Shadows of the Minaret

“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women).  So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded.”

– the meaning of the Glorious Qu’ran

Yikes.  Studying the Qu’ran every night is like rolling unease, discomfort and a dash of deep spiritual truth all up in a big burrito of boredom and trying to keep your eyes open long enough to eat it.  Actually it’s more like being bullied out of your lunch money and eternal soul by an overgrown egomaniacal baby.  Actually I have no idea what it’s like.  I’ve never read the Qu’ran.

One fundamental distinction between Islam and Christianity is the nature of the text.  I know there are some people out there who think of the Bible as the literal word of God… however to these people I would point out the fact that they don’t understand the tricky concepts of linguistic translation, the well-documented history of their own scripture, or the explicit statements within the text itself that the Bible is man’s documentation of the works of God.   The Qu’ran is completely different.  This text, as dictated to prophet Mohammed (praise be unto him) through the Archangel Gabriel, is taken as the literal and direct word of God.  As such, the words themselves are holy and infallible.  One must wash their hands before touching the Qu’ran, store it above all other books, and read it on a special wooden platform (which I’ve been sacreligiously using for comic books).  And, crucially, this means that there is ONE Qu’ran:  no King James Version, no New Living Translation… every Qu’ran since it was first written in 632 CE (and even before- when it was memorized word for word in its entirity by true believers) is exactly the same.  One God.  One book.  Written in one language.

So what I read and study every night is not the Qu’ran.  It is a direct English translation of the meaning of the Qu’ran, which to a Muslim is hardly the same thing.  It’s a strange thing, this Arabic-only religıous scripture.  In Turkey, as in most of the Islamic world, people don’t speak Arabic and therefor can’t themselves understand their supremely important holy book.  People learn to read and write Arabic, and even memorize large passages (or in some cases the whole thing!), but for understanding they, like me, have to turn to innaccurate and innadequate translations.  And boy, if their translations are anything like mine… let’s just say it makes the most archaic begat-begat-begat Bible translation feel like and exhilerating thrill-ride.  Anyone attempting to read a translation of the Qu’ran must first understand one terribly important, crucial concept:   It’s a poem.  The beauty of the words in Arabic move people to tears and fill them with the word and spirit of God.  Musical, beautiful, haunting: the rythm, harmony and passion behind the words is what makes memorization possible, and its also quoted by the text itself as proof of Divine origin: (“Or do they say: ‘He (Prophet Muhammad) has forged it (this Qur’an)?’ Nay! They believe not! Let them then produce a recitation like it if they are truthful.” Surah at-Toor  52: 33-34).  The sophisticated linguistic and poetic force of the Qu’ran goes deep to the point of miracle.    The irony of this, of course, is that… it doesn’t… translate well.  Actually, it kind of sucks.

“Show kindness unto parents, and unto near kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and unto the neighbor who is of kin (unto you) and the neighbor who is not of kid, and the fellow traveller and the wayfarer and the slaves whom your right hand possess.”

–  meaning of the Glorious Qu’ran

Another distinction between Islam and Christianity is the scriptural and historical relationship with science.  Muslims pride the Qu’ran on its compatibility with all modern views of the world, and within the religion learning, education and thought are all deeply valued.  The dicotomy between science and religion which has plagued Christianity has never existed in the Islamic world.  Muslims view modern science and the Qu’ran as not only congruent but actually reenforcing one other.  It is a faith which has never pushed out or alianated acadamia, and perhaps as a result it has extremely wide support and acceptance withing Turkish culture.

Actually, it took me a while living here before realizing just how deeply religious the people around me really are.  Maybe being surrounded by burkas and niqabs should have tipped me off.  But I don’t know – I still just found it hard to believe that the college-age troublemaking boys I teach have never drank.  But it’s true, and while Sharia law may be left out of the Turkish constitution, it is very much on the hearts and minds of the people.  Even my educated, liberal and very westernized students.  In fact, religion comes up so much in class that at times I feel like I’m leading an Islamic studies dialogue rather than an English class.  And innevitably my bright, curious and warm students start to pose questions to me:  “What are you?  Are you Christian?”

So I tell them:  “I think religion is like language.  I can look at this cup- and I can call it a ‘cup’.  Or, in Turkish, we can say ‘burdok’.  But really it doesn’t matter if we say it in English or Turkish or Khmer or Sign Language or if we never even talk about it at all… no matter what it’s the same thing.  I think religion is the same: just different ways of talking about and understanding deep spiritual truths.  As long as we don’t get too lost in the verbage, we can all look at the cup, appreciate our own understanding of it and be thankful.”   When I’m able to make myself understood, the students usually nod in agreement (as long as there’s only one Cup!), which makes me feel good and refreshed.  One thing that frustrates me slightly about one omnipresent religion surrounding me is how unknowingly self-righteous people can get about their beliefs.   It’s not intentional, I’m sure, but when you know next-to-nothing about any other belief system you can become pretty sure that yours is the only vehicle to God.  So moments like this of understanding and love between me and my students are precious.

“Oh ye who believe!  Take not the Jews and Christians for friends!”

-meaning of the Glorious Qu’ran

And so I set out to learn Islam – a powerful language for divinity which so much of the world speaks.  I knew it had something to offer.  While I had trouble connecting with much of the Qu’ran, I could see an incredible and solid warmth, love and passion in the hearts of the devout around me.  An incident that happened at my school a few weeks ago spoke – to me at least – to the beautiful soul of Islam which I was trying to find:     At our weekly staff meeting some of the foreign teachers were complaining.  The problem is that we’re supposed to get free lunch and dinner, but often there’s none left by dinner time.  The complainers identified the issue: anyone – random students, guests, people off the street – could just walk into the kitchen and be given food.  “Could you not give these people all our food?” they whined.  The administration’s response, usually so accomidating to any whim, was great:   “Oh!  We’re really sorry!  But you see, if people are hungry, we have to feed them.  It’s our culture and our religion.  So… sorry… but we can’t stop feeding anyone who asks for food.”

I think one of the most beautiful parts of Islam-in-practice is the 5 daily prayers.  My good friend and deep thinker Modern Oddyseus is critical of the practice which he sees as mindless repetition – conformity which strips power and joy from the individual.  I see it very differently.  I see it as an enormous step in the direction of spiritual intigration with the realities of this world.  I believe that when people take time out of their day, 5 times a day every day, to meditate, pray or otherwise focus on their personal connection to a Higher Reality, then the often-lofty ideals behind religion are brought into real-life practice.  Everywhere I look in Turkey, I see wise words of compassion being put into action.  The Bible – the Qu’ran – the Torah – these books are all peppered full of good intentions and theoritcal love – what is important to me is not the professed belief in any one God or text, but rather a commitment to actually living this Love.  I believe, for many people around me, these 5 daily prayers are a key step in this integration.  But in any event, one thing that the Modern Oddyseus and I can agree upon is the huge level of discipline it requires.  I wake up every morning, as does every other resident in a Muslim country, before sunrise to the other-worldly eary call of morning prayer.  But I fall right back asleep.  I can’t believe how many of my students, friends, neighbors and co-workers actually get up, rıtually wash themselves, and go through the lengthy process of Islamic prayer.  “Really?”  I demand incredulously of my students.  “Every day?  Today you woke up?  Really?”  Yes, really.   Every day in sub-zero Erzurum I see the old men washing their feet, arms and face outside in the snow before entering the mosque.  5 times.  Every day.  That’s commitment.

“Truly those who believe, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabaeans – whoever believes in God and the Last Day and performs virtuous deeds – surely their reward is with their Sustainer, and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve.”

– meaning of the Glorious Qu’ran

One thing you will never see in Islam is a painting, sculture or even description of what God is.  In Muslim thought, God is beyond this world, and therefor any earthly representation is impossible.  God is simply beyond our understanding.  A kind religious scholar explained it to me like this:  “We are all cups of knowledge and love.  We strive to fill ourself with God, and we can always learn, move, and progress in our understanding of God, even when our cup feels overflowing.  But God is like the ocean – a single cup can never hold the vastness.”     Ah… more cup metaphores… I like it….

To roll with the God-as-ocean-analoge, I was touched by words I read in a book about a 13th century itinerant Sufi Dervish named Shams of Tabrizi.  He explained that the Qu’ran and Sharia law are like a solid boat for exploring the vast sea of God.  But to truly know God, he claims, one must eventually take the leap and swim the mysteries.

Like most other deep religious thinkers with a true connection to divinity, Shams of Tabrizi was labeled a wingnut and heretic.  But with these words of wisdom, I rolled over into learning Sufi thought:  Islamic mysticism which many believe has existed since before the time and revelations of Muhammed (p.b.u.h.).  Inner dimensions and esoteric understandings of God’s love- seeking the divinity within and connection with humanity through the destruction of the ego, rejection of worldly wealth, and earnest individual exploration.  I felt myself drawn to the long history of the Dervish – wandering ascetic mystics seeking full integration of God’s love in their soul, all wrapped in the deep cloak of Islam.  Seeing people as the walking, living Qu’ran… seeking the divinity within…  Suddenly my difficulties connecting with the surface-level-understanding of the Qu’ran melted away.  Suddenly I could see my own connection to this faith.  Suddenly spiritual doors began to open and vistas lay out before me…..

“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.”
– Sufi mystic Rumi

Then I got punched in the face.  It was near the end of class and I only had two students left.  Things were casual and we were chatting about religion.   “Some Muslims believe that to hear a woman’s voice is a sin if she is not your family,” my student Murat, whose mother wears a full burka, was explaining.  I hadn’t heard this partıcular belief before, but the burka thing kind of freaks me out.  They remind me of ringwraiths.  Most women in Erzurum and about half my students wear headscarves – a style of dress which encompasses more than just covering hair – it also requires the wearer to cover their arms and legs and not display the curves of their body.  I’ve gotten used to this and can respect it, but the full-on eye-slit black burka or niqab or whatever it’s called still totally wigs me out.  Erzurum even has a special horror- which to me is completely terrifying- there are women who just walk around with burlap sacks on their head.  No eye-holes – it doesn’t even look like something which could possibly be worn – certainly its not a garment.  It’s just a burlap sack.  Freaky as hell.  But anyways; back to my story…  we were talking and my other student; a really smart med student who wears the headscarf, sighed and said, “I think wearing a burka is the only true right thing to do, it’s just too hard for me.”  There was something like remorse or guilt in her voice, and it felt like somebody had just karate-chopped me in the throat.  It was just about all I could do to keep from bursting into tears, but I stammered and flailed around with some words, trying to put together an intelligible reply.  Class ended and my students walked away.  I was left gasping for air.

I don’t think I ever did manage to make any sort of reply, but what I wish I had said is this:   “Okay, we’re all talking about a cup and blah blah blah and that’s all good and everything, but I guess I have to change my standard answer on religion a little bit.  I believe that there is a lot which can be learned from any religious text.  But I also believe that we all have our own individual relationship with God or however you want to call It.  And I believe that above any religion, scripture, dogma, prophet or leader we need to put this personal connection first.  Any belief which doesn’t include universal respect doesn’t work for me, and MY God says VERY clearly that wearing a burka is absolutely not the only right thing to do.  And no one’s voice is a sin, damnet!”    That’s what I wanted to say.  No, no it’s not.  Here’s what I wanted to say:   “Pleeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaase don’t wear a burka, Şarife!  The world needs your smile!  Because when you smile, I see God!”

“silence is the language of God,
all else is poor translation.”
–  Sufi mystic Rumi

Like anything else, it’s all just what you make of it.   I see great things in Islam, I see terrifying things in Islam.  Sufi Elif Shafak quotes Shams of Tabrizi as saying, “How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is mostly fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.”  That sounds about right.  I guess my God is a bit of a mixed bag, but it sure is satisfying to search, learn, and live every moment in the Eternity of the Divine.   “The Path to the Truth is a labour of the heart, not of the head. Make your heart your primary guide. Not your mind. Meet, challenge, and ultimately prevail over your nafs (false ego) with your heart. Knowing your ego (higher self/soul) will lead you to the knowledge of Allah.”

The words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ translate directly as ‘submission to peace’.  I like that.  With a definition like that, I feel confident when I raise student’s eyebrows telling them, “Yeah.  I’m Muslim.  Sure, whatever…”.    And I bow down, submit to the journey, and pray with the same intention that I have been the past year and a half.  I pray to the Rising Sun, and whatever it may bring.

“I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.
I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.
I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.
With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only ‘anqa’s habitation.
Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.
Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.
I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a “two bow-lengths’ distance from him” but God              was not there even in that exalted court.
Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.”

-Suffi mystic Rumi

4 thoughts on “Shadows of the Minaret

  1. Hi Walker, I find your descriptions of your experiences gripping and poetic! Thank you for your posts.
    Rumi is one of my all-time-favorite poets:

    Out beyond ideas of rightdoing
    and wrongdoing
    There is a field.
    I will meet you there.


    Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
    and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
    and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

    Let the beauty we love be what we do.
    There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

    Best to you on your journey, both the outward and the inward.
    Sending good thoughts your way,
    Donna and Lilly Road Manders, my new doggie.

  2. Thanks for the window into islam, having your view into it makes it a bit more clear to me. Still pretty inscrutable, though. I look forward to more windows….. andy

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