Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Ninth Hour

I took Najwah’s hand and led her to a wicker table in the sun. I opened the chess set and arrayed the pieces according to the rules of the game. I said, “Each has a proper place; each moves with certainty according to his nature. The pawn moves as a pawn, the rook as a rook, the bishop as a bishop—each without variance.” I moved a pawn forward one square. “If this one had thoughts and speech, he would say, ‘I have come here according to my manner for such-and-such a reason.’ But he has no perception of the real reason. His entire world, its rules, its customs, its morals—these are a mummery; his comrades are all equally without perception. From the lowest pawn to the kings and queens—they do not know they are actors in a pantomime.”

I lifted the pawn from the table and placed it in Najwah’s hand. “Yet if this one could love, he could move like a queen. And if the queen felt love, she might be frozen in place, a prisoner of the pawn.”

The above is a quotation from The Ninth Hour. I wrote this short book several years ago as a gift to a friend. I had already finished The End of Reason and had not yet begun The Temple of Hanuman. The book is very brief and its theme is romantic love. I consider it a minor work, but provide a slightly abridged version for download here or by clicking on the cover image below.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Heaven's Vault

In gloom still love is luminous and made
Of lovers' plaints and passions disobeyed.
If air is sweet and recollects her scent,
What makes is so is subtle and unseen.
Once promised, unforgotten and unspent,
My want of heaven's vault is now unclean.
The life I sought, dismembered and unsung,
Was promised, was diminished then undone.

You’re not the sun that kisses me with light,
Nor yet the moon that covers me each night.
If not the Pleiades, nor Virgo’s grain,
Nor any constellation’s fancied lines.
Nor painted dusk that bold auroras feign,
You’re beautiful beyond these earthly signs.
You're not the northern star, yet I obey,
And look for you wherever I might stray.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The End of Reason/The Temple of Hanuman

The complete versions of these two books are available at these links:

The End of Reason includes In Herod's Keep, The Madness of God, and The Men Who Have the Elephant. Link to the PDF here, or by clicking on the book cover below.

The Temple of Hanuman can be found at this link, or by clicking on the book cover below.

Both works may be printed and shared, but are protected by copyright. Only personal/noncommercial use is approved. Comments are welcome either on this blog or by email at the address below:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Book

I lingered in thought throughout the night. I was troubled by the conversation between al-Ganas and al-Doushu, whose arguments I have already recounted. Though both had strong and valid points, it seemed to me that both could not be correct. I believed in God, yet acknowledged the value and achievements of the sciences exactly as al-Ganas described them. I felt that al-Ganas’ argument, which was in agreement with the world as I perceived it, was superior to al-Doushu’s. I wondered if I could embrace al-Ganas’ view and yet remain faithful to my religion. As the moon set, and as dawn alighted softly in the east, my thoughts turned to Hypatia. I concluded religion and science had no concourse together; and I was on this account disturbed.

I returned to the walled garden, not having slept, and sat near a fountain whose waters glowed with the reflection of the sky’s morning colors.

As I sat, listening to the flowing waters, I saw Böethius, a master of learning no less than al-Doushu and al-Ganas, enter the garden. In his hands he held a book that had stamped on its cover a golden nine-pointed star. I greeted him. He sat near me and opened his mouth, saying:

“When you’ve arrived at the end of reason, as at the end of a road, you’ve reached your destination. There is no more road to take, nor anywhere better to go. You’ve attained your goal.”

I said, “I don’t understand.”

He smiled patiently and said, “I have in my possession something to ease your mind; something to allay your troubles, and a way out of false choices.” He then held out the book he carried, handing it to me.

“Do you recognize this book?”

I took the book from him, saying, “I don’t.”

He said, “But you see it clearly enough. You feel the heft of it in your hands, smell the scent of leather and ancient pages. You know it’s real, that it exists as surely as the hands in which you hold it.”

I said, “Of course.”

He said, “Then describe it for me. You know something of how books are made. Describe it.”

I nodded and turned the book over in my hands, opened the cover, flipped through the thick pages. The paper was heavy, printed on both sides with black ink. The edges of the paper were gilded. The leather cover, stamped with its golden star, was sewn delicately to the folios. These things I described, and other details more minute. When I had finished, I handed the book back to him.

Böethius smiled. He said, “You have fully described the craft, the artistry, and the materials of this book. Having done so, now tell what the book is about.

I answered, “I didn’t read the work, nor do more than glance at the title.”

He said, “Then what purpose does this craft serve?”

I said, “Just as a frame holds its painting, this book holds its words. It is a beautiful presentation; a pleasing form by which the words are suspended and preserved.”

He said, “What does the author say about the paper, printing, and binding of this book.”

I said, “I haven’t read the book, as I said.”

He said, “But you might conjecture.”

I said, “I doubt very much he says anything about it. The writing of the book surely preceded its manufacture. And most authors, while interested in the form in which their books are published, rarely think of the process when writing.”

He said, “Yes. I have read this book and nowhere do the author’s words reveal anything about the artistry and craft of building the book in which these words reside. Nowhere does he speak of gilding, or leather, or stamping or binding. The author has explained the origin of the work, even the moment he decided to write it, but nowhere does this align with its physical manufacture. If he discusses other books, still he does not describe this one. So is it fair to conclude that the artistry and craft of creating the physical book and the author’s art in writing it, barely align?”

I answered, “Yes, this is so. But these are different spheres; the writer of the book and the one who manufactures the book have different objectives. The manufacturer seeks to build the book’s physical manifestation; this is not often the author’s objective in writing the book.”

Böethius said, “Ah, but the book containing the author’s words must be bound, or the author’s purpose fails. Yet you are right; these are different spheres, even if the author and the binder are the same person, even if the author directs the form the physical book will take. Still these spheres, the book I’m holding and the words it contains, are inextricably linked together.”

I said, “This is indisputable.”

“So would you agree that the words of the book inhabit the book’s physical form and, in fact, the physical form itself was created solely to cradle those words?”

I said, “I would completely agree.”

 “And further, would you agree that the words of the book transcend the book’s purely physical construction?”

I answered: “Of course. The book may be a treatise on geometry, on the movement of the heavens, on the depth of the seas, or a history of a people. Reading it, I may be transported to a thousand places in ages past or yet to come. But the physical form of the book itself cannot convey me anywhere or describe anything to me.”

Böethius said, “The book in my hands would not exist except that the words appear within it. If the words were not written, the book is not produced, though you may have at hand all the materials and the technology to construct it. It can never serve its true purpose except that words alight within it. It is equally true to say that a painting is exalted above, indeed wholly transcends, the canvas on which it is presented and the frame in which it is hung. The frame does not serve a purpose if the canvas is blank. In truth, in either case, the reading of the words or the appreciation of the painting are superior forms of knowledge than the craft of the binding, however beautifully made, or the woodwork in the frame, however expertly carved. The words, or the painted scene, when comprehended, wholly transcend the book or the canvas and frame upon which they are presented. Likewise, God’s word is both immanent in the world, yet transcends the world utterly.

“Those who describe the universe mechanically are not mistaken in their conclusions. Yet if they say that within the creation, ‘God’ is not a necessary explanation, then they have overstepped their expertise. They have described the frame, even the texture of the canvas, and the chemical composition of the paints, yet deny the painting. They weigh the book in their hands, denying the words, even as they detail the ink used to print them.

“When you described the book to me, everything you said about the artistry and craft that went into the manufacture of this object was true, based on observation, experience, and by weighing it in your hands. You may know every physical aspect of the book, yet you may have no knowledge of why it was called into being; you may be completely ignorant of the reasons why it was written. You can only possess such knowledge when you have read the book. In the words are mysteries of the author’s mind, the very contents of a mind that transcends the book and cannot be grasped by merely describing and explaining the book’s physical attributes. Inextricably linked, still knowledge of the characteristics of the book and knowledge of the words and the author’s intent are different kinds of knowledge completely. Would you agree then that these two aspects of this book are separate spheres of knowledge?

I said, “Yes, I cannot disagree.”

“Then you understand what neither al-Ganas nor al-Doushu understand. Science and faith may be reconciled as the moon may be reconciled with the sun. These are different spheres, made of different matter, serving different purposes. That the moon sometimes eclipses the sun is no testament to the moon’s greater size; it only seems so because the moon is so close, so immediate to us. It is in fact the sun that is of greater size, which transcends the bond between earth and moon, yet whose light and heat are everywhere present. But the sun and the moon are not in conflict; they are in perfect accord with the purpose of the heavens. They do not war with one another; one does not dispute the other. And one may even declare that in the light of the moon you see the very proof of the sun. So whether science explicitly confirms the bond between God and creation, or merely implies it, these are ways of knowing that enhance the other.

“Calligraphy is lovely scribbling without meaning, except as the means by which the words are made evident. The ink does not prove the words, or their truth. But without it, the words cannot be revealed. Likewise, the physical characteristics of creation are the means through which Truth is ultimately revealed to men.

“When I first handed you the book, what did I say?”

I replied, “You said that I felt the weight of it, that I could catch the fragrance of leather and old paper, that I knew the book was as real as I am, real without doubt.”

Boëthius said, “Yes. But now you know what is more real than that; the words within the text gave existence to the book’s physical form and did more than that. Those words gave the book a reason to exist at all. The author inscribed in this book the letters B and E. And therefore it came into being.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Night of Qadr

I knew an Alim at the Madrasah Jamiah who was the light of his age. He was very wise, versed in many philosophies and sciences. Beyond these inner qualities, he was physically strong and handsome. His words were measured and articulate, his manner appealing, and all who knew him respected him. At last, his reputation attracted the interest of a local dignitary who, having met the Alim, recommended him to the Prince of Samarkand. The Prince called the Alim before him, verified for himself the man’s merits exactly as I have described them, and took him in his service to tutor his children. Over time, the Prince referred to the Alim for his advice on all matters of state. His advice was always sound, and the Prince’s affairs prospered.

This Alim however was unused to the dangerous intrigues of a prince’s court. The envious disliked him whom their prince favored. Upon the prince’s lips, every good thing imaginable, every wise decision, every happy outcome was thanks to this Alim. Such words, however, only confirmed in the envious their hatred for the Alim and they plotted against him. Yet every plot of which they conceived, however devilishly contrived, however perfectly executed, never had the intended effect. Instead, with every passing year, the Alim’s honors but grew and the Prince rewarded him richly, at last making him his Vizier.

Sadly, however, the Alim, giving his counsel to the Prince, advised something that the Prince disliked. Suddenly, the Prince’s demeanor became fiercely hostile. He stripped the Alim of his titles, confiscated his property, and banished him from court.

I saw the Alim again many years later. His physical strength had fled him, and his features were emaciated. Whatever position he had taken, he was robbed of it. Whatever money he made, was stolen from his hands. The Prince had spread terrible rumors about the Alim, and no one would associate with him. Unable to rely on the generosity of his friends, who feared displeasing the Prince more than honoring their obligations of friendship, he was forced to beg for his bread.

Yet when I spoke to him, I saw that his qualities were unchanged, that the rumors were untrue. I took him into my care for a while, fed him, and looked after him while he regained his strength. When I spoke disparagingly of the Prince or of the unkind treatment he had received, the Alim was quiet, and sometimes smiled. Astonished by this, I said, “How can you smile? You who were once honored and revered for your wisdom have been cast down from power, deprived of property, denied even of scraps from those who once praised you. Yet you, on the verge of starvation, not long from death, you act as though none have wronged you, as though you still wear a robe of honor, as though you are still at the highest position in a prince’s service. How did you arrive at serenity on the road of ruin?”

The Alim said, “The man I was in the Prince’s service, as I was at the Madrasah Jamiah, as I was as a student, still I am that man. I do not curse the wind for blowing, the sun for shining, the world from turning. For they are as they are. So life is as it is. It makes no difference whether I am buried in tatters or in a robe of honor, if I die at the palace or in the dust. Every road we take in life is at last the road of ruin.”

To this, I replied, “So you are reconciled to the whims of fate or to cruel and undeserved treatment at an enemy’s hands?”

The Alim answered, “There is no fate. And if I am broken on the wheel, there is no wheel.”

Seeing that I did not understand, he recited:

Those who stand aloof still bend to His command.
Those who trust in luck are bound to His decree.
For every night is the Night of Qadr.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Night Journey

Many years ago, during the festival celebrating the Night Journey of Muhammad, I went to Shiraz to pay homage to Sa‘di at his shrine there. But at that shrine, I felt unmoved.

That night, which was the night of the festival, the whole city was alight, and I wandered the streets until I came to another shrine, unlit and uncelebrated. This was the shrine to one for whom remembrance and homage were also due, but against whom the fickle crowd had turned. They had destroyed this shrine, and among the broken walls and rubble I lingered sorrowfully, reflecting on the vagaries of fate.

The night became long and cool and I drew my legs up to my body to stay warm when I heard, on the broken pavement, another soul drawing near. I turned my head to him, and saw the ghostly figure of Sa‘di Shirazi. I said to him, “Why does your shade wander here? Why not haunt your own shrine instead, or the roads on which you traveled?”

The apparition said, “I have no need for self-commemoration. But I have need to commemorate this One.” Saying this, he gestured to the ground strewn with shattered stone, and tile, and glass. “If it is not still beautiful, still it is His.”

Though the sea is very great,
It is a droplet to the Sun.
And if the sea should shine,
To whom is commemoration due?
The book is for the reader,
Not the author.
The throne is for the King,
Not the other way around.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Houri's Skirt

In the Buddhist temple I stood before a statue of the bodhisattva, Kuanyin. Looking up from my place, I saw that I stood in the very spot where her gaze was falling. I abruptly left the temple.

A friend tugged my sleeve and said, “Why are you fleeing from a statue?”

I said, “When the eyes of heaven are upon you, how can you conceal your shame?”

The one who truly knows himself
Will not befoul the Houri’s skirt
By clinging to her hem.
The punishment of fire
Is his rightful place.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Poisoned Well

On the road to the city of Rayy, I met a man who assailed all those who passed by with violent words and vile opinions. Though most averted their eyes and walked on silently, if more briskly, I stopped and stood before him. He continued his harangue and said, “Nothing is more foul than the Jew! His customs are alien. He drinks the blood of innocents for his rites, and poisons our wells!”

I said, “Tell me of these rites. I am a little acquainted with Jewish custom and know of none for which human blood is required.”

He said proudly, “I have no specific knowledge of these rites. For the wise have said: sometimes it is best not to know too much of a thing.”

I answered, “This is true, but there is never merit in ignorance, and no virtue in slander.”

If he shuts his eyes, he is blind.
If he stops his ears, he is deaf.
Would that he were only mute!

The son of Mary cannot raise the corpse who says,
“I am not dead!”

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Kingdom of Cordoba

In the Kingdom of Cordoba, the Umayyad prince Abd-ar-Rahman called together a conference of Jews, of Christians, and of Muslims to agree on the fundamental values shared by all three faiths. This seemed to the prince the best way to avoid the effusion of blood among his subjects.

The wisest scholars of these faiths, paragons of learning, tolerant and good-natured, as men are disinclined to be, sat in friendship together in the courtyard framed by nine colonnades. But when the time came to ratify their agreement and to embrace as brothers, the Jews said:

“We cannot deny our shared principles, and we stand together as friends. Yet we stand apart on the question of Jesus and Muhammad. We must reject their ministries for Jesus was not what we were promised and Muhammad was not promised at all, and the Most High has not fulfilled His obligation to us.”

The Christians were much offended at this and declared, “God, the Father, has indeed fulfilled His promise to you, for Jesus was surely the promised messiah, the son of the living God, and your deliverer. Yet you rejected him and shamefully put him to death! You come to this conference affirming his sacred teachings, but rejecting his sacred station. By rejecting Jesus, you have abjured the faith of Moses! You must wait with us for Jesus to return, and he will judge between us and cast you and your wives and your children into Hell, but the signs have not yet been fulfilled.”

The Muslims then declared, “O Christians, you renounce the Jews and condemn them for the crimes for which you yourselves are guilty. Muhammad, upon whom be peace, is the paragon of the virtues we share and the Seal of the Prophets, after whom God is not permitted to send a Messenger. The Jews and Christians shall wait forever, but perdition is their reward. Let God strike down those among us who speak falsely!”

At these words, the members of the gathering fell upon one another with stones and daggers until not one among them drew breath. When the prince saw this, he bit the back of the hand of consternation. But his vizier said, “It is likelier that the dead shall be quickened from their tombs than a religion shall come to overthrow the nature of men to quarrel, and the wise have said:

If the Way rose like the sun,
They would reject it.
"We await the moon!"
If it were water,
They would renounce it.
"We prefer the sand!"
The dove alights on the tree of paradise,
Denounced by those expecting the owl.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Houris of the Court

I saw an old friend sitting forlorn beside the arched entrance of the market, tears flowing across his bearded face like a flooded wilderness. His eyes were burning red, and his body bent like crumpled paper. His hair, tinged with white, was wild as though he among the angels had fallen fastest from the realm of the Most High. He made no sound, but his body trembled as he wept inconsolably. Because he was my friend, I was mortified that he would expose his shameful state so publicly. I berated him as follows:

"Why are you weeping at the gate of the bazaar? Do you cherish being an object of scorn and mockery? Consider your enemies; how they must rejoice at this sight. And your friends; how ashamed they are even to know you. Take your tears home or wipe your face and stand up, for I know your cares are not so great. Tears are an adornment on women and children. On a man they are a disgrace. Such sadness is best concealed."

He answered, without a trace of shame in his voice. "My tears are the mingled waters of joy and sorrow. What does he know of dazzling light except that he knows also of midnight's pitch? Let these tears run from my soul's fountain, as blood one day must run from my broken body. Let my passionate heart, divided from itself, be burnt and the smoke of its fire, so soon extinguished, reach the heavens, a perfume on the breasts of the houris of the Court. No other sacrifice I've made has merit, but the prayers of burning hearts are heard."

When he said this, I saw that his state was more exalted than mine.