planned as a gift to various dignitaries, a declaration that the United Technologies Corporation had at least a dim understanding of the people with whom they were working. In my favorite passage from the book, Mr. Eastep shows the proofs of photographs to some Bedu of the Al Amrah tribe and when they are confronted with the simple image of a single footprint in the sand, the members of the tribe spontaneously announced “Ah! Nasser Al Amrah!” A footprint was as recognizable to the tribe as was the face of their brother Nasser. There is certain elegance to this level of simplicity. I don’t quite know why, but the story serves to cement my respect for the creators of the Alhambra, that remarkable tribute to the creative capacity of man when poetry runs at a sublime force greater than our more warlike urges. Man can frequently build with a magnificent skill but it remains rare that our building harmonizes with the landscape in a total composition of symphonic force. There are but a handful of places on this good green earth where man has created a symphony equal to that which nature conducts. The late-Mayan temple complex at Tulum is one, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” is another, the Temple precincts of Kyoto are another and the sublime Alhambra, seat of the long-gone Spanish Caliphate of al Andalus, is another.
Presumptions in order, I took my disputant’s dare firmly in hand, opened the first page of the Koran’s 114 Suras and dove right in. Sura 1 started out easily enough, a lovely few verses of homage to the One True God.
“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds!
The compassionate, the merciful!
King on the day of reckoning!
Thee only do we worship, and to Thee only do we cry for help.
Guide Thou us on the straight path.
The path of those to whom Thou has been gracious;- with
Whom thou art not angry, and who go not astray. “
So far, so good.
Then, in Sura 2, which is 286 verses, I got no farther than the 6th verse before the tribal skirmishes broke out. “For them ( he infidel of course) give them a severe chastisement”. This refrain of resentment and revenge crops up like a Greek Chorus throughout the other, more beautiful sections of Sura 2 before ending at verse 286 with the admonition “Thou art our protector, give us victory over the infidel nations”. Sura 3 through 9 continue with their spiritual devotions, filled with love for a forgiving yet fearsome God but these devotions are annealed on a defiant anvil of antipathy toward the Infidel. Suras 8-9 are, in fact, commentary on the pivotal Battle of Badr where Muhammad and his victorious rebels finally overcame the hegemony of Mecca. Though respectful of the Brothers of the Book and calling for their acceptance of Muhammad as the final prophet, the poetry of the Koran remains peppered with recrimination and rebuke. This may be a religion of peace but only so much as it is also a religion, like many others, of war.
Admittedly, after Suras 8-9, the Koran turns toward a worshipful recollection of the figures of the Old Testament but even here, we see a defiant edge, admonitions of a burning revenge upon the Infidel and in general, a tone fundamental in its urges toward conquest. At first inspection, even a sympathetic ear can be excused for doubting the prevailing modern political assertions that Islam is a Religion of Peace. Upon reaching Sura 70, the accumulating victories for the Prophet Muhammad ibn’ Abdullah allow poetry to prevail over the war helmet for the next 44 Suras but still, the idea that Islam is a rebel doing battle against an uncomprehending monolith of infidelity remains to the end of the Muslim’s Great Book. There is poetry and beauty but there is always some form of rebuke and animosity at work. Such are the wages of the chosen. Fittingly, the final Sura, entitled “Men” warns us of the whispered entreaties of pride. Six verses long, it summarizes the plight of man in this age as surely as it did for Muhammad in his.
In the Name of God, the compassionate, the Merciful
SAY: I betake me for refuge to the lord of MEN,
The King of Men,
The God of Men,
Against the mischief of the stealthily withdrawing whisperer,
Who whispereth in Man’s breast-
Against man and djinn.
A few Suras before this, number 109, entitled “Unbelievers” seems to point to a certain egalitarian peace between the believer and non-believer but here too, there is the prevailing notion that the “other” is condemned to their own selected perdition.
In the name of God, the compassionate, the Merciful
SAY! Oh ye UNBELIEVERS
I worship not that which thee worship,
And ye do not worship that which I worship,
I shall never worship that which ye worship,
Neither will ye worship that which I worship,
To you be your religion; to me, my religion.
This almost sounds like the ecumenical premises of Francis David, the 16th century founder of the Unitarian Faith in Transylvania. David, like Muhammad, disagreed with the idea of the Trinity, hewing to one God and one God only. Unfortunately, Francis David’s faith embraced differences while Muhammad seeks primarily victory over them. Needless to say, the pagan idols surrounding the early Kaaba which the Prophet Muhammad distances himself from in Sura 109 are no longer there, no longer worshipped, no longer left to be as they once were. Islam has become as monolithic as was the religion of the Jews and Christians, which encouraged Muhammad upon his quest for an Arabic monotheism. Though broken into distinctive branches of Suffi, Sunni and Shia, who demonize one another as much as they might anyone else, Islam will consolidate and stand in stark rebuke of the other, the Infidel. We are now that Barbarian and they, in turn, are ours. Funny how the return of a Barbarian notion brought the idea of an End to History to a crumpled conclusion.
Perhaps the word “peace” is a perfect hedge for the underlying hostility that the Prophet Muhammad held against his brother Jews and Christians. Peace is a Jinn. It is that thing we are always in search of, but never enough to forget our accumulated envious resentments of those who are not like us. We constantly hear about the “Road to Peace” and grow jaded as decades pass while the Jew, Christian and Muslim seek that phantasm called “peace”. Peace, as we have come to know it is little more than the fleeting visit of the Ringside Girl, prancing about the arena between rounds, holding aloft a sign signaling the momentary cessation of battle. My, she is ever so seductive. Who could possibly not want her?
Peace stands naked without war. It is the mirage that glitters but ultimately vanishes because it was never meant to be there to begin with. Peace would appear to be a distraction. Only victors control its terms and of course, any student of history is well versed in the seeds of war planted by every Peace Treaty since the idea was invented. Peace is that Potemkin idol held aloft by every war regime, imparting the sheen of legitimacy to what is otherwise a full-on embrace of bloodthirsty, self-aggrandizing barbarity.
After all, the current self-proclaimed Mahdi and arch-Gnostic Osama bin Laden has revealed his own legerdemain in holding out the prospect of peace if only we infidels were to draw back from the world and leave he and his Wahabbi Mugwumps in charge of browbeating the Muslim. Sheik Osama has revealed his impetuous and grasping identity as a false idol by abandoning the most elemental of Koranic advise, a repeated admonition that the pursuit of God is a humble embrace of patience. Sura 2, verse 148 advises: “O ye who believe! Seek help with patience and with prayer, for God is with the patient.” In Sura 9, verse 90, there is a repeat refrain: “God hath made ready for them gardens ‘neath which the rivers flow wherein they shall remain forever: this will be the great Bliss.” For Sheik bin Laden, patience will not merit the gardens of the four rivers of paradise. To get there one must abide in the faith while attacking the infidel and living in fear of God and his grievous punishment. This is a God of both thrill and fear, of forgiveness and brutal judgment. This is a God whose most fertile field is resentment, division and war. In earlier times, this God was named Mars. Mars, of course, scoffed at and admonished the forgiving nature of Christ and his admonition of “let those who have not sinned cast the first stone”. Though the Old Testament can be hair-raising and the New Testament equally fearsome, they would not seem to be so directly tied to conquest as that of the Koran. Peace, in the Koran, would appear to be exclusive. I would like to know more about the various translations of the Holy Koran and understand the gradations of veracity inherent to the art of translation but as far as the J.M. Rodwell translation has led me to believe, true divinity in this beautiful monument of prose called the Koran can only be achieved if those who one opposes are utterly vanquished.
Peace then, is the boon companion of the unrepentant Gnostic Neo-conservative and their perfect antipode, and brother Gnostic, the al Qaeda Terrorist. Both hold the prospect of peace aloft for their admiring supporters yet in the end, they wish more for war, giving little more than lip service to peace. War, of course, is their validation in confusion, their diversion. Utopians will forever stand knee deep in blood while extolling the virtues of some cockamamie idea.
What is the answer? It is in Caritas. As Aquinas termed it, Fides formata or “Formed Faith”. It is an approach toward God that possesses the vitality of truth in faith because it has embraced the defining human trait of love over all. It grows beyond the great retributions and implacable forces of the Old Testament in order to embrace the simple humilities of the New Testament. This is not done in the sentimentality of the valentine or the toss-off notions of “it’s all good,” it is done in full recognition of the fierce quality integral to maternal love. It is, to be sure, the steel-willed love of Mary, resolute in the face of fear and wonder. It is the bittersweet durability of the eternal mother. Of this, strong sons are made.
Love, you see, is not such a soft thing, as we would make it out to be in this caricatured era of the greeting card. Love is a human emotion possessing the force of a hurricane yet tempered by a forgiving energy that diminishes the chasms that separate us from one another. True love does not wish to transform one’s object into an image of one’s self; it expands the definition of brotherhood into a philosophy which finds no obstacle in fundamental differences. In this context, one loves one’s brother because he is so distinct from one’s self. Your brother’s differences articulate those personal perceptions, which so define a centered identity. One can unreservedly love another because love has graced one’s own sense of personal identity. Fear and revenge are nowhere to be found because in this love, differences between us are actually heightened. Differences validate and give lovely terrain to this great Babel of teeming humanity. In love and honor of a God that can conduct such a beautiful chaos as the human race, we abandon ourselves to the pure hopes of brotherhood, the energetic vigor of embracing the other for their sake because it sanctifies the self in loving communion with the soul.
Love and hate reside under the same human roof. To master them, or perhaps merely tame them we must become more able craftsmen. We must take the raw materials of humanity and respect them for what they have been as well as what they are now and what they can be when properly planed into structural members that support the sanctuary of our deepest humility. The House of God is but a dream as yet. It has not yet witnessed our human touch becoming informed by the fierce discipline of total love. It has only seen the false front of a circumscribed, idolatry of love, that kind of denatured love that is easily seduced by the whispering forces of narcissism and personal glory. Our love has been long held captive by tribalism and we have invented the concept of peace because we cannot release ourselves from the torments of self-loathing. Fallen, we look for someone who might have fallen lower. Cast out of paradise, we collect more victims. Made to see the most profane of our inclinations, we dwell in the house of relentless sin, forever tearing down one another in an effort to recover ground we can never fully recover because we refuse to reckon with the vouchsafed map of love.
Peace, you see, is an excuse. It is an unfulfilled promise. It is a continuing monument to hate and division. Though we may think we might find a safe harbor in peace, we never shall do so until this peace possesses the fierce and unassailable strength of Love, a love which is annealed not upon an anvil of revenge but beat firmly into a sword of victory that renders the whisperings of Satanic peace into the sordid gibberish it has always been.
When the Muslim looks at we westerners and proffers an oath that PEACE may be upon us, it is ours to resolutely reply that LOVE may be upon them. Love is the lock upon the gates of infinity, which we have found no combination for because we have been satisfied by mere peace, by a sanctification of hate in the guise of a peace treaty. I cannot vouch for what the Koran might have taught others, I can only reveal what the Koran has taught me. It has confirmed to me that glory, though often soothed by adoring caresses, true glory can never come into being without love, the fierceness of true love, the love that never compromises in the notion that peace is anything but a delay. I love my brother because he is resolutely not I.
I love my brother because I cannot love myself until I love him. Reckonings are God’s Will, not the will of man. Come what may, ours is to prosper in this exile’s garden of the fallen where every tragedy and victory conspires to create not paradise, but a mortal beauty the likes of which we do not truly deserve. Love then, of this type, resides in the abiding humility of gratefulness. This earth, this life, this light and energy, our evolving history together, it is a sweet song of benediction. We prideful humans would be much diminished without our differences, to the point of impoverishment and degradation. We would all do well to hire a rabia and pay his price in love.
In the end, the terrible grinding sounds of war that unite the forces of simple-minded empire with the forces of hateful resentment usually will only pause long enough to render a suitable peace treaty of durably Gnostic delusions. In this brief interlude, the stricken civilian is advised to gird their loins. The protagonists will only render a fools errand of peace in order that they might catch their breaths before attempting but another foolhardy attempt at supplanting the awesome beauty of this life with the darkly clotted wounds of humanity’s cockeyed lust for utopia. Today, the immanentizing forces of Modernity, prideful in its technological expertise faces off against the transcendentalizing forces of Wahhabi Islam, polished into a diamond-hard force of resentment, given more strength by every misstep of the indifferent and gluttonous goliath we have become.
Caritas, the fundamental love of generosity is the only true weapon we have against the sordid temptations of that handmaiden of hate we call peace. I care not whether the Koran is a religion of Peace because I have far less faith in peace than I will ever have in the endlessly redemptive providence of love.
It goes without saying however, that Love, this sole real treasure of our exile is something that needs a firm and terrifying defense from time to time. I do not know if this is one of those times because I will leave the reckonings of this life to those who are of better mind than I. For myself, I will simply try to love. But I will do so fiercely.