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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Prophet and the Goddess

I enjoy my own language, and when I come across a word which might not be so familiar to me, I like to check its meaning. So when in a written phrase I came across the word ‘tilth’, I reached for my [1]Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that tilth is “labour, work or effort, directed to useful or profitable ends.” It is derived from the term tillage, meaning soil that is tilled or ploughed before seed is sown, and comes (as you probably can guess) from farming methods of the Middle Ages.

A field is tilled, the seed is sown, and the crop can later be harvested. But if the field is instead used as a metaphor, can we be so certain that what we have sown is what we also shall reap?
The phrase which contains this term is: “Your women are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth as you will.” This is startling enough. It is not an implication, but a statement, and this statement plainly declares that women are to be viewed – and treated – by men as ploughed fields in which they can ‘sow their seed’ – a metaphor so obvious that it becomes literal –  ‘as you will’: as they want to, and whenever they feel like it. There is no arguing with this phrase, no ‘but it really means...’ type of protest possible. It says what it says, and what it says would seem to be a particularly crude example of arrogant male chauvinism.

Paul the apostle, as portrayed in the 17th-century by Rembrandt. Passages in Paul’s pastoral letters appearing in scripture give the impression that Paul was almost contemptuous of women, but these letters are now known to be anonymous later additions.
I wonder what you might now be thinking? Are you uncomfortably thinking that this phrase could come from some discreetly-overlooked verse of scripture? Such rampant chauvinism in scripture is, it has to be said, hardly unknown. My posts here already have dealt with the notorious verses in Paul’s [2]pastoral letters which, we now know, are not actually by Paul at all. These particular verses read like a rule book of women’s dos and don’ts as prescribed by the Church, even though they were written by an unknown hand several decades after Paul lived, presumably as an ecclesiastical way of keeping women in their place.

But this phrase does not appear in Christian scripture. It can in fact be read in [3]Surah 2:223, the second Surah of the Quran titled Al-Baqarah (The Cow), which is where I came across it. But perhaps this phrase is just an isolated exception among these Surahs? I read on for a few verses more. At the end of verse 2:228 comes this statement: “And women have rights similar to those of men in a just manner…” Well (I think) this is more reassuring. But then comes the twist at the end: “…and men are a degree above them.” This is again unequivocal. Men, according to the Quran, are a rather more superior class of creation than women.

Men, according to the Quran, are above women in status, and need to be obeyed. But how different would things be if such texts were not written by a male prophet claiming revelation from a male angel who in turn was the representative of a male deity?
Surah 4 of the Quran is titled An-Nisa’ (The Women) and prescribes various guidelines for family, relationship and inheritance issues not dissimilar to such Old Testament lawgiving passages. In verse 4:34 we read: [4]“Men are in charge of women, because God has made them excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). …As for those (women) from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them…”. If there were any doubts before about how women should be viewed and treated, this verse definitively dispels them. A woman who is kept by a man is at the behest of that man. Any woman who objects to her allotted status is to be scourged. My above dictionary defines this variously as being flogged, whipped or beaten.

The familiar star and crescent of Islam. It is a strange irony that a religion which brands even the idea of goddesses as a grave sin has chosen for its emblem two powerful goddess symbols: the lunar crescent is widely recognized as being associated with goddesses from Hecate to Selene, and because the planet Venus appears to trace out a five-pointed pathway in the heavens, the five-pointed star is sacred to the great goddess Ishtar. 
There are other such examples among the Surahs, but I shall briefly quote one from Surah 4:117-121. These verses are about the error and folly of following other beliefs, and having in the previous verses been assured that whomever [5]opposes the Messenger (Muhammad) shall be ‘exposed to Hell’, we read: “They invoke in His (God’s) stead only females (female deities); they pray to none else than Satan…” In short: other gods are bad enough, but goddesses are beyond the pale, and any respect due to them amounts to Satanism, with ‘they’ in this instance referring to virtually anyone not following Islam. But the goddess manifests through every young girl, every woman, and certainly through every mother, and every last Islamic terrorist owes the gift of his life, his very existence, to the mother who bore him and brought him into the world.

This photo complete with its caption I found on the Web. The caption is a grim nonsense, as perhaps whoever wrote it might have been aware. Why? Under Islamic law the penalty for apostasy – for leaving Islam – is death. The caption therefore ironically verifies what it sets out to deny.
I undertook the writing of this particular post, not as a specific protest against what would seem to be the Quran’s advocating of gender inequality (although that arises of itself out of the material quoted here), but to try and come to terms with, and even to attempt to find reasons for, a news item which I happened to read. The incident, I warn you, is disturbing, and involved a young recruit of [6]Islamic State who dragged his mother out into the street and executed her in public with a single shot. Her crime? She attempted to persuade her son to leave IS. This incident is so many different kinds of wrong that we might struggle to take them in. What is left of our own humanity when we are driven to such an act? What does it say about the beliefs which we profess, both religious and ideological?

Some of the two hundred Christian schoolgirls who have been abducted by the Nigerian Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. Schoolgirls in particular are targeted because such terrorists oppose any form of education for women. In this sense such Islamic terrorist actions follow the classic pattern of a cult: cut your subjects off from their families, keep them ignorant and make them dependent upon you for their needs.
Barack Obama among others has protested that such inhuman atrocities have nothing to do with the religion which their members profess to follow. I disagree. Were that so, then the followers of IS would be a mere brigandage, bereft of religious adherence. But terrorism in these early years of our century means Islamic terrorism, and the mass rapings of women and young girls by IS are documented. The Nigerian Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has forced the two hundred Christian schoolgirls it abducted two years ago to convert to Islam and take Islamic [7]’husbands’. In reality, girls kidnapped by this Islamic terrorist group and also by IS either are used for domestic labour, or are themselves forced to commit atrocities, or are used as [8]sex slaves.

Maybe Islamic terrorism is Islamic for a reason. And maybe Muslim [9]attitudes towards women exist for a reason, and the words from the Quran quoted here are as they are: men are superior to women, men have rights over women, and domestic violence towards women is both sanctioned and condoned. When the Prophet Muhammad consummated his marriage to his third wife [10]Aisha he was already into his fifties. She was nine.

The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and are possessors of hearts.
But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals.
- Rumi

[1] The term ‘Shorter’ in the title is perhaps ironic: the dictionary is necessarily split into two large format volumes totalling almost eight thousand pages.

[2] Please see my post "Behold This Woman".

[3] The chapters of the Quran are known as Surahs (or Suras), with 114 Surahs of various lengths. The verses of each Surah are known as ayahs.

[4] As I have abridged the verse in my post, I will give the verse here in full: “Men are in charge of women, because God has made them excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which God has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! God is ever High Exalted, Great!"

[5] The Quran is openly anti-Semitic, claiming in Surah 4:46 that Jews are “…distorting with their tongues and slandering religion.” This verse concludes by adamantly affirming that “God has cursed them (the Jews) for their disbelief.” The imagined sufferings which await such ‘unbelievers’ are dwelt upon in Surah 4:56 with almost lip-smacking relish: “Lo! Those who disbelieve our Revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment.” In spite of its anti-Jewish stance, the Quran apparently was still not too proud to borrow the characters of Noah, Moses, Abraham and Lot from the Torah, written some eight to nine centuries earlier.

[6] The BBC has a policy of referring in its news items to Islamic State as ‘so-called Islamic State’ to accurately reflect the fact that the group is not actually a state at all. 

[7] Like Islamic State in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in their region. To this end they oppose all forms of education which are not strictly Islamic, which is why they specifically target schools, with hundreds of students being killed or abducted. Boko Haram also opposes any form of education for women, as do the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is why schoolgirls are targeted, either to be killed or kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam.

[8] Moses, who appears both in the Old Testament, the Torah and the Quran, allowed his forces to keep the young girls they captured ‘for themselves’ (please see the Old Testament's Book of Numbers 31:18 and my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land). So even after all these centuries men are still using religion as a pretext for behaving like beasts towards womankind, and the whole premise that religion of itself makes someone inherently more morally decent and altruistic is a sham.

[9] The co-ordinated mass sexual assaults on women that occurred during the 2015-16 New Year celebrations in Cologne (below), allegedly by males of North African origin, are also relevant here. It would seem that any women who by Islamic cultural standards behave ‘provocatively’ are perceived as having loose morals and are therefore seen as fair game. There seems to have been little awareness among these men that what they did was actually a criminal offence.

[10] These are the ages of Aisha given in paragraph 66, Book 62, Volume 7 of the hadith (commentaries on the Prophet) Sahih al-Bukhari. There is some disagreement about the exact age of Aisha. She apparently was six or seven when she married Muhammed, with the marriage being consummated when she was either nine or ten years old. One commentary points out that it was normal for young girls to be married off at that time and in that culture. But what might be culturally acceptable is not by default morally right, and such an assertion directly contradicts the claim that the Quran is outside of time, and speaks to all ages and all cultures. Clearly it does not. What it reflects is a 7th-century Arabic culture, just as the Old Testament reflects a Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age tribal culture and its attendant social values. 

DIFFERENCES IN TRANSLATIONS: It is worth noting that various online English translations of the Quran give slightly differing versions from the translation I have used for this post. Indeed, one supplies candidly specific instructions: “2:223. Your wives are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth (have sexual relations with your wives in any manner as long as it is in the vagina and not in the anus), when or how you will…” Or more agriculturally: “2:223.  Your women are cultivation for you; so approach your cultivation whenever you like...” In Surah 4 some coyly translate “scourge” as “beat (lightly)” or “chastise”. But as my dictionary defines ‘chastise’ as ‘to inflict corporal punishment’, it’s really the same difference. And beating is still laying a hand on a woman, however the term is moderated by adding ‘lightly’.

THE ARCHANGEL AND WOMEN: It is worth remembering that the Quran is purported to have been dictated to the Prophet Muhammed by the archangel Gabriel. As with any such claim by any belief, this claim clearly is unprovable, and so falls within the province of religious belief. It nevertheless is reasonable to question the validity of such a claim when this in turn means that the archangel, and therefore God, not only is okay with but actually advocates the treatment of women as quoted above in the Quran.

A MATTER OF PERSONAL HYGENE: What struck me in my reading of the Quran is that, unlike Christian scripture, it clearly addresses itself to a male readership: “your women”, "your wives" etc. To offer one final quote: Surah 4:43 concerns personal hygiene and cleanliness, and advises: “And if you be ill, or on a journey, or one of you comes from answering a call of nature, or you have touched women, and you find no water, then go to high clean soil and rub you faces and your hands (therewith). Lo! God is Benign, Forgiving.” We might trust that God also is benign enough to forgive those who compare touching women with washing your hands after going to the toilet. 

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Oxford University Press, revised edition 1980.

The Quran Translated: Message for Humanity. Based on the English translation of M. Marmaduke Pickthall. Revised by: International Committee for the Support of the Final Prophet. Washington, D.C., 2005. I will restate the point made previously on this blog: irrespective of my own beliefs, I treat all books in my possession which are regarded by others as religious texts with due care and equal respect.

Islamic State militant 'executes own mother' in Raqqa. BBC News website, 8 January 2016. Retrieved on 19 March 2016.

Terrorists kidnap more than 200 Nigerian girls. USA Today, April 21 2014. Retrieved on 19 March 2016.

Photos from Reuters, AFP/Getty Images, Colourbox and uncredited sources.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Lilies of the Field

This is the story of three remarkable flowers: one of these flowers is from the past, one is from the future, and one, perhaps even more remarkably, is from a dream. These blooms are made remarkable because through the powers of the human imagination they have invaded our reality, and in that sense they have been made real.

Flowers briefly bloom and fade, reminding us that beauty is a transient thing. This flower from a far future described by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine survives for millennia through Wells’ powers of description: art can outwit time, even if only in the human imagination.
First published in 1895, H.G. Wells’ classic fantasy novel The Time Machine tells of an unnamed inventor who builds a machine which can travel through time. Wells’ protagonist journeys to a far future in which humanity has evolved into two separate species. The working classes of Wells’ own time have become sinister creatures known as the Morlocks who live in underground darkness. The upper classes have evolved into effete and idle beings called the Eloi. The Eloi spend their time picking flowers, eating fruit, and living in what the Time Traveller at first presumes to be an indolent paradise. But he later discovers to his horror that any Eloi who have not taken shelter by nightfall become the prey of the predatory Morlocks.

The Time Traveller who is the protagonist of Wells’ story must battle the predatory Morlocks if he is to make it safely back to his own time. The ability to travel through time has long fascinated the human imagination. Astrophysics suggests possibilities, while many writers of  imaginative fiction have enabled us to make such journeys already.
Although this background gives the story an undercurrent of social satire, with Wells' narrative making a dry observation about the English class system, what truly drives the narrative forward are Wells’ astonishing powers of description. We see in our own imagination what the Time traveller experiences, and with him we endure the horror of the possibility of being stranded in this unknown and dangerous future when his machine is stolen by the Morlocks, and he is forced to make a hazardous journey to the subterranean world in his attempt to recover it.

During his sojourn with the Eloi the Time Traveller is befriended by a young woman whom he has rescued from drowning. The little Eloi presents him with some white flowers as a gift, and it is two of these blooms from the future which the Time Traveller discovers in his coat pocket upon his eventual return to his own time: the only tangible evidence of his fantastic adventures in the world of the far future.

Surrounded by the palace of the Khan the moonlit pleasure dome is reflected in the waters of a surrounding lake. Coleridge’s dream poem Kubla Khan is alive with such vivid imagery: Kubla existed in history, but the Khan of Coleridge’s poem is the poet’s own invention. In poetry experiences become heightened and intensified, and mere reality is left behind so that we might view that reality with fresh eyes on our return.
Wells’ precious flowers from the future find an echo in words written by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge almost exactly a century in time before Wells wrote his own story. The poet relates how he lapsed into sleep, during which he dreamed a glorious visionary poem of several hundred lines. Upon awakening he immediately began to write down the poem of his dream – only to be interrupted by an unexpected visitor. Once his visitor had departed he again set to work, but to his dismay discovered that he had by then forgotten most of what he had dreamed. The surviving fifty-two lines we know as the masterful poem Kubla Khan, with its stately pleasure dome, its gardens redolent with incense, and its Abyssinian ‘damsel with a dulcimer’: the remaining snatches which Coleridge managed to rescue of a far grander design.

Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid seated before her dulcimer. The flower on her shoulder echoes the bloom which the poet wished to possess as proof that his dream experience had indeed been real. But were this mysterious bloom actually to appear in our reality, then all of our preconceptions about what reality is would have to be revised.
In attempting to come to terms with his bitter-sweet experience, Coleridge wrote a brief sentence which to me is one of the most reality-challenging phrases in all of literature: “If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke – Aye! and what then?” What then, indeed. Were this dream flower truly to materialize in our world then the fabric of our own reality would collapse. So we now have a flower from the future and a flower from a dream. But what of the flower from the past?

Jesus asks his followers to ‘consider the lilies of the field’. This instructional lesson from Matthew’s gospel remains valid, even though these particular ‘lilies’ turn out to be as elusive as Wells’ flower from the distant future and Coleridge’s flower from his dreamed-of paradise.
It is one of the most quoted passages in scripture, and its message is so immediate that, two millennia later, we still can readily relate to it: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” These words attributed to Jesus come from Matthew 6:28-29. This short passage assures us that we will be provided for, but it also underscores the vainglory of worldly wealth when compared to the unsurpassable creations of the natural world. We do not even need to be particularly religious to feel the truth which is uttered here. But why should these flowers from the past be grouped together with the fantastic flowers from the future and from a dream? Are not lilies real enough?

Sternbergia growing in the wild. Known as Autumn crocuses, these flowers are thought to be the most likely candidates for what in Matthew’s gospel were described as ‘lilies’. But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and whether the blooms were poetic lilies or prosaic crocuses the lesson of the story remains the same. 
Well, not these lilies, no – because they could not have been lilies. Lilies are not native to the Holy Land, so whatever flowers were being used for this lesson in trust and earthly humility, they must have been some other bloom. Scholarship suggests that the most likely candidate would have been Sternbergia, known as the Autumn crocus, which grows in profusion in such areas around Galilee. It seems that, once again, the magnificent prose of the King James Version opted for a [1]telling turn of phrase over accuracy.

But let’s face it: ‘Consider the Autumn crocuses of the field’ just does not have the resounding ring of the more familiar phrase which has come down to us. Poetry can reveal the greater truth, and with a greater power, than a more prosaic reality. And so we comfortably can place the lilies in Matthew alongside the fantastic botany of Wells and Coleridge without doing a disservice to any of them. The lessons – and the sense of wonder – remain the same. The essayist Jorge Luis Borges remarked that [2]“a false fact may be essentially true.” These mysterious flowers from time and from dreams bloom in spite of their unreality, and we are left to wonder at their strange and fragile beauty.

[1] Ultra-violet tests on the original Greek manuscript of this gospel held by the British Museum have revealed that the original text reads, not ‘they neither toil nor spin’, but: ‘they neither card nor spin’. Since carding is a process of combing yarn, this makes more sense within the context of the phrase.

[2] This comment appears in Borges’ essay Note on Walt Whitman.

H.G. Wells: The Time Machine. Pan books Ltd. 12th printing, 1975. The watercolour illustration of the Time Traveller being attacked by Morlocks is by Alan Lee, scanned from the cover of my own edition of this title.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems, selected and with an introduction by John Beer. J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd. 1974 edition.

John Livingstone Lowes: The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Pan Books Ltd. Picador imprint, 1978.

Jorge Luis Borges: Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L.C. Simms. University of Texas Press, 1964. My post is in part inspired by the essay in this title The Flower of Coleridge, which draws the comparison between Coleridge’s statement and the flower of Wells’ story.

Robin Lane Fox: The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. Penguin Books, 2006. Chapter 8 of this title examines the errors of translation mentioned in my text.

My pencil and wash paintings of the ‘stately pleasure dome’ and the ‘Abyssinian maid’ are from an unpublished study of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. © David Bergen Studio. To see my other paintings of the 'maid' please visit here. To see my painting of Kubla Khan please visit here