Happy Birthday Ibn Jubayr

Image result for poems of ibn jubayr

Born Sept 1st 1145 in Muslim Valencia Ibn Jubayr is remarkable for the journal he left of his Hajj.  Travelling through the islamic world at the time of the 3rd Crusade he encountered a world where lands were changing between Muslim and Christian rule and he wrote of the cordial relations that existed between the common folk while their armies slaughtered each other on the battlefields.

Because he kept an excellent journal Jubayr became a vital source for other writers.  When the ageing Ibn Batuta dictated his travels to his scribe the resourceful Ibn Juzayy used Jubayr as a source to fill in colour and detail in Batuta’s account.

Jubayr was secretary to the ruler of Granada.  A pious muslim he was forced by his lord to drink seven cups of wine.  Afterwards overcome by remorse the ruler filled the seven cups with gold dinars and presented them to Ibn Jubayr.  The secretary thus funded was able to afford the passage to Mecca to cleanse the sin of consuming the wine.

I love how Islamic poetry is turgid with verses extolling the ferment of the grape.  So common are these poems they have a particular name for them: khamriyyat.  I like this stanza from Abu Nuwas the 8th Century Persian poet.

“Don’t cry for Layla, don’t rave about Hind!

But drink among roses a rose-red wine,

a draught that descends in the drinker’s throat,

bestowing its redness on eyes and cheeks.

The wine is a ruby, the glass is a pearl,

served by the hand of a slim-fingered girl,

who serves you the wine from her hand, and wine

from her mouth — doubly drunk, for sure, will you be!”

 

Chapter & Verse

Catholics don’t quote scripture.

I was watching Designated Survivor Series 2 Episode 10, Line of Fire.  Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci) is in hospital with the mother of a baby who is undergoing an operation but her church does not permit blood transfusions.  The mother spits out the beginning of a bible quote and Rhodes completes it.  She then goes on to tell the mother that she went to Catholic school.

Carrie: Are you devout?
Emily: No. Nine years of Catholic School and I never saw God there.
Carrie: I’m sorry.
Emily: Don’t be. I see it other places, like in a Mother’s love.

Immediately all my alarm bells went off.  The writer got this scene so wrong.  Catholics don’t quote scripture.  Chapter and Verse is a mark of the protestant religion.  It is just not a Catholic thing.

The foundation stone of the Protestant religions is the vernacular bible.  When Martin Luther published his 95 theses in 1517 he was challenging the elements of church dogma that departed from the teachings of the bible.  The Catholic church was perfectly happy to continue with Latin mass and have the faithful rattle out their pater nosters and ave marias in ignorance of the meaning of their words.

It was not until the 1960’s following Vatican II that the Catholic church moved to mass in vernacular languages.  Even today Catholic children do not read the bible in lessons.  They learn prayers and catechism. Many Catholic families do not even own a bible.

At the core of the Protestant religions is the need for the faithful to read the word of God directly, without the clouding effect of interpretation through filters imposed by men such as the Pope, Bishops and Priests.

It is no accident that the timing of the Protestant reformation followed the invention of the moveable type printing press.  In order to become a Protestant you had to have access to a bible, and you had to be able to read it.  The vernacular bible was born.

It then became the mark of a good Protestant to reference the Bible on any point of faith.  If you could back up an action with a quote directly from the Bible that supported the validity of the action.  If you could place your quote precisely in the Bible, by quoting the relevant Chapter & Verse that made the point even more forcefully.

This focus on the word of God bleeds into all aspects of church design.  Catholic churches are gloriously decorated architectural wonders filled with images of saints, Holy Mary, angels, martyrs, votive candles, icons, side chapels, expensive ornamentation.  They are designed to be palaces fit to house the Lord.  You don’t speak directly to God though, you work through intermediaries.  You pray to saints to intercede on your behalf.  You then pay a priest to put in a good word for you too.  The economy of the Catholic church is founded upon the concept that you buy influence.

The most fundamental protestant churches are the plainest.  The focus is on the word.  The only object you need to commune with God is the Word of God and that is in the Bible.

In this regard the most fundamentalist Protestant religions share a great deal of common ground with the most fundamentalist Islamic sects.  Islam also focuses on the word, albeit in the Koran.  Islamic art avoids images of people in case they be interpreted as the image of God, a graven image and an object of idolatrous worship.

Below is the Sancaklar Mosque outside Istanbul.  It is a modernist Islamic space.  The design emulates the cave in which the Prophet Mohammed received the Koran from God.  The only decoration in this Mosque is a piece of calligraphy, the Word of God.  This is a space that would work well for any hard line Presbyterian.  It is a long distance away from the splendorous excess of the Vatican.

Sancaklar.jpg

Calendar Wars III

Nizar

Nizar Qabbani : Syrian Poet

Last night was the spring, or vernal equinox.  In astrological terms that makes today the first day of the new astrological year.  The first month of the Zodiac calendar is Aries, the Ram.  We all love to make fun of horoscopes and the notion that you can predict your future from the rotation of the planet and the precession of the stars.

At the same time the human brain is pre-programmed to seek patterns in nature.  Random chance is a frightening threat, so we seek solace in order and causality.  Reading horoscopes is simply a manifestation of the real human need to make sense of our world.

Today is also the first day of the new year in the Bahá’í calendar, a religion from Iran.  Year 1 of this calendar begins in 1844 CE making this year 175BE.  Though it originates in Iran it is most heavily persecuted there.  It is sad that Islam, which was once renowned for its tolerance of other faiths, has become so prohibitive of other peoples beliefs.

So to poetry and today I have a poem from one of the most famous and best loved Syrian poets.  Nizar Qabbani was born on March 21st 1923 in Damascus which he described in his will as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine“.

The suicide of his older sister when he was aged 15 had a profound influence on the young Qabbani.  She made the ultimate refusal to an arranged marriage.  All his life he advocated feminism and an examination of the relationship between men and women in Arabic society.

The defeat of Syria and the Arab allies in the 6 day war by Israel also had a profound effect on his work and shifted his focus from the poetry of love to the poetry of politics.

A lesson in Drawing; by Nizar Qabbani

My son places his paint box in front of me
and asks me to draw a bird for him.
Into the color gray I dip the brush
and draw a square with locks and bars.
Astonishment fills his eyes:
‘… But this is a prison, Father,
Don’t you know, how to draw a bird?’
And I tell him: ‘Son, forgive me.
I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds.’

My son puts the drawing book in front of me
and asks me to draw a wheatstalk.
I hold the pen
and draw a gun.
My son mocks my ignorance,
demanding,
‘Don’t you know, Father, the difference between a
wheatstalk and a gun?’
I tell him, ‘Son,
once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks
the shape of the loaf
the shape of the rose
But in this hardened time
the trees of the forest have joined
the militia men
and the rose wears dull fatigues
In this time of armed wheatstalks
armed birds
armed culture
and armed religion
you can’t buy a loaf
without finding a gun inside
you can’t pluck a rose in the field
without its raising its thorns in your face
you can’t buy a book
that doesn’t explode between your fingers.’

My son sits at the edge of my bed
and asks me to recite a poem,
A tear falls from my eyes onto the pillow.
My son licks it up, astonished, saying:
‘But this is a tear, father, not a poem!’
And I tell him:
‘When you grow up, my son,
and read the diwan of Arabic poetry
you’ll discover that the word and the tear are twins
and the Arabic poem
is no more than a tear wept by writing fingers.’

My son lays down his pens, his crayon box in
front of me
and asks me to draw a homeland for him.
The brush trembles in my hands
and I sink, weeping.

Happy Birthday Cat Stevens

cat-stevens-teaser-and-the-firecat-inside

1948 born Steven Demetre Georgiou, son of a Swedish mother and a Greek-Cypriot father.  His stage name was Cat Stevens.  I grew up listening to him.  When I learned to play the guitar it was to learn his songs.

His father was Greek-Orthodox, his mother a Baptist and he attended a Catholic school.  Always a man searching for the spiritual something that is very clear in his lyrics.  He found his own spiritual home in the Quran and is now called Yusuf Islam.

He has many great songs and great lyrics.  This one has an environmental message and asks a question we should never forget.  It reminds me of this quote:

Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”……Alanis Obomsawin of the Abenaki in “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?” by Ralph Osborne, Toronto, 1972.

 

Where do the children play: by Cat Stevens

Well I think it’s fine, building jumbo planes
Or taking a ride on a cosmic train
Switch on summer from a slot machine
Yes, get what you want to if you want ’cause you can get anything

I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?

Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas
And you make them long and you make them tough
But they just go on and on and it seems that you can’t get off

Oh, I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?

Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air
Will you keep on building higher ’til there’s no more room up there?
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?

I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?

Ramillies

Ramillies_1706_Duprez

Marlborough accepting the captured standards at Ramillies

One swallow doth not a summer make.  Although the Duke of Marlborough won a great victory at Blenheim in 1704 in the war of the Spanish Succession, he was unable to capitalize on it in 1705.  Given a year to recover his position Louis XIV felt he could at the very least bargain a better peace if he made a military demonstration.

With this in mind in the Spring of 1706 he launched campaigns in Italy and Germany with some success.  On the back of the early gains he launched Marshal Villeroi from Leuven into the Netherlands.  At Ramillies he met John Churchill, hungering for an opportunity to deal decisively with the French.

The French, Spanish & Bavarian alliance collided with Churchill’s English, Scottish, Dutch and Danish army on open flat farmland near the village of Ramillies.  The ground was a flat canvas, the perfect medium on which a skilled general could dictate a battle.  In four hours the Duke of Marlborough demonstrated why he was the greatest general in the world in his day.  23rd May is the anniversary of the battle.

The beauty of such a decisive win early in the campaign season is what happened next.  Malines, Lierre, Ghent, Alost, Damme, Oudenaarde, Bruges, and on 6 June Antwerp, all subsequently fell to Marlborough’s victorious army.  The Spanish Netherlands was Spanish no more.

I wrote this post last night, before the news leaked through of the explosion at the Manchester arena.  This morning we hear that 22 people lost their lives and over 50 have been injured in a suicide bomb blast.  Some of the casualties were children, which is no surprise in the audience of the Ariana Grande Dangerous Woman show.  A lone suicide bomber was responsible.

I hate to jump to conclusions without the full facts, but it has all the hallmarks of Islamic extremism.  John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, had the benefit of a defined enemy with stated aims.  His opponents decked their troops in uniforms and lined them up on fields of battle.  Islamic extremists have no country.  Their aim appears to be the destruction of all that is not Islam.  They are happy to die to achieve this aim and have a constant supply of suicide bombers.  They are happy to slaughter innocent children to pursue their goals.  They are happy to recruit impressionable teenagers, and indoctrinate them in madrasas converting them into weapons of flesh and bone.  How do you deal with such people?

I think Ariana Grande herself said all that can be said:

Arianabroken

Calendar Wars

islamic-calender

One of the greatest gifts to the world from organised religions is the Calendar.  Today we don’t think so much of the calendar as a religious instrument, but that is where it originated.

At some level religions are based on augury and prophesy.  Augury is the reading of signs.  Prophesy is the foretelling of events in the future.  If a religion could correctly interpret signs, and use these to foretell events, it was able to give an advantage to its followers.

In the early days of religion the priests struggled a lot with the concepts of augury in particular.  Were two eagles flying from the west a good or a bad thing?  Was it good at sunset and bad at sunrise?  The struggle to get a handle on Augury was complicated by the natural inclination of the human brain to impose patterns on random occurrences.

As a result you get silly reactions to natural disasters, such as the sacrifice of a virgin to appease the deity who is causing the earthquakes.

As time went by some religions began to use writing systems to document their augury.  They tracked the movements of planets and stars.  They observed the patterns in the weather.  They tracked the movements of animals.  They recorded the health of the liver of sacrificed goats.

Over long periods of time certain clear and strong auguries began to emerge.  Religions came to understand the timing of seasons.  This allowed them to plant crops at the right time.    They measured tidal flows and ocean currents.  They documented the solar and lunar years and the longer periods of time measured by the alignments of stars and planets and the precession of the universe.

Weather forecasting auguries also became better.   They came to understand the patterns of regular seasonal rains and floods, such as the Indian Monsoons and the Egyptian Nile inundation.  These events have a significant influence on agriculture and hunting.  The Egyptians developed a tool, the Nileometer, to assess the annual flood.  The data from the measurements was used to calculate harvest yields and associated taxes.  They also developed sophisticated mathematical systems to underpin their calculations, such as quadratic equations.  One theory is that the command of mathematics then enabled the Egyptians to develop their monumental architecture.

Earlier calendars broke the solar year down by lunar cycles.  A lunar cycle is 28 days.  Divided in 4 it gives us the seven day week.  But the lunar and solar years do not align perfectly.  This became a major challenge for religions.  Seasons kept shifting out of alignment as time went by.

The Jewish religious calendar is a good example of this system.  It evolved from an earlier Babylonian model and was improved upon over time.

The poster boy of the calendar world is Julius Caesar.  As Pontifex Maximus (High priest) of Rome he was head of the College of Pontiffs and had authority over the other three religious Colleges; the Augurs, the Quindecimviri (who carried out rites) and the Epulones (who organised feasts and festivals).

During the Civil War the religious observances in Rome were allowed to slip.  The annual calculation of the “intercalends” was not carried out.  This was an additional month inserted periodically to bring the Lunar cycle into alignment with the Solar year.

Better calendars were already in use in Persia (Zoroastrian) and Egypt, and it is likely that Caesar experienced the Egyptian calendar personally and was able to assess it.  He introduced his new calendar in the year 46BC and had to make the year 446 days long to align correctly.

The Julian calendar was 365.25 days long, and lost only 3 days every 400 years.  This was a vast improvement over all existing calendars of the day.  It quickly became the established calendar of the Roman Empire and persists in use today in Ethiopia and amongst the Berber of North Africa.

With such an accurate calendar available one would have to question why, on this day in the year 622 CE the Muslims accepted a calendar of 354 days per year.  When Allah was talking to the Prophet (Peace be upon him) could he not have suggested that Islam adopt the more accurate model that was available at the time?

Ultimately it fell to Pope Gregory in 1582 to make a minor adjustment to the Julian calendar.  The primary motivation was to align the date of Easter correctly to Catholic dogma.  In the process the year was corrected to 365.2425 days.  Instead of losing 1 day in 128 years (Julian) the Gregorian calendar loses only 1 day in 3,226 years.

In order to remember how many days are in each month children are taught a poem or rhyme as a mnemonic device.  This is the one I learned.  Is yours any different?

The Calendar Poem

Thirty days has September,

April, June and November,

all the rest have thirty one,

except February alone,

which has four and twenty four

and each leap year gives it one day more.

The Temple Mount

Tiling

I have always been interested in the history of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Why is there a mosque sitting on the site most sacred to the Jewish religion?

The Al Aqsa mosque sits upon a rocky outcropping at the centre of the temple mount.  This is alleged to be the rock where Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his son by Jehovah.  When he demonstrated his obedience God stayed his hand, so the dogma goes.

I have my own ideas on this.  I believe that Abraham was an intelligent Rabbi and spiritual leader of his people.  He figured out that you did not have to kill people to worship God.  For me the lesson here is “Don’t kill children, you can substitute them with a Goat or a Lamb, or a Dove, or a Fatted Calf.”

Abraham is important because he is a father to three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  All three lay claim to his legacy.

The rock on the temple mount became the central focus of the Jewish religion.  At some time around 832 BCE Solomon is held to have constructed the First Temple.  However there is no archaeological record for this construction.  This temple was allegedly destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar after the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 BCE.  The Jews were clearly a problem for the Babylonians who felt it necessary to exile the leadership to their capital where they could monitor them.

In 538 BCE Cyrus the Great allowed the Jewish leaders to return to the city of Jerusalem.  They immediately set about re-establishing the temple, but not without opposition from others in the area.  Some form of Jewish Temple existed on Mount Zion until the Hellenistic Period.

Following the conquest of the east by Alexander the Great, and the division of his empire, Judea became a pressure point between the Ptolemaic Egyptian lands and the Seleucid lands.  In 167 BCE Antiochus III drove out the Egyptians under Ptolemy V.  The Seleucids clearly saw the Jews as loyal to the Ptolemies and set about reducing their power base.  The temple was looted, services were stopped and the buildings were dedicated to Zeus.  Judaism was effectively outlawed.

In 160 BCE following the revolt of the Maccabees the Temple site was again back in Jewish hands and was cleansed and re-dedicated.

Between 20 and 18 BCE the temple was totally rebuilt by Herod the Great, a client king of the Roman Empire.  This is the Temple where the Christian Jesus is alleged to have overturned the tables of the moneychangers.

The temple was the centre of Sadducee control of Judaism.  Jesus was from a Pharisee sect and did not hold that worship needed to be tied to a particular pile of stones.  The money changing incident was a demonstration of belief by Jesus.  Abraham said “don’t kill children – kill animals instead” and Jesus said “don’t kill animals – the simple act of breaking your daily bread can be worship of God”.

This is not a message designed to sit well with the Sadducees, who made a profit on every sacrificial animal sold on the temple mount, and who also made a fortune on the Currency Exchange market when the rural hicks found that their silver was no good in the temple.  They had to buy “Temple Silver” to purchase their sacrifice.  No wonder the Sadducees had a problem with Jesus!  He was threatening their entire economic foundation.

Ignoring the economics and religious dogma, the Jews were not comfortable citizens of the Roman Empire, and rose up in rebellion (notice a pattern here?).  The “Great Revolt” lasted from 66-70 CE.

The Roman Emperor Vespasian sent in his son Titus, who besieged Rome in 70 CE, punished the population and burned the temple to the ground.  The destruction of the temple removed the power base from the sects that were centralised there.  In this power vacuum the new “Christian“  religion was able to prosper.

The subsequent Bar-Kokhba revolt in 132-136 CE sealed the fate of the Temple Jews, who were massacred by Hadrian’s troops in large numbers.   It also firmly established the distance between Judaism and Christianity.  Following the revolt both Sects were barred from Jerusalem.

By this time the Christians had already established Golgotha as their primary site of worship.  There is no doubt that the Jews would have had issues with Christian worship on the Temple Mount, despite their common link to Abraham.

The Christians therefore opted to venerate the site of Christ’s death and the associated tomb.  When Hadrian expelled the Jews and Christians from the city he had a temple dedicated to Venus constructed on the Christian site, presumably to remove their power base.

From here we roll forward to the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Golgotha.  In 325/326 CE Constantine the Great began construction of two interlinked churches over the tomb and the peak the hill of Calvary.  This firmly established the Christian centre of Jerusalem as separate to the Jewish site.

Under Byzantine rule the Jews and Samaritans faced increasing persecution which led to a number of Jewish and Samaritan revolts.  The final revolt occurred when the Jews sided with the invading Sassanid Empire against the Byzantines.  In 602 CE under Sassanid occupation the Jews re-established control over Jerusalem for a short time, but the Sassanids ended up siding with the majority Christian population by 617.

The Jews then played the other side of the coin and supported the reconquest of Jerusalem by the Byzantines under Heraclius in 630 CE.  There were attempts by the Jews to re-establish a temple on Mount Zion during the Sassanid occupation and during the subsequent Byzantine re-occupation, but they were torn down and the site was left as a ruin.  It seems no ruler wanted to see the rise of a new Jewish power base.

So it was when Umar led the victorious Islamic armies into Jerusalem in 638 CE.  By agreement with the Christian Bishop his entry was a peaceful one.  Umar was invited to pray at the Holy Sepulchre.  He declined on the basis that Muslims might subsequently claim it as a Mosque, and invalidate his promise to protect Christian interests.  Instead he had the Temple mount cleared, and constructed a wooden mosque on the site.

Umar found a prime piece of real estate in Jerusalem, at the heart of the city, good location, nice views and absent of a formal place of worship.  So he took it over.

Subsequently the Ummah defined the site as “The Furthest Mosque” (al-Masjid al Aqsa), revealed to Muhammed on his mystical night journey undertaken in 621 CE.  This cemented the al-Aqsa Mosque  as the third holiest site in the Islamic world.

Over the years Caliphs improved the mosque.  It was destroyed by an earthquake in 746 and rebuilt.  It was destroyed by another earthquake in 1033 (a religious Jew might take this as a sign).  The current mosque largely dates from the 1035 reconstruction.

Under Crusader rule of Jerusalem from 1099 to 1187 the Al Aqsa was used as a palace.  It was restored as a mosque by Saladin and has remained as such to the present day.

During the six day war in 1967 when the Israeli forces gained control of the old city of Jerusalem they secured Jewish access to the Western Wall.  There were suggestions from some hawks that only a few sticks of dynamite stood between the Jews and their ancient site of worship.  But cooler heads prevailed on that day.