Special thanks to Tanzeen Doha, now living, learning and teaching in San Francisco, a fellow traveler.
The Rant: Isaac and Ishmael. Is'haq and Ismayil. A somewhat literary interpretation of the traditional Jewish version of the story is interesting. First the story: Abraham wants to leave an heir to spread God's revelation to his people. It just wasn't happening, so with his wife's permission, he marries another and has Ishmael. Then quite unexpectedly, his first wife gets pregnant and Isaac is born months later. Abraham treats them equitably and passes on the revelation, yet Ishmael and Isaac do not get along that well for a variety of worldly reasons. Both kind and responsible men, they firmly believe in the revelation as but have very different approaches. They both understand man's greater responsibility towards one's fellow man as desire for justice. Justice is love and love is what God requires to reward us with the blessings of unconditional love. Ishmael fights for a justice that is desire as sensual tremors of the soul, while Isaac fights for one that is desire as manifested in the letter of the law. Ishmael emphasizes faith, intent, the esoteric, the essence of Dharma, spontaneous difference and is therefore flexible with the established rituals. He is the ecstatic poet/philosopher artist, similar in some respects to a kind of Abrahamic Achilles and Karna. Isaac on the other hand emphasizes faith through cohesion, diligent adherence to established rituals, and other socio-cultural manifestations of the essence of Karma, much like Japanese martial artists (more Aikido and Jujitsu than Karate) who believe that repetition of the Katas lead to higher states of Ki-consciousness (consciousness of God's grace and will) and enlightenment. He is the statesman/preserver in the tradition of Hector, an Abrahamic hybrid of Hector and Arjuna. Their father Abraham represents the ideal balance as well as the symbiotic relationship between the two. The half-brothers, the primary archetypical duality of the Abrahamic tradition, our own Yin and Yang in search of balance, come together to bury their father and all is well again… bliss.
Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, the Cabalists, the Muslims, the Sufis and the Alchemists breaking the chains of man's law to submit himself to the will of God. Isaac, the father of the Jews submits himself to the will of God by embracing those very laws also embraced by his father and because his father - the ideal man blessed by God's divine revelation for his people - embraced them also. Isaac does not ponder too much whether the laws lead to that perfection, or it is the perfection leads to the construction of such laws, he simply follows, obeys, and occasionally improvises and gently transfigures the meaning of the laws when he has to, in order to preserve their sanctity and purpose. Laws that keep the peace amongst his people, fabricate happiness out of that peace, and enable him to find happiness in theirs. He is the noble King of Kings and like Sisyphus one must imagine him happy without too much difficulty. Isaac preserves while Ishmael challenges with identical goals in mind. Isaac the utopian architect (The Matrix ), utopia meaning both good place and no place in classical Greek, stabilizes while Ishmael the anti-utopian oracle destabilizes the equation that can neither be solved nor remain unsolved because it, like all manifestations of God through all of His divine creation, is in a permanent state of transformation and flux. Isaac the easily recognizable epic hero, believing that love is the way of God, is always ready to make the supreme sacrifice (like Hector and Arjuna) for all the good things he loves in a world that loves, cherishes, and honors men like him. Ishmael the anti-hero, also believing that love is the way of God but in an absurdly Godless world, sacrifices himself for a glory he knows he cannot live to see. He doesn't care about the ways of this world as the hereafter as the world to come where all is reconciled in divine unity, awaits him at the business end of God's will. Like Achilles and Karna, he embraces that divine will and becomes its instrument. A confrontation, a dance between the hero and the anti-hero locked in cosmic embrace, an eternal battle devoid of permanent victory or defeat. Siva and Vishnu conjuring Brahma out of the universe in hopeless hopes of seeing the unseen, not as an expression of arrogance or in the spirit of blasphemy, but as the apparatus of capture that only offers salvation through the very act of engagement in the struggle, the Jihaad to balance the opposite values attracted to the same field. The travels of an ultimately anti-utopian, nomadic war machine that desires neither territory nor pure adventure, but the ecstasy of God's grace by traversing the thousand plateaus of his creation, the infinite yet deliberately engineered universe within, without and beyond all things known, unknown and unknowable. I wonder why some fools like me think that the coming together of the Abrahamic traditions and all things compatible to those traditions as one, can only lead to good things?
You feel me my brother?
E-mail 01: There are some significant differences between the Judeo-Christian take and the Muslim interpretation. The Judeo-Christian take never considered Hajara (Haggar) as Ibrahim's second wife (they call her the concubine), and once Is’haq (Isaac) is born approximately 13 years after Ismayil, both Ismayil and Hajara are instructed to leave the family due to Sara's insistence and be in the desert. Also, the story of the sacrifice according to the Bible, where Ibrahim is instructed by God to sacrifice his "only" beloved son - the Judeo-Christian view this as a command to sacrifice Isaac not Ishmael. Obviously, this is vehemently debated by the Muslims, because they think the only son at the time of the dream was Ismayil because Is’haq was not born yet. Ismayil was at the time of the prophet Ibrahim's dream - the "only" son. The bible clearly says that it was Is’haq who was to be sacrificed - of course, in that case, the term 'only' son is applied to Is’haq. So, the bottom line is, after the birth of Is’haq - Ismayil becomes unimportant - he is not even Ibrahim's son anymore. Given all the similarities between Judeo-Christian thought and Islam, this remains a foundational/fundamental difference between the two traditions, and thus, in Hajj, a lot of the rituals are about establishing the Muslim story of Hajara and Ismayil.
Even though there are plenty of symbolic similarities in both the interpretations, there are some elemental textual (literal) differences, which give rise to diversity of thought, which then requires interpretive work to unearth the multiple levels of meaning. Therefore, dissolving these differences can only happen through forceful imposition.
Reply: Your take on the Judeo-Christian take on the matter is accurate. I don't claim to be a specialist/scholar, but perhaps an archaeological/linguistic/cultural (more scientific?) approach to investigating such things can shed light on less-biased facts that by definition are a bit more complex than they appear. The rabbinical view is less cut and dry anyway. I met some Reform rabbis, renegade Catholic priests, and Moroccan muftis who encourage such erudite revisionism, not only because they think such endeavors add to the scholarship, but because it helps internalize the intellectual elements of faith and subsequently can enhance the spiritual experience in oneself and eventually the community as a whole. Well, such important erudition is your passion, calling and in the near future, profession.
I just saw a purely creative way to draw parallels that can be drawn, perhaps out of an instinctive urge to draw our stories together. Such musings are nothing but additional insights into the "mythologies" our common origin as sentient beings attempting to describe experiences in order to harness their power for the common good, and further disciplined intellectual forays. The nature of the discipline is bound to change as our fundamental perception of how things work, what things are, how those "organic" multiplicities relate to the simpler, more binary way we investigate those questions through mathematics and language, how we measure the necessary margin of error when we arrive at temporarily answers, and develop systematic discourse as a strategic toolkit rather than yet another "truth" more intellectually interesting and valuable as the object of genealogical inquest. I think that after the advent of post-Newtonian perception of the universe, and in light of Einstein's the Special Theory of Relativity, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Bohr's Quantum Mechanics leading to Chaos Theory, the Human Genome Project, and evidence of the genetic trail left behind by our ancestors from Africa, traditional ontology needs to be more attentive to the spiritual/poetic/elliptical free associations and elements of its less popular methods, rather than the stoic/Platonist/Newtonian parallels that have influenced those methods in the western (except Nietzsche, Emerson and Kierkegaard from my limited readings), non-Cabalist, non-Islamic, non-Buddhist world of modern thought. Don't get me wrong, I love the symmetrical intelligence of Hegel and Heidegger, and acknowledge that Bach’s immersion into reason can produce the musical inducement of the purely ecstatic - but still find verses from the Qur-aan, and transcendental notes from Gnawa music more accessible to the heart and soul, and more annihilating of the false truths and distinctions that distort the fundamental oneness, unity of life and existence. My musings come from that place. I don't expect them to be taken seriously, just understood, and if I’m lucky, experienced similar to the way I’ve experienced them in the same ball park.
E-mail 02: I think I agree with you on everything you just wrote about the revisionist view. We were coming from two different perspectives. We were essentially talking about two different things - while you were describing the symbolic/allegorical textual as well as spiritual hermeneutic of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic self, and its relation to the Deen (way), I was speaking of the political divide, which is an important difference given the contemporary sense of revivalism in the Islamic front. At the end of the day, you and I have a lot to share with each other. Your valuable thoughts constantly make me think... ponder, and I get to retake my Shahadah (oath) every time and emphasize - why! For me the ‘why' is answered through a constant decentering of the self, but ultimately, building coherence through a serious indulgence in Salaat (prayer). In the end, it is a matter of just being a believer, where 'thinking deeply' is not a choice but a requirement.
For us - thinking and using the intellect is pre-determined.
Sorry for re-emphasizing the disorder of universe, but it is this disorder, Jahiliya that makes the ethical and the aesthetic all the more important. After all, all children are born perfect as believers, and it is their "human nature" (not in the western Platonist sense) to be Muslims (broad definition of 'Muslim' applicable here). Duniya (the world of man) ruptures that perfection, and therefore, when the adult finds Islam (broad definition again) he reverts back to that original state, where he is one with nature (the world) again.
End... for now.
PS: Islam is to Al-Quaeda what Christianity is to the KKK... the lamest possible cover to conceal one's debasement of himself in a world alienated by hatred, because he allows cruelty to destroy the love that leads to salvation.
Sohel N. Rahman, Dhaka, April 30, 2007