Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Decoding the zeitgeist

Back in 2012 Alex Ross emailed me about a new bleeding-edge cycle for orchestra and electronics titled Sufi Word by the Belgian composer Jean-luc Fafchamps, and as a result of Alex's generous heads up I have written several related posts. Symbolism is an important component of Sufism, and although Jean-luc Fafchamps explains "I am not a Sufi, or even Muslim and I do not speak Arabic" the music is evolved from the symbolic interrelations between letters of the Arabic alphabet derived from a Sufi chart. This compositional system has parallels with the I Ching-derived chance operations that created the charts for John Cage's Music of Changes.

Recently I was prompted to revisit Jean-luc Fafchamps' musical exercise in Islamicate symbolism by reading the Turkish-American scholar Ahmed Hulusi's book Decoding the Quran: A Unique Sufi Interpretation - free legal download via this link. Ahmed Hulusi's thesis also draws on the decoding of Arabic letters, and is based on the following exposition by the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law Hadhrat Ali:
'The secret of the Quran is in al-Fatiha, the secret of al-Fatiha is in the Basmalah,
and the secret of the Basmalah is in the letter B (ب)
And I am the point beneath the 'B' (ب)'
This is interpreted by Ahmed Hulusi as a precursory reference to the contemporary concept of the 'holographic universe' which quantum field theory points towards. In this theory the whole is contained in the part; each and every iota of existence potentially contains the whole, and what we label as the 'whole', or the 'outside world', is no more than our personal hologram. According to Ahmed Hulusi's interpretation we live and are therefore constrained by the virtual projection of our own perceptions and beliefs; a concept that is also central to both the Buddhist and Vedanta traditions where it appears as maya - the Sanskrit word for 'illusion'.

His thesis leads Ahmed Hulusi to the conclusion that there is no 'god out there' administering existence from afar. There is only the One denoted in his interpretation of the Quran by the name 'Allah', and he posits that humankind must learn to reject its holographic preconceptions and achieve unity with the One. It is a tempting thesis particularly in its resonances with other wisdom tradions, but it demands at least questioning. Ahmed Hulusi's thoughtful decoding of the Quran highlights both the benefits and weaknesses of relying on intermediary interpretations of what many believe to be a divine revelation. Another book, Theo Padnos' overlooked Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen, highlights the dangers inherent in interpreting a divine revelation dating from the 7th century. In 2012 Theo Padnos was kidnapped and held hostage for almost two years in Syria by the Nusra Front, which is allied to Al-Qaeda. But the earlier journey chronicled in his 2011 Undercover Muslim takes him from teaching poetry to inmates in a Vermont prison to conversion to Islam and life in the mosques and madrassas of Yemen. It was a journey that prompted him to reach the following conclusion:
When I was in Russia recently the atmosphere of the religious schools I had attended in Yemen and Syria came back to me. The education had given me a healthy disregard for material things, to say nothing of a solid understanding of the Koran, but even as I was memorising, I knew that this education had a harmful side. In two and a half years of study, I had attended three schools and had visited friends in several more. Without exception, these academies taught that evolution is a fable, that Islam is the wisest solution to life's problems, and that the Hebrew bible is a fraud, forced on the world's Jewish population by elders who wish to hide references to Muhammad. In none of these academies were students asked to read widely. In no schools were students directed to use their reading to construct a modern. Self-supporting, nuanced system of ethics. In religious schools in the Middle East if you don't know what to do, you ask the sheikh. He has memorised much more than you. He knows what the Prophet would do and understands the Golden Time of Islam. Whatever the problem is, the sheikh, not the student knows the answer.

That is an extreme view, but then Yemen is an extreme country where extremism has been incubated by the terrible civilian casualties inflicted by Western drone and missile strikes. A more nuanced appraisal of Islam is offered by James Fergusson in his recently published and recommended Al-Britannia: My Country. His appraisal, in my view, provides the appropriate level of balancing and questioning, as expressed in this key extract:
For me, though, there remained a drawback to the Islamic social system... which was that the obligations it imposes on Muslims seem to require a subjugation of the hallowed Western traditions of liberty, free will, and individual choice. Becoming a Muslim is voluntary – the Prophet was clear that there could be 'no compulsion in religion' – but Islam also means 'Submission' and, like many Westerners, I still instinctively distrusted the implications of that. For all the good in Islam, I was wary of the total fealty it demands to its core principles. Because it is based on the literal word of God, Islam comes with a built-in resistance to evolution and reform; it is not good at accommodating social change because the laws and moral values of its patriarchal past, being God-given, cannot be deviated from. And that is problematic for any traditional Muslim living in the West, where laws and values evolve all the time and frequently clash with those of Islam.

Sufism - which has varying liberal interpretations - is currently enjoying a renaissance driven in part driven in part by a reaction against Salafi and Wahabi theological extremism. Ahmed Hulusi's unique Sufi interpretation Decoding the Quran and Jean-luc Fafchamps' Sufi Word cycle are laudable examples of reconciling contemporary culture with divine revelation, and thereby bypassing the resistance to progress highlighted by James Ferguson. So to end this post I am returning to music and presenting a video extract from Sufi Word:

No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

1 comment:

Pliable said...

A Sufi friend emails:

Thank you also for the new writings "Decoding the zeitgeist" , as always very complete and very interesting, again thank you!
And here a little remark: When you see the western point of view about freedom and the difficulty to accept "submission" as James Fergusson and others... they seem to forget one of the greatest philosopher and poet Goethe. In his Divan , he writes about the butterfly flying into the light "Blissful yearning / Selige Sehnsucht" whose earlier titles were "Sacrifice of the self / Selbstopfer" and "Perfection / Vollendung
In another poem of the "Divan" Goethe says:
"Stupid that everyone in his case
Is praising his particular opinion!
If Islam means submission to God,
We all live and die in Islam."