Body


ashuramain01.jpgRan across this in today’s Washington Post online: “Bloody Ritual, Modern Meaning.” Check it out; it’s a short take on the passion of Imam Husain (a grandson of Prophet Muhammad) as observed and commemorated during the week of the tenth of Muharram. The Ashura festival, as it is also called, combines extensive liturgies and dramatic passion plays re-enacting Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala (in Iraq) at the hands of Umayyad caliphs from Damascus in 680 AD/CE, or in Islamic reckoning, 61 AH. The WashPost piece focuses on its ritual observance in Kabul.

Like most universal rites of commemoration, the Ashura practices vary from location to location, but there are always passion plays of the event, and there are always ritual displays of mourning for Husain, and it is this that studies and documentaries tend to highlight, condemn, and criticize as being offensive to modern sensibilities. The mourning rites involve symbolic mortification of the body, and the methods involve everything from rhythmic beating of the chest to serious flagellation using knives whipped over the back. Religion scholars have long noted the similarities of these types of practices to medieval Christian ritual processions of penance.

But such comparisons miss the point of Ashura. It is true that there are some similarities between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Husain, and both have come to have cosmic significance in Christian and Muslim (especially Shi’a Muslim) ethos and worldview. Both stories likewise served as identity markers and the memory of them are celebrated as foundational for the community memory. Still, the point is not the blood-letting in itself, but rather to protest an unjust death brought about by the injustice of spreading tyranny.

In the class I’m teaching on Holidays, one of the points we’re discussing now is the inherent and latent power of holidays to function in the service of the status quo AND to protest and challenge it. And in fact, when we dig deep enough to the narratives underlying many of our holidays, the story is, more often than not, a story that challenges power, and that in succeeding generations, that story is smothered over with re-interpretations to maintain the social order and try to minimize the potential that holidays have to upset the status quo of those in power. In other words, holidays and ritual celebrations in holidays are extremely dangerous, and the more visible the expression of this the ritual is, the greater the potential for the latent and suppressed power to challenge tyranny, empire, exploitation, consumption, and so on, is feared. It is for this reason that many holidays throughout history have been outlawed by governments or at least severely restricted and monitored (e.g., the Passover in the first century).

The WashPost article highlights this by electing to point out the Ashura observance in Kabul, which is one of the most bloody and violent locations for the annual commemoration of the 10th of Muharram. The effect is to stir up fear, and judging from the comments on the site by other readers, it seems to work. Unfortunately. Because Ashura and Muharram have a lot to teach those of us outside of Islam. Our Muslim brothers and sisters here provide us with an example analoguous to the passion of Jesus as a righteous act that symbolizes the rejection of the abuse of power and empire in a way that our (meaning, my own tradition of Christian) lame passion plays have totally lost. Understand, I don’t advocate self-flagellation with sharp instruments, as in Muslim practices of matam or medieval flagellant movements, any more than I advocate self-crucifixion as an acceptable imitation of Christ. Instead, I advocate recognizing the ability of our religious observance of holidays to challenge the abuses of imperialism, and I can think of no better public example of this than the rites of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram. It is a demonstration of a passion for justice. Prophetic justice.

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Word Made Flesh.Whatever else Christian faith may be, it is incarnational at its core. It is common for us to think of this in the classical expression of “God becoming man,” but the gospel of John speaks of it in terms that are not spoken of nearly as much. For John, the incarnation is the Word becoming Flesh.

I offer up some thoughts of reflection on the idea of Word becoming flesh.

Flesh is passionate and desirous.

But it is not only passionate and desirous for other flesh, but also for knowledge.

Knowledge for us comes in the form of Words, and we are oversaturated with words in the twenty-first century.

Knowledge is erotic. The Bible tells us as much in its Hebrew expression, and the classical Greeks knew this to be the case in Homer as well.

To know something is to regard it, and as Jane Hirshfield notes, “what we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking.” The power of the Word is in its power to seduce us and to awaken desire for knowledge.

Adrienne Rich: “I dreamed you were a poem, I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…”

Rich, again:

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What kind of atonement is this all about?
-and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.

and:

I have written so many words
wanting to live inside you
to be of use to you

The Desert Fathers of the Christian tradition believed the flesh to be evil on account of its capacity for passion and desire, and so they fled into the desert, long the archetype of dryness, infertility, and anti-passion. Yet it is in this environment where passion and desire are awakened most. They also had a profound mistrust of the written word, and yet their own words were assiduously recorded onto parchments. It was as if the Fathers knew the eroticism of knowledge and the desire for the Word.

The connection between parched desire and parchment may be more than coincidental.

Just when you think you’ve seen everything, stuff like this reminds you of what Bruce Cockburn says: You’ve Never Seen Everything. For which, I guess, we can only be thankful. But here’s a new one, at least to me: Virtue Perfume, a new beauty product that the creators say was inspired by biblical ingredients and which is geared toward assisting the wearer, or the lover, as the case may be, towards spiritual attainment. $80 bucks gets you a chance to be biblical, spiritual, and sexy all at the same time.

Scent From the Bible

Obviously this kind of materialist marketing, capitalizing on obscure content from the text of the Bible, is nothing new. Pop-culture pragmatic evangelical products have been around for at least 30 or so years and include everything from rock music to visual art of biblical scenes and characters, Christian Tee-shirts that parody popular consumerist products and ideology, to Christian horror flicks. The Christian retail industry hit something like $4 billion dollars in sales three years ago, and this figure doesn’t even include sales of Catholic bookshops and gift stores that marked incense, images, and other such sensory aids to worship. So I suppose that the surprising thing is that it took so long for a Christian perfume to appear at all.

Now, while I find the consumer-capitalist junk products of Tee-shirts and other Christiany knick-knacks highly problematic, especially for the purpose of evangelism, I can definitely appreciate sensory, physical, and material elements in the practice of faith. The natural, physical world exists to be experienced through the senses, which can deepen faith for those who have it and can inspire mystical ecstasy even among those who profess no faith or who cannot intellectually assent to the Divine. There is nothing that inspires my experience of God so much as things that allow me to participate in the physical, sensory world of the Creation. So much that I find sensorily beautiful move me to tears and to stronger faith. And smells are one of these; food, for example, is a spiritual experience for me from time to time, as it engages sight, smell, and taste. The human body is also an inspiration to beauty that engages the senses. I love good perfumes on my woman. So the concept of something like Virtue Perfume as an aid to experiencing the sacred isn’t particularly foreign or offensive to me.

What I find ridiculous is the need to justify the spiritual value of sensory and bodily beauty to certain Christian groups by marketing the stuff as a religious product and, especially, by making it “biblical.” As if to say that smelling good and feeling sensual or sexy is sinf, unchristian, and unbiblical unless it can be shown that smelling good, feeling sensual, or being sexy is OK’ed by Scripture. The way Virtue tries to pull this off is by listing its ingredients as “biblical.” And so they are. But so what? In fact, the website even notes that one of these biblical ingredients, Apricot, was probably the original forbidden fruit. This would have been news to medieval theologians like Bernard, no stranger to sensual spirituality himself, who thought of the fruit as the apple, and of modern scholars who find it much more likely that the forbidden fruit was the pomegranate. But in any case, it is highly ironic that an ap-peal to the forbidden fruit in this very biblical list would be used as an aid to experiencing God.

The thinking is that “Christians won’t buy perfumes if they psychologically associate them with negative stereotypes of sexuality that most perfumes perpetuate.” And that’s probably the case. Why feed into the sex industry even more by buying products that perpetuate sexual imagery that is damaging and destructive? It is tough, I suppose, to avoid thinking of having wild sex on the beach if your schnozz picks up avirtue-perfume.gif whiff Nautica or whatever. Having a marketing image that provides an alternative to ads like Nautica’s or Calvin Klein’s is commendable, but to actually say it’s “biblical” goes a bit over the top. Some things can be good, and sensual, without having to justify it as being biblical.

Plus, its $80.00 bucks.