Whence Muhammad?

‘Muhammadanism’ was always a heresy, a contamination, a deviation – and hence, always needed satire. Where humor inserts the uncanny into the mundane, satire exposes the decay inside the ordinary. Muhammadanism has always been understood through the satirical gesture, whether couched in scholarly objectivism or bazari insouciance.1

The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. The eighth century epic The Song of Roland – written in the eleventh century – depicts Muslims as idol-worshippers of a trinity of gods – Apollin, Tervagant and ‘Mahomet':

“From Tervagant take they his ruby, and into a ditch they throw/ Mahomet, where foul swine rend him, and dogs hale to and fro.”

The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives. This is most legible in the tradition of a biography of Muhammad – Vita Mahumeti – that cast him specifically as a Christian heretic who got a garbled message of Christianity from a Monophysite or an Arian or a Nestorian or a Jewish monk.

Under Peter the Venerable in 1142, a translation project made a version of the Qur’an available in Latin, but those early editions included such biographies of Muhammad where notions that Muslims worshipped him – as an idol – persisted. These biographies, often with illustrations, were inserted in world histories, histories of the Church or of the Crusades throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Despite the interactions between Muslims and Christians from Spain to Sicily to Jerusalem, the understanding that Islam was a heresy of Christianity and Muhammad was a figure who could be mocked and degraded for perpetuating this heresy persisted.

Dante’s Comedy had Vergil speak directly to Muhammad — who had been sent to the eighth circle of hell for the sin of sowing schism. Dante is keen to let Muhammed himself proclaim: “See how I open myself! See how Muhammad is burst!” (Inf. 28.30-31) and all surviving manuscripts of Comedy illustrated Muhammad rent from chest to groin.

In the later medieval period, Muhammad’s portraiture gathered some more complexity – he was frequently ‘wicked,’ ‘with a desparate stomach,’ and delighted with rapes and plunder, or was seducer of women, of mongrel birth, and whose name tallied up to 666.

The first English translation of the Qur’an in 1649 – The Alcoran of Mahomet – made the text by Muhammad. It came via the French L’Alcoran de Mahomet (1647) by Andre Du Ryer. Matthew Dimmock notes the immense popularity and circulation of this anonymously-composed English text which was rather un-familiar with Arabic itself. It significantly imagines Muhammad as a living being – who has invaded and conquered the present Christendom:

There being so many Sects and Heresies banded together against the Truth, finding that of Mahomet wanting to the Muster, I thought good to bring it to their Colours, that so viewing thine enemies in their full body, thou mayst the better prepare to encounter, and I hope overcome them. It may happily startle thee, to find him to speak English, as if he had made some Conquest of the Nation, but thou wilt soon reject that fear, if thou consider that this is his Alcoran (the Ground-work of the Turkish Religion) hath been already translated into almost all Languages in Christendom.2

The introduction then re-states: “Good reader, the great Arabian imposter, now at last after a thousand years, is by the way of France arrived in England, and his Alcoran, or gallimaufry of errors (a brat as deformed as the parent, and as full of heresies, as his scald head was of scurf) has now been exposed to the publick view’ just as any African monster might be, for people to gaze, not to dote upon”.

The Muhammad who speaks in English — compared to an Ass, to an African monster — is inside England – just as the Turk is at the gates of the empire.

The tradition of biographies of Muhammad continued as well – with dramaturgists leading the way. Henri Boulainvilliers, Humphrey Prideaux, or Voltaire were all producers of plays on the life of Muhammad where his sensuality and his corruption of women become key personality traits.

André Du Ryer, Walter Raleigh, Henry Stubbe, Edward Gibbon, Ann Cotton, Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, are just some of the writers of “true” biographies of Muhammad which focused on his blasphemy, his heresy, his sexuality, his capacity to lie – and all were produced, or reproduced, with woodcuts or illustrations that depicted Muhammad as a demon, as a deviant, as a devil.

In the seventeenth century, missionaries took their pamphlets exposing Muhammad to Egypt, to India, to Iran. Little scholarly attention is paid to the production of polemics in para-texts of the Bibles which meant to correct Muslim believers. Yet, these productions inevitably took a changed relationship between text and image to the colonized world.

Many scholars note that until the seventeenth century, depictions of Muhammad were not considered extra-ordinary – the presence of scratched out faces in hundreds of manuscript pages in the libraries of Berlin, Paris, London and DC attest to this change that occurred in Muslim practices. The Qur’an certainly prohibits worshipping idols (or images) in one or two places – and the Tradition (events and sayings of Muhammad) does prohibit depiction of human beings (or Muhammad) because they can distract the believer, cause spiritual discomfort, or imply the power to create life. (A side note here: throughout this period under review, there exists a venerable scholarly and hagiographic tradition on the depiction of Jesus and Mary in Muslim spaces. There are Traditions which note that the Prophet himself saw murals of Jesus and Mary inside the Ka’aba and left them un-touched. All the way to the robust miniature-productions of Mary and Jesus under the Mughals)

Yet, this same Tradition includes vast amounts of textual depictions of the body and features of Muhammad (shamā’il) and, since the ninth century, a whole genre is devoted to the depiction of Muhammad (Sharāt al Nabi). Muhammad and his early companions, Saints, and other religious elite were thus depicted in manuscripts and murals in Iran, in India, in North Africa, until the seventeenth century.

When we speak about the depiction of Muhammad, the sacral practices of Islam at the origins (Qur’an or the Tradition) is the only frame of analysis and enquiry. We make two grave errors here: the first is that the long history of the depiction and ridicule of Muhammad in Europe is swept away from view as irrelevant to this particular present. The second is that we ignore the histories of colonial productions on Islam in the colonized world which – either as proselytization or as scholarship – created a different hermeneutics for seeing Muhammad for the Muhmmadans.

The result of these errors is a continuation of heresies and perversions – except instead of a single Muhammad, the billions of Muhammadans are deemed to be the guilty ones. Each a heretic to the faith in freedom of expression or in Enlightenment. Hence, each needs to be confronted by a maligned Muhammad to understand the beautiful Truth. At the one side sit individual artists, thinkers, writers – all who privilege and are privileged by their adherence to the creative gods. On the other side, are millions who await their Reformation or their Glorious Revolution (either would do). There needs to be an out from these dichotomies and that must include a careful study of our collective, connected pasts.

  1. Since long, I have been meaning to finish an argument about the centrality of the Prophet to Pakistan but … the work remains; and one import of my argument will be to demonstrate that the European understanding of the centrality of the Prophet is now the reigning understanding in Pakistan, in distinction with the pre-colonial. []
  2. Quoted in Matthew Dimmock, The Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pg. 167 []

A Matriarch in Exile

A version of this is published on Public Books on Jan 9, 2015.

She moved to NYC in 1990 or 1991, according to her son. According to her own melodious Punjabi, she has been in exile for “vi ya panji saal” (twenty or twenty five years). For some hours, she has been speaking of her time in NY, but her first few sentences are stuck in loop inside my brain – an animated GIF of exile. kithay lay aye dane paney de khed? Where have these games for grain and water landed us?

She looks to be in her late 60s or early 70s but I did not inquire. I said very little as she spoke, sitting quietly, my mind half-a-second after her speech, deciphering the cadences of her language and disentangling the similes, metaphors, landscapes.

For a while I have been writing about cities – Lahore, Berlin, Uch Sharif – and I have been reading those who write about. The men especially because it is a very masculine form of writing: one that posits itself either as insular or as vulnerable to the charms and dangers of the city. The City as inhabited by a woman does not have the same place in the marketplace of narratives. Panels on the City in this city, feature men who have written Big Books on The City with apt quotes from Benjamin or Sebald, Simmel or other clever French cities-writers like Augoyard or Perec. They are keen to show me “inequality” which exists, or perhaps the “immigrant” or perhaps the “wanderer”. No matter, friends, I always want to say, those Germans and Frenchs you cite have already said it.

What do they know of the city when they know only themselves?

For a while I have been interested in thinking about exile – working through Said, Agha Shahid Ali, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I came to this country almost 20 or 25 years ago as a very young man, and I spent a lot of my early time, reading Faiz as if he held the key to unlock the reality that was around me. My relationship to exile was shaped by my reading of Faiz. My relationship to Faiz was shaped by my exile. I gave up thinking about exile, when I moved to Berlin. Rather, I gave up thinking about it in the terms I had become accustomed to. What do I know of exile when I only know myself?

The Matriarch, in her deft, funny, sentences, dismantled my city and my exile. She came, following her children, to Queens, NY. She took care of their household. Her City was inside of a shared household filled with children she was raising. She raised the daughters of her brothers and cousins. She raised the daughter’s daughters. Each daughter, she called Niki – the little one. Her stories of these little ones – who took her finger and walked with her, who spoke Punjabi until they were 6 or 7 but stopped when they began school and when they were in College would shake their heads and say: what are you even saying maan ji? These girls told her their dreams and what color to paint their walls and how the fathers were never at home, and they dressed up in Punjabi kurtas and they had their weddings and they had daughters of their own who came back to live with the Matriarch. She spoke about her simple recipe to put crushed garlic, a slice of pepper, and half an onion on the side of the plate, and have a meal with one roti. That is all I can eat; not these platters of Meat and market food with which they stuff their faces. They being the men, the husbands, the fathers, the obese, the overworked, the taxi and limo drivers, the bodega owners, the employees of the city whose job is to sit and sit and sit and who dreamed of Qilla Rohtas and the fields of Jhelum perhaps but they were not going to go back to those fields. These farmer sons.

The Matriarch said, with defiance, but perhaps with genuine pleasure that she never learned English, she never memorized her street address, she never knew a phone number. She learned the city by remembering only where she was going. I would walk, every day, she said – lamenting her failing ability to walk more than a few miles – and I would sometimes tie a piece of cloth to the outside door of our house to recognize it when I came back. What would you do on your walks? I wanted to see the fields and the trees and the streams so I would sweep the areas until I found them.

She has lived in Jackson Heights. Punjabi is her only language.

The Matriarch spoke about her exile. Her thoughts are always with her brothers and sisters she left back in Jhelum some twenty or twenty five years ago. She thinks of what they are doing, to their marriages, their deaths, their daily struggles. She is the eldest of her family, and those were her keeps too. Her sons and daughters and grand daughters are here, but her family is in Jhelum. How to live here, and how to die here, she asked. She never once uttered the word exile for what she had. But she spoke of the fields, the fruits, the vegetables, the colors, the smells, of her village near Dina as if she had left it a few weeks ago. I had never even seen the city of Jhelum, before I came to Queens, and I still have not seen it. Where do I turn to find her life in this literature on Exile? Which Poet or Theorist should I read?

After our conversation, I was left holding my impoverished immigrant city – one in which there are no generations of daughters raised in languages of exile. My immigrant city does not have a fabric tied to a house while home is 10,000 miles away. Even before meeting her, I had grown weary of the machismo of writings on the City – the Maximum Gaze – but now I am simply done.

Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2014

2014 was the 10th anniversary year of CM and the year of the publication of Lapata’s novel, Taste. It was also the year with the least number of posts. Hence, this year’s postcard will do away with a narrative and will simply be a brief list of some of the 2014 posts.

Previous Postcards: 2013, 2012, 20112010

Kill the Future

Kill the future
Shut down twitter, facebook, linkedin, google
Unplug the internet, the hydro-dam, the nuclear reactor
Shutter the few generators of electricity
let those hooked to machines, die

Spray with fire our books; plug the holes in our logic with bullets. Erect a flag, on a bamboo stick. Plant it in the father’s chest.

Tear the scream from the mother’s throat tune it to the national anthem set the reverbs of the blasts as rhythms release it for us to Like

Pour gasoline on me,
Flick your thumb against the flint
Light me.
Make me watch how I burn and then shoot me
shoot me
shoot me
shoot me
shoot me
shoot me until 132 bodies are full of your lead.
shoot me in the eyes.

Write my obituary
Find out who fought for my cause
Make of them Heroes of Islam
Garland them in poppies.
Let them smoke my ashes.

wear your uniform to my funeral, have your dharna at my door, make your reconciliation, enjoy your appeasement, drone me, fill my shed skin with petro-dollars, sing me a hindu lullaby.

murder the past, kill the future.

Death is Iconic

Death is Iconic IThis summer, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of civilians, bombing schools and hospitals, and even UNRWA shelters. This might just have been another chapter in the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, but this summer, there was something new: an unprecedented number of photographs and videos made it through to the international community via twitter and other social media platforms. Those who refuse to believe the extent of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, or who believe the oppression of the Palestinian people is strategically justified for the survival of the Israeli state, were in denial about the many images rushing into the rest of the world.

Most famously, George W. Bush’s former speech writer, David Frum, latched onto a conspiracy theory that held that a series of images of two Palestinian brothers expressing raw grief over the death of their father whom they’d just brought to the hospital was simply a piece of propaganda. According to this theory, the photographs were staged, and this could be seen from the fact that in one, the more distraught brother had blood on his hands, and in another, he did not. The blood had been added for effect, went the theory. Unfortunately for Frum and his ilk, these photos had been taken by numerous professional photographers working for international news services, who spoke up and outlined the sequence of events, showing that while the men arrived at the hospital soaked in blood, in the interim, as their father lay in the operating room, they’d washed their hands. Death is Iconic II

When I saw these striking images, I understood immediately what it was really all about. It was about the iconic nature of the photographs. Two men, in a state of mourning, embracing: they look like figures in classical paintings, or religious icons: figures of saints and martyrs. It was a dangerous turn in the image war, and the Frums of the world were scared.

[My paintings are acrylic on wooden panel, 5” x 7”. The original photographs were taken by Hatem Ali/AP, and Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters; my hat is off to these brave photographers who put themselves in the path of danger on a daily basis. My desire was to engage with the ways in which the underlying photographs looked like religious icons.]

An Account of Autumn – Manūchherī

Divan “An Account of Autumn and in Praise of Aḥmad bin Abdus Samad, Vizier of Sultan Mas’ūd”, a wine-panegyric or khamriyya by Manūchherī Dāmaghānī (d. 1040 C.E.)
(trans. Prashant Keshavmurthy)

The Lord be praised – for autumn’s month is here,
The month of shrinking and swelling vineyards.
So much do they harvest and heap the grape
Now the vineyard teems like the milky-way.
For when the grape leaf, rainbow-like, is many-hued
The rainbow seems to hold grape clusters.
Blue purses hang from yellow leaves,
In each blue purse a largish seed of grape-flower.

And in the heart of that seed’s vinous flower
Are hidden ten sacks all concealing musk.
And that fruit’s as if it were someone unwell,
Of double aspect among all its limbs and body, One of its cheeks yellow, the other red.
Of them one’s breathless, the other jaundiced.

That pomegranate’s like a pregnant woman
And in her belly – a fistful of sons.
She won’t give birth until you beat her to the ground.
And when the child’s born its birth’s the same as eating it.
A mother gives birth to a child, or two or three.
Then why’s this pomegranate a mother of three hundred?
Continue reading An Account of Autumn – Manūchherī

A Qissa for a Globalised World

[Following is a guest post by Kavita Bhanot. She is a london based writer. Her short stories and non-fiction have been published widely in anthologies, magazines and journals, two of her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and she is the editor of the short story collection Too Asian, Not Asian Enough (Tindal Street Press, 2011.) ]

There has, of late, been a revival of Punjabi cinema directed towards and watched by Punjabi audiences. A recent addition to Punjabi language cinema, albeit less ‘commercial’ and more ‘artistic’ is the Punjabi language film Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost which has been doing the rounds at international film festivals and was screened last week at the London Indian Film Festival.

The film is about the violent consequences of son obsession in a Sikh refugee family in post-partition East Punjab.Visually striking, Qissa stands out for its cinematography; the framing, the use of shadows and light, the unusual angles. It was often absorbing, most of all in the scenes between actresses Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal, playing the couple Kanwar Singh and Neeli who find themselves in a predicament after marriage when they both discover that Kawar is actually a woman. Their interactions quiver with layered tension and chemistry.
Qissa Continue reading A Qissa for a Globalised World