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(see notes at bottom of poem)

Allah, the imageless, suits desert tribes
with their long dazzling slopes of sand;
veils and robes simplifying faces and forms,
smoothing the puckers and warts of particularity;
their dearth of mirroring water, art
of abstract arabesques, intolerance
for heroic statues (until mutilated) and
photographs, for any promiscuous propagation
of human images, which must remain rare
and precious in thought, as, in their hard land,
must bodies.

It was the chaos of a bad trip
for Muslims, their first exposure
to jungled India with its jungled Hindu
Pantheon, a tangled orgy of divinity-
wracked images, gods for each force,
each place; gods, even, for the toenails
of gods, temples not decorated
with images but MADE of them, walls
a clotted vomit of god-bodies.

The Muslims took India by force
but failed to remake it in their image,
nor could they be part of its spiritual
polyglop, and, when the British
left, seized for themselves the most
barren places, as one waking
from a nightmare of leering complexity
to a throbbing hangover spurns all
but simplest food, can't stomach even
morning sunlight on a bright quilt.

A few notes on this poem:

1. Though the poem deals with aspects of Muslim culture and history, it is not a response to 9-11. In fact, it was written around 1989.

2. The poem is a speculation or vision of a possible relationship between Muslim aesthetics (or rather ARAB aesthetics) and the stark desert landscapes of Arabia, where the religion came into being. It might pertain to 9-11 to this extent: The qualities I'm describing are most extreme in fundamentalist sects like the Wahabi, often considered to be the immediate forrunners of Al Qaeda. The main quality is an objection to images of bodies -- usually accompanied by an objection to the exposure of actual bodies as well (women covered, men disliking public nudity). This is found in segments of most religions. Jews, as well as Muslims, have destroyed "graven images" (idols). Christians abandoned the Roman practice of bathing, for centuries, because it exposed the body.

Within Christianity, the Puritans considered (and consider) Anglicans and Catholics idolatrous in their displays of images in churches. Note that the closer a Christian denomination is to Catholicism, the more likely it's crucifixes will include the body of Jesus on the cross. Most Protestant churches have only the cross itself in their churches.

But more than other sects I know of, the fundamentalist Arab Muslims appear to take this a step further: It is evil to make an image of Allah; man was created in the image of Allah; therefore, it is evil to make an image of MAN. And beyond that, these groups avoid images of just about anything. In rugs from Persia, you will see flowers, human forms, deer, etc. But Persia isn't an Arab nation. In the art from Arabian Muslims, most of what I've seen is abstract -- graceful "arabesques" (a word derived from its prominence in Arab art), lines and colors, designs, but short on imitations of living things.

Long ago I was impressed to read about Arabs finding Greek or Roman statues and destroying them or knocking their heads off because it was sinful to make images of people. I also heard about Arabs objecting to having their photos taken for that reason (though in some accounts, it said they feared to have their souls stolen from them by the camera -- soul going with image).

This is not a description of Arabs, but of certain Arabs who are probably a small minority among both Arabs and Muslims. Nonetheless, it caught my attention, and seemed to me to be appropriate, for reasons I try to suggest in the above poem.

In the poem, I chose India as the antagonist or distorting mirror to face the Arab sensibility. I chose India for maximum contrast, because Hindhu temples are often clotted with image, the entire walls all one incredibly elaborate sculpture of Gods and men and maidens and animals and demons cavorting (and, in some cases, having very explicit sexual relations and, per Bill Clinton, explicit relations that "aren't sex").

I'm no scholar, but based on skimmed encyclopedia articles, I can tell you that the confrontation I describe probably never happened. There was a Muslim conquest of India (called the Mogul conquest, though the Muslims who conquered India were not Mogul [meaning Mongol]. But they weren't Arabs either. They came from the north, not the west -- from the area of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. They were Turkic Muslims, accustomed to lands starker by far than most of India, but not the Arabian deserts. Still, they were Muslims, had received their religion from Arabs and should have shared that repugnance for images. Compare the image-fraught Hindhu temple art to the sleek, abstract lines of the Muslim Taj Mahal.

But, oops! An early Muslim emperor of India, Akbar, generally considered the greatest of the Mogul emperors, filled his government with Hindhus and Jains and Sikhs and other native religious leaders and was a paragon of tolerance. However, the 6th and last Mogul emperor, Aurang-zeb (1618-1707) was a "serious" Moslim scholar, and, though he extended the empire by force of arms, he created so much internal dissension by his persecution of native Indian religions that the empire fell apart soon after his death. I wonder how those Hindhu temples looked to him.

Whether or not my view of Arabian and possibly Muslim aesthetics has historical validity, I enjoy the concept of a confrontation of an image-rich people with a group whose view of such things is akin to the nausea of a hangover, with its exaggeration and rejection of physical stimuli.


Copyright c. 2007 by Dean Blehert. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED   
last updated: July 31, 2007