E-MAILS FROM SCHEHERAZAD
Last semester I based one of my seminar papers partly on another of Mohja Kahf's poetry collections, HAGAR POEMS. I loved that book for its imaginative portrayal of the figure of Hagar/Hajar, and for the warm and funny and startling things it had to say about the immigrant experience and religion and God and the ways in which people do or don't relate to each other. This is a much earlier collection of Kahf's, the poems here having been written between 1983 and 2001. The themes are similar - ancient women imagined into the present day, exile, simultaneous frustration with and longing for religion - but the ideas aren't as focused and the images and language aren't as memorable as they become in HAGAR POEMS. The best poems here are the ones in which Kahf confronts global human rights issues, notably birth defects caused by the United States' use of radioactive bombs during the Gulf War, or the grief of being a homeless refugee in an unfamiliar country. I'm sure I'll read more of Kahf's books, and I enjoyed reading this one, but it ended up mostly feeling like early practice for ideas later perfected in her poems about Hagar.
JOHN OF DAMASCUS ON ISLAM:
John of Damascus was a 7th and 8th century Christian priest who defended the use of icons, wrote several beautiful hymns, and compiled a list of beliefs that he considered to be heretical, the 101st of which was "the still-prevailing deceptive superstition of the the Ishmaelites." This text was one of the earliest sustained Christian refutations of Islam, and despite the fact that John essentially had nothing positive to say about either Muhammad or Muslim beliefs, his fellow Byzantine Christians of the time called him a "Saracen-minded" "bastard" because he had an Arabic name (Yuhanna ibn Mansur al-Dimashqi is what he would have gone by), wrote in Arabic, and spent most of his life living among Muslims. I wish this book would have been more about the details and events of John's life, and his cultural, religious, and political context. Instead, it's mostly a not particularly insightful analysis of a few of his writings; the most interesting point being raised is that some of his theology might have influenced early Muslim sects like the Qadarites and Mu'atazilites, groups who held nonconformist beliefs about humanity's free will and the un/createdness of the Qur'an. It's an intriguing idea, even if I don't really buy it, partly because it reflects a tendency I've noticed, especially among Christian writers, to assume that all Islamic beliefs and practices are basically corruptions of earlier Jewish or Christian concepts, rather than just allowing that Islam might have formed and developed some ideas on its own. My favorite paragraph in the book ended up being the very last one:
As long as Christians continue to see Islam as a distortion of Christianity, or as long as Muslims see Christianity as a preliminary stage in the history of of God's revelation, a religion fulfilled and "annulled" by the advent of Islam, there is little hope for a fruitful and meaningful dialogue between men (LOL) of both faiths. The "conversion" to which one is called is to take his partner in the dialogue seriously on his own terms. This means that Christians are challenged to look upon Muslims not simply as potential Christians, and Muslims not to look upon Christianity as an incomplete Islam.
John of Damascus pretty clearly would not have agreed with this sentiment, and neither would a lot of members of either religion today; it's ambiguous and idealistic and probably a little naive, but that doesn't stop me from loving it and relating to it.
Yesterday I ordered an icon of John of Damascus even though I'm still not sure how I feel about him or how he would feel about me or my friends or my enemies.
other books I read this month: