Today: Jun 17, 2024

On Richard Dawkins, church bells and the adhan

11 mins read

By: Hamid Dabashi

I don’t think Richard Dawkins can help himself. He is afflicted with two incurable diseases: He is a racist Islamophobe and he is an exhibitionist. He cannot keep his racism to himself – he must exhibit, stage, and flaunt it. He probably takes some perverted pleasure out of the act. I am only guessing.

In the most recent flare up of his symptoms, Dawkins felt obligated to interrupt a lovely outing he had in a beautiful sunny day at the glorious Winchester Cathedral to tweet: “Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great medieval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding “Allahu Akhbar.” Or is that just my cultural upbringing?”

What sick person would do anything like that – and manage to misspell the thing he wants to insult? Forget about the original Arabic: at least have the decency of spelling the Latinised “Allahu Akbar” properly.

You are on an outing, it’s a beautiful day, indeed the “lovely bells” of a monument to human dignity are in your ears, and you interrupt all of that to stab Muslims on the side and insult their equally glorious acts of worship and call it violent?

Just a while ago we also learned the equally racist Zionists (but I am being redundant) in Israel did not like the sound of the Adhan either and had ordered Muslim Palestinians to be quiet when they pray to their own God in their own country now under military occupation. Imagine that: In a land Muslims believe their prophet came to ascend to heavens to meet their creator, these barefaced European settlers have the audacity to tell Palestinians not to pray the way they think best!

But why these European racists do such things – and why do they dislike the Adhan? Is that a “European” thing or is that just a plain old racist disease?

Cultural upbringing

One should never get angry at the arrested growth (moral and imaginative) and the juvenile racism of Dawkins and his ilk. What they have is akin to cancer or homophobia. It’s a disease – either a physical or a mental ailment. You don’t denounce it. You analyse it – and you use it as a learning and teaching occasion.

The question at the end of Dawkins’ tweet requires closer examination – where he tries to soften the stab by asking: “Or is that just my cultural upbringing?” On the surface this is an innocent aside, qualifying his violent racism that after all maybe “Allahu Akhbar (sic)” is not that “aggressive sounding” and it is just his cultural upbringing that makes him think so. But there is more to that phrase than meets the eye. Let us examine it, and with it let us put Dr Dawkins on a couch and analyse his psychosis.

Maybe the poor man is right, maybe it is indeed his “cultural upbringing” – but what precisely is that “cultural upbringing?” What he means by it is clear: He is white, he is British, he is from a Christian background and he is European.

But if we happily exit the infested mind of Dawkins and his kindred goblins and rush to breathe in the fresh air of humanity at large, neither the British, nor Christianity, nor the real Europe has any exclusive claim to racism that would categorically consider the Muslim call to prayer violent. The “culture” to which Dawkins belong is a culture of fear, dread, and loathing – identical in its texture to the murderous gangs like ISIL – and their  pernicious rampage against Christians in the Arab world.

If that culture to which Dawkins belong is neither British, nor Christian, nor necessarily European, then what is it? To millions of British or European Muslims, the sound of Adhan is as beautiful as the sound of church bells in rural Mississippi, or Gospel Music in a church in Harlem, or the prayerful singing of a Hazzan in a synagogue, or a Zoroastrian or a Buddhist chant in a temple or monastery.

So what specific affliction is it that has befallen Dawkins, and why he calls it “cultural?”

Songs of divine unity

Allow me to give you a more specific reference text to enable us look closer at this business of “culture”. The towering Persian poet Hatef Isfahani (died 1783) has a now legendary poem, in the form of a Tarji’-band (a poem in which a certain refrain keeps being repeated but each time in a renewed significance) in which his poetic persona moves from one religious gathering to another, learning about their rituals and seeing through them all the identical truth of what they worship.

The poem consists of five strophes. In the first strophe, the poet bashfully enters a Zoroastrian service, and compares the sacred fire he sees there with that of the burning bush as witnessed by Moses – and comes to the conclusion: “Keh Yeki hast-o hich nist joz Ou/Vahdahu la Ilaha illa Hu! /That there is only One and there is naught but It! (In Persian we do not have gender specific pronouns, and “Ou” here referring to Divinity could be he, she, or it).

In the second strophe, the poet visits a Christian church and politely wonders about the meaning of Trinity and he is told – in an utterly stunning play on four words in Persian for “Silk”: “Barisham does not become three things if thou callest it Parniyan, Harir, and Parand,” while at the very same time he hears the refrain of Divine Unity from the peal of the church bell: “That there is only One and there is naught but It!” (Notice the difference between a human being hearing church bells and Richard Dawkins hearing church bells – but more of that later – let me not ruin the sublimity of the poem here).

In the third strophe, the poet attends a gathering of freethinkers, drinkers, and merrymakers, having abandoned all institutional religions altogether (remember the poet is a Muslim). He sits down politely (because he is not a sick racist) and drinks a cup of their wine and realises the superior wisdom of their being “free from the pain of understanding and the trouble of senses”- and here he hears the angel Sorush whisper the familiar refrain in his ear: “That there is only One and there is naught but It!”

Thus strophe after strophe, the poet moves from one gnostic or agnostic gathering to the next and in none he hears anything but the exquisite Persian/Arabic refrain: “That there is only One and there is naught but It!”

If today we Iranians, Arabs, Afghans, Turks, other Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, centuries after the ravages of European colonialism (still apace in Palestine) can stand up on our feet and say “I” it is because of poets like Hatef.

Dancing like a whirling dervish

Well, you might say, what would one Eighteenth century Persian poet, or another in another century, has to do with 1.8 billion barbarians who call themselves Muslims and want to chop off Dawkins’ head? So let me move around a bit.

My generation of Iranians grew up on the paradisiacal Adhan as recited by the glorious Rahim Moazzen Zadeh Ardabili (1925-2005). It makes no difference if you are a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, or even an atheist (racist New Atheists such as Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Dawkins need not apply). You need to listen to this recitation in silence and humility and see if something sublime does not begin to awaken in you.

Moazzen Zadeh Ardabili famously recited that heavenly Adhan in Avaz-e Bayat Turk (Gusheh Ruh al-Arwah) melody type in Persian classical music. Now that bit of information opens your mind, soul, and eardrums to a whole new treasure trove of Persian musical and poetic prosody so you know Hatef, or before him Hafez and Sa’di, or after him many more, were busy mapping out the melodious tapestry of an aspect of Islamic culture the hateful Islamophobia industry in the US and Europe has spent billions of dollars concealing.

Moazzen Zadeh Ardabili’s Adhan and Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s Rabbana (performed in Seh Gah melody with gentle modulations into other modes), one from my childhood, and the other from my youth, are definitive to the manner in which an Iranian Muslim hears the Quranic recitations, both of them deeply rooted not just in our faith but also in Persian classical music and prosody.

Now: you might say here goes a crazy Iranian Shia with his idiosyncrasies. Allow me to correct your misperception and refer to another splendid genius of Quranic recitation of my generation, this one an Egyptian Sunni brother, Abdul Basit ‘Abd us-Samad and his legendary Quranic recitations that we listened to in awe and love, respect, and admiration. Please sit down politely and listen to his recitation of Surah Al-Rahman.

It is imperative for the world to know (forget about Dawkins – he is a lost cause) the complete picture of the musical universe in which we hear the Adhan. Although a Muslim never compromises the supreme sanctity of the Words of God with any man-made music – but still the tapes of Abdul Basit’ Qur’anic recitations were sold in the same shops that sold Umm Kalthum and Abd al-Halim Hafez’s cassettes.

Oh, an Iranian here an Egyptian there, I hear Islamophobes say: there are still millions of cutthroat Muslims who are after Dawkins’ head. Fine come with me to Pakistan and allow me to invite you to sit down (always politely) and listen to the Qawwali Sufi musical performances of such unsurpassed masters as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997) holding your hand and soaring you to the paradise. So next time you hear John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (1965) and you think you heard someone whisper, “Allah Supreme” you won’t think you are hearing things. If you are still in doubt just read Hisham Aidi’s beautiful essay in Al Jazeera on the giant Jazz legend to see how Dawkins’s misspelled “Allahu Akbar” appears as “Allah Supreme” in angelic souls who have graced this earth.

Let’s go to Turkey and politely enter a samahane and watch a Sama by the dervishes of the Mevlevi Order where you can see the poetic cadences of Master Rumi transformed to poetic motions. No, we will not take Dawkins with us. He is condemned to ignorance and darkness. Maybe Rumi can forgive him. We mortals cannot.

It’s a small world

Thus singing and dancing, praying and meditating, we can go from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another, one after the other hearing, watching and learning in humility the sound and sight of a faith that has been the grace of this universe.

Fine, these are all Muslims, Dawkins impolitely interjects – what do they have to do with us civilised white Europeans? They don’t add up to teach my ears anything.

Here I would humbly invite you (my dearly beloved readers – not Dawkins of course) to listen to Moazzen Zadeh’s Adhan, Shajarian’s Rabbana, Abd al-Basit’s Qur’anic recitations, Nusrat Fath Ali Khan’s Qawwali, and then go listen to any one of more than 200 of Bach’s cantatas and try to find out in what way they are different from Qur’anic recitations or soulful musical prayers. In fact, there are astonishing similarities between these cantatas and their passion for Christ and the passion for Imam Hossein in Shi’a Taziya performances. You can do the same when listening to or join in singing the sublimity of the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu. Do so and tell me if you don’t think the wise and perceptive Hatef-e Isfahani was not onto something. If you don’t hear Bach in the Adhan, or the Adhan in Bach, and both in Avinu Malkeinu, and all of them in Buddhist chants and church bells, then there is something seriously wrong not just with your ears but with your moral imagination.

If we were to consider the campanology of bellringing – their casting, tuning and soundings – there is in fact an astonishing similarity between the sounds of church bells ringing and the staccato resonances of the Adhan, for the rules governing elocution during the recitation of the Quran (Tajweed) is sustained by what is called Tarteel (hymnody), or recitation with no haste. A virtuoso full-circle bell ringer in England or France or Italy or Russia does precisely what a magnificent muezzin does in Istanbul, Cairo, or Tehran – not just in spirit but in fact in their staccato musical articulation of a call to prayer – Muslim or Christian. This melodious resemblance, to be sure, is far more evident in the case of the similarity between the Muslim Qur’anic recitation and the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu.

The inroad into such resonances is neither accidental nor strange. Cultures are frivolous and playful, humans have more than one way to their divinities. The Prophet’s Mi’raj most probably found its way into Dante’s Divine Comedy. Mathew Arnold found inspiration from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Goethe thought he was Hafez incarnate, as did Emerson believe he was the reincarnation of Sa’di, while Fitzgerald found new life for Omar Khayyam, and Nietzsche called his heroic prophet Zarathustra. The discovery of new poetic intuitions of transcendence enriched not frightened these superior souls.

That kind of jovial cultural playfulness is not limited to poetry, film, and fiction. There are scholars who think the origins of the European Solfege musical notation could have been from Arabic origins. The Solfege syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) could have been derived from the similar syllables of the Arabic solmization system, or Durr-i-Mufassal (“Separated Pearls”) (dal, ra, mim, fa, sad, lam). You may or may not agree with such scholarly speculations. But the possibility of entertaining it is what makes cultures dance (not in unison but) in harmony.

The souls of the lions of the Lord

“The lives of dogs and wolves are disparate,” Rumi says in a poem, “United are the souls of the lions of the lord.”

What you hear in Adhan, if your racist hatred has not plugged your ears and made you tone-deaf, is not just Bach’s cantata or John Dowland’s “Lachrimae.” If you listen carefully you can also see the glorious architecture of a Safavid or Ottoman or Mughal or Mamluk Mosque architecture in what you hear. The melodious meandering of lines and shapes and colours reflect in these lyrical chanting of a Muslim or Jewish or Christian prayer. You cannot hate them in this register and then go to Tate Gallery and pretend you like Chagall, or Matisse, or Kandinsky who were all drawn to Jewish and Islamic thematics and turned the same acts of melodious piety into their art – which places them next to Titian or El Greco in Christian art.

The trouble with racist xenophobes like Richard Dawkins, Steve Bannon, or Donald Trump is that they have a rancid, stale, and monolithic conception of what they call “culture” – as if cultures have fallen from the sky or grown like mushrooms out of nowhere. For professed atheists, Dawkins and his ilk are astonishingly arcane and stone-aged in their cultural dogmatism.

Cultures are living organisms, historical products, mobile tapestries of knowing and feelings, and as such entirely amorphous, polygamous in their attentions to thing around and about them. Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity too has evolved and changed from its inception to this day. Today Dawkins’ hateful and racist Christianity is radically different from the glorious liberation theology of Gustavo Gutierrez and other Latin America theologians like him. Richard Dawkins and Reverend Dr. William Barber II are both of Christian descent but of two radically opposing kinds.

To my Iranian Muslim ears the Adhan, the church bells, and Avinu Malkeinu are all equally beautiful because I grew up hearing them all at one and the same time – because our homeland was blessed with multiple, varied, ancient, communities in equal measures – in Istanbul, in Cairo, in Tunis, in New Delhi, or in Isfahan. We were richer – poorer is the lost soul who thinks one is beautiful at the expense of the other being ugly and violent. The same ugly xenophobia gave birth to anti-Semitism in its darkest histories and it has now traded it for Islamophobia from one end of US to another end of Europe.

The moral of Hatef’s poem and my point here is not to suggest all religions and cultures are the same and it makes no difference if you are a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, or a Hindu, etc. Of course, it does. People’s historical experiences, accidents of birth, and collective memories have come together and invested in them a particular seed of formal abstraction towards truth that has eventually blossomed and sublated into a rooted intuition of transcendence specific to them and their faith. Even within religions the perceptions of truth by a mystic, a philosopher, or a jurist are at odds with each other. The point, rather, is the beauty and elegance of one being able to exit one’s own self and muster the courage and the imagination to enter into the space of the other in order to facilitate the recognition of a total picture of our plurality otherwise hidden to our prejudiced, domesticated, and provincial eyes, ears, minds, and hearts.

Courtesy Aljazeera