Wednesday, July 31, 2013

the sins of a gospel …

The following is an excerpt from Essayists and Prophets (Bloom's Literary Criticism 20th Anniversary Collection), a fantastic piece of literary criticism that I have been enjoying reading for a few days. One pleasant surprise for me was the opening essay, which it a literary critique of four books of the Bible (Job, Song of Songs, The Gospel of John, and Revelation). This excerpt focuses on the Gospel of John and is one of the most poignant and erudite rejections of Christianity I have come across in quite a while. I found it so moving that I decided to transcribe it and share it here.
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“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he had to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56–58)
This exchange from the Gospel according to St. John will be my text. In the Christian triumph over the Hebrew Bible, a triumph which produced that captive work, the Old Testament, there is no more heroic stroke than the transumptive trope of John’s Jesus: “Before Abraham was, I am.” Too much is carried by that figuration for any range of readings to convey, but one reading I shall give is the implied substitution: “Before Moses was, I am.” To my reading, the author of the Gospel of John was and is a more dangerous enemy of the Hebrew Bible than even Paul, his nearest rival. But I can hardly go on until I explain what I intend to mean by “an enemy of the Hebrew Bible.”
It is now altogether too late in Western history for pious or humane self-deceptions on the matter of the Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible. It is certainly much too late in Jewish history to be other than totally clear about the nature and effect of that Christian act of total usurpation. The best preliminary description I have found is by Jaroslav Pelikan:
"What the Christian tradition had done was to take over the Jewish scriptures as its own, so that Justin could say to Trypho that the passages about Christ “are contained in your scriptures, or rather not yours, but ours.” As a matter of fact, some of the passages were contained only in “ours,” that is, in the Christian Old Testament. So assured were Christian theologians in their possession of the Scriptures that they could accuse the Jews not merely of misunderstanding and misrepresenting them, but even of falsifying scriptural texts. When they were aware of differences between the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Septuagint, they capitalized on these to prove their accusation…The growing ease with which appropriations and accusations alike could be made was in proportion to the completeness of the Christian victory over Jewish thought.
Yet that victory was achieved largely by default. Not the superior force of Christian exegesis or learning or logic but the movement of Jewish history seems to have been largely responsible for it."
Pelikan’s dispassionate judgment on this matter is beyond disputation. Though the Christians were to “save” the Old Testament from those like Marcion who would cast it out completely, that is precisely what they saved—their Old Testament. The New Testament is to a considerable extent a reading of that Old Testament, and I would judge it a very mixed reading indeed. Some of it is a strong misreading, and much of it is a weak misreading, but I will concern myself here entirely with strong misreadings, because only strong misreadings work so as to establish lasting enmities between texts. The author of the Gospel of John is an even stronger misreader than St. Paul, and I want to compare John’s and Paul’s strengths of what I call poetic misprision before I center upon John. But before commencing, I had better declare my own stance.
“Who is the interpreter, and what power does he seek to gain over the text?” That Nietzschean question haunts me always. I am an enemy of the New Testament. My enmity is lifelong, and intensifies as I study its text more closely. But I have no right to assert that my own enmity carries the force of the normative Jewish tradition, because I am not a representative of that tradition. From a normative Jewish perspective, let us say from the stands of the great Akiba, I am one of the minim, the Jewish Gnostic heretics. My own reading of the Hebrew Bible, even if I develop it into a strong misreading, is as unacceptable in its way to the normative tradition as all Christian readings necessarily are. I state it is not the posture, but to make clear that I do not pretend to the authority of the normative tradition. In my view, the Judaism that moves in a continuous line from the Academy of Ezra through the Pharisees and on to the religion of my own parents is itself a very powerful misreading of the Hebrew Bible and so of the religion of the Yahwist, whatever we might take that religion to have been. But my subject here is not the text of the Yahwist.
What kind of authority can a literary critic, whose subject is the secular literature of the English language, bring to a reading of the New Testament, particularly to a reading that sees the New Testament as a text in conflict and confrontation with the Hebrew Bible? I cannot speak for other literary critics, as here too I am a sect or party of one, and have no authority other than whatever my ideas and my writings can assert for me. But the central concern of my own literary theory and praxis, for some fifteen years now, has been the crisis of confrontation and conflict between what I have called strong poems, or strong texts. I cannot say that my formulations in this area have met with a very amiable reception, even in the most secular of contexts, and so I do not expect an amiable response as I cross the line into the conflict of scriptures. Still, I have learned a great deal from the response to my work, a response that necessarily has become part of my subject. One lesson has been that there are no purely secular texts, because canonization of poems by the secular academies is not merely a displaced version of Jewish or Christian or Muslim canonization. It is precisely the thing itself, the investment of a text with unity, presence, form, and meaning, followed by the insistence that the canonized text possesses these attributes immutably, quite apart from the interpretive activities of the academies.
If so many partisans of Wordsworth or Whitman or Stevens find the offense of my work unbearable, then clearly I must expect a yet more pained response from the various custodians of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. I won’t take more space here for unhappy anticipation or personal defense, yet I do want to make the modest observation that several years spent intensely in reading as widely as I can in biblical scholarship have not left me with the impression that much authentic literary criticism of biblical texts has been written. To make a clean sweep of it, little seems to me to have been added to by recent overt intersections by literary critics, culminating in Northrop Frye’s The Great Code, a work in which the triumph of the New Testament over the Hebrew Bible is quite flatly complete. Frye’s code, like Erich Auerbach’s figura, which I have attacked elsewhere, is only another belated repetition of the Christian appropriation and usurpation of the Hebrew Bible.
But these matters I will argue elsewhere. I come back again to the grand proclamation of John’s Jesus: “Before Abraham was, I am.” What can an antithetical literary criticism (as I call my work) do with the sublime force of that assertion? Or how should that force be described? It is not the New Testament’s antithetical reply to the Yahwist’s most sublime moment, when Moses agonizingly stammers: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” This is the Revised Standard Version, and like every other version, it can not handle Yahweh’s awesome, untranslatable play upon his own name: eyeh asher eyeh. I expand upon a suggestion of Martin Buber’s when I render this as “I will be present wherever and whenever I will be present.” For that is the Yahwist’s vision of olam as “a time without boundaries,” end of the relation of Yahweh to a dynamics of time that transcends spatial limitations.
The Yahwist’s vision of his God certainly would seem to center with a peculiar intensity upon the text of Exodus 3:13–14. But the entire history of ancient Jewish exegesis hardly would lead anyone to believe that this crucial passage was of the slightest interest or importance to any of the great rabbinical commentators. The Exodus Rabbah offers mostly midrashim connecting the name of God to his potencies which would deliver Israel from Egypt. But eyeh asher eyeh as a phrase evidently did not have peculiar force for the great Pharisees. Indeed, Jewish tradition does very little with the majestic proclamation until Maimonides gets to work upon it in The Guide for the Perplexed. One of my favorite books, Marmostein’s fascinating The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God, has absolutely not a single reference to Exodus 3 in its exhaustive 150 page section on “The Names of God.” Either we must conclude that eyeh asher eyeh has very little significance for Akiba and his colleagues, which I think probably was the case, or we must resort to dubious theories of taboo, which have little to do with the strength of Akiba.
This puzzle becomes greater when the early rabbinical indifference to the striking eyeh asher eyeh text is contrasted to the Christian obsession with Exodus 3, which begins in the New Testament and becomes overwhelming in the Church fathers, culminating in Augustine’s endless preoccupation with that passage, since for Augustine it was the deepest clue to the metaphysical essence of God. Brevard Childs, in his commentary on Exodus, has outlined the history of this long episode in Christian exegesis. Respectfully, I dissent from his judgment that the ontological aspects of Christian interpretation here really do have any continuity whatsoever either with the biblical text or with rabbinical traditions. These “ontological overtones,” as Childs himself has to note, stem rather from the Septuagint’s rendering of eyeh asher eyeh as the very different εγω ειμι ο ων and from Philo’s very Platonized paraphrase in his Life of Moses: “Tell them that I am He who is, that they may learn the difference between what Is and what is not.” Though Childs insists that this cannot be dismissed as Greek thinking, it is nothing but that, and explains again why Philo was so crucial for Christian theology and so totally irrelevant to the continuity of normative Judaism.
The continued puzzle, then, is the total lack of early rabbinical interest in the eyeh asher eyeh text. I labor this point because I read John’s greatest subversion of the Hebrew Bible as what I call this transumption of Yahweh’s words to Moses in that extraordinary outburst of John’s Jesus, “Before Abraham was, I am,” which most deeply proclaims: “Before Moses was, I am.” To me, this is the acutest manifestation of John’s palpable ambivalence toward Moses, an ambivalence whose most perceptive student has been Wayne Meeks. John plays on and against the Yahwist’s grand wordplay on Yahweh, and eyeh. However, when I assert even that, I go against the authority of the leading current scholarly commentary upon the Fourth Gospel, and so I must deal with this difficulty before I return to the Johannic ambivalence toward the Moses traditions. And only after examining John’s agon with Moses will I feel free to speculate upon the early rabbinic indifference to God’s substitution of eyeh asher eyeh for his proper name.
Both B. Lindars and C. K. Barrett in their standard commentaries on John insist that “Before Abraham was, I am” makes no allusion whatsoever to “I am that I am.” A literary critic must begin by observing that New Testament scholarship manifests of every impoverished notion as to just what literary allusion is or can be. But then here is Barrett’s flat reading of this assertion of Jesus: “The meaning here is: Before Abraham came into being, I eternally was, as now I am, and ever continue to be.” Perhaps I should not chide devoted scholars like Lindars and Barrett for being inadequate interpreters of so extraordinary a trope, because the master modern interpreter of John, Rudolf Bultmann, seems to me even less capable of handling trope. Here is his reading of John 8:57–58:
"The Jews remain caught in the trammels of their own thought. How can Jesus, who is not yet 50 years old, have seen Abraham! Yet the world’s conception of time and age is worthless, when it has to deal with God’s revelation, as is its conception of life and death. “Before Abraham was, I am.” The Revealer, unlike Abraham, does not belong to the ranks of historical personages. The εγω  which Jesus speaks as the Revealer of the “I” of the eternal Logos, which was in the beginning, the “I” of the eternal God himself. Yet the Jews cannot comprehend that the εγω of eternity is to be heard in a historical person, who is not yet 50 years old, who was a man is one of their equals, whose mother and father they knew. They can not understand, because the notion of the Revealer’s “pre-existence” can only be understood in faith."
In a note, Bultmann too denies any allusion to the “I am that I am” declaration of Yahweh. I find it ironical, nearly 2000 years after St. Paul accused the Jews of being literalizers, which of course the great rabbis never were. I cannot conceive of a weaker misreading of “Before Abraham was, I am” than Bultmann’s sneering retreat into “faith,” a “faith” in the “pre-existence” of Jesus. If that is all John meant, then John was a weak poet indeed. But John is at his best here, and at his best he is a strong misreader and thus a strong writer. As for Bultmann’s polemical point, I am content to repeat a few amiable remarks made by Rabbi David Kimhi almost 800 years ago:
"Tell them that there can be no father and son in the Divinity, for the Divinity is indivisible and is one in every aspect of unity unlike matter which is divisible. Tell them further that a father precedes a son in time and a son is born through the agency of a father. Now even though each of the terms “father” and “son” implies the other… he who was called the father must undoubtedly be prior in time. Therefore, with reference to this god whom you call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that part which you call father must be prior to that which you call Son, for if they were always coexistent, they would have to be called twin brothers."
I have cited this partly because I enjoy it so much, but also because it raises the true issue between Moses and John, between Abraham and Jesus, which is the agonistic triple issue of priority, authority, and originality. As I read John’s trope, it asserts not only the priority of Jesus over Abraham (and so necessarily over Moses), but also the priority, authority, and originality of John over Moses, or as we would say, of John as writer over the Yahwist as writer. That is where I am heading in this account of the agon between the Yahwist and John, and so I turn now to some general observations upon the Fourth Gospel--observations by a literary critic, of course, and not by a qualified New Testament believer and/or scholar.
John does seem to me the most anxious in tone of all the Gospels, and its anxiety is as much what I would call a literary anxiety as an existential or spiritual one. One sign of this anxiety is the palpable difference between the attitude of Jesus toward himself in the Fourth Gospel as compared to the other three. Scholarly consensus holds that John was written at the close of the first century, and so after the synoptic Gospels. A century is certainly enough time for apocalyptic hope to have ebbed away, and for an acute sense of belatedness to have developed in its place. John’s Jesus has a certain obsession with his own glory, and particularly with what that glory ought to be in a Jewish context. Rather like the Jesus of Gnosticism, John’s Jesus is much given to saying “I am,” and there are Gnostic touches throughout John, though their extent is disputable. Perhaps, as some scholars have surmised, there is an earlier, more Gnostic gospel buried in the Gospel of John. An interesting article by John Meager of Toronto, back in 1969, even suggested that the original reading of John 1:14 was “And the Word became pneuma and dwelt among us,” which is a Gnostic formulation, yet curiously more in the spirit and tone of much of the Fourth Gospel than is “And the Word became flesh.”
The plain nastiness of the Gospel of John toward the Pharisees is in the end an anxiety as to the spiritual authority of the Pharisees, and it may be augmented by John’s Gnostic overtones. A Jewish reader with even the slightest sense of Jewish history, feels threatened when reading John 18:28–19:16. I do not think that this feeling has anything to do with the supposed pathos or problematic literary power of the text. There is a peculiar wrongness about John’s Jesus saying, “If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews” (18:36); it implies that Jesus is no longer a Jew, but something else. This unhappy touch is another sign of the pervasive rhetoric of anxiety in the Fourth Gospel. John’s vision seen to be of a small group--his own, presumably--which finds its analog and asserted origin in the group around Jesus two generations before. In the general judgment of scholars, the original conclusion of the Gospel was the parable of doubting Thomas, a manifest trope for a sect or coven undergoing a crisis of faith.
It is within that anxiety of frustrated expectations, perhaps even of recent expulsion from the Jewish world, that John’s agon with Moses finds its context. Wayne Meeks has written very sensitively of the Fourth Gospel’s ambivalence toward the Moses traditions, particularly those centered upon the image of Moses as prophet-king, a unique amalgam of the two roles that John seeks to extend and surpass in Jesus. My interest in John’s handling of Moses is necessarily different in emphasis, for I am going to read a number of John’s namings of Moses as being tropes more for the text than for the supposed substance of what the New Testament (following the Septuagint) insists upon calling the Law. I myself will call it not Torah but J or the Yahwist, because that is where I locate the agon. Not theology, not faith, not truth is the issue, but literary power, the scandalous power of J’s text, which by synecdoche stands for the Hebrew Bible as the strongest poem that I have ever read in any language I am able to read. John, and Paul before him, took on an impossible precursor and rival, and their apparent victory is merely an illusion. The aesthetic dignity of the Hebrew Bible, and of the Yahwist in particular as its uncanny original, is simply beyond the competitive range of the New Testament as a literary achievement, as it is beyond the range of the only surviving Gnostic texts that have any aesthetic value--a few fragments of Valentinus and the Gospel of Truth that Valentinus may have written. But I will return at the end of this discourse to the issue of rival aesthetic achievements. John’s struggle with Moses is at last my direct concern.
There are so many contests with Moses throughout the New Testament that I cannot contrast John in this regard to all of the other texts, but I do want to compare him briefly with Paul, if only because I intend later to consider some aspects of Paul’s own struggle with the Hebrew Bible. I think there is still nothing so pungent in all commentary upon Paul as the remarks made by Nietzsche in 1888, in The Antichrist:
"Paul is the incarnation of a type which is the reverse of that of the Savior; he is the genius in hatred, in the standpoint of hatred, and in the relentless logic of hatred… What he wanted was power; with St. Paul the priest again aspired to power,--he could make use only of concepts, doctrines, symbols with which masses may be tyrannized over, and with which herds are formed."
Of course Nietzsche is extreme, but can he be refuted? Paul is so careless, hasty, and inattentive a reader of the Hebrew Bible that he very rarely gets any text right; and in so gifted a person this kind of weak misunderstanding can come only from the dialectics of the power drive, of the will to power over a text, even when the text is as formidable as Torah. There is little agonistic cunning in Paul’s misreadings of Torah; many indeed are plain howlers. The most celebrated is his weird exegesis of Exodus 30 4:29–35, where the text has Moses descending from Sinai, tablets in hand, his face shining with God’s glory--a glory so great that Moses must veil his countenance after speaking to the people, and then unveil only when he returns to speak to God. Normative Jewish interpretation, surely known to Paul, was that the shining was the Torah restoration of the zelem, the true image of God that Adam had lost, and that the shining prevailed until the death of Moses. but here is 2 Corinthians 3:12–13:
"Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor."
There isn’t any way to save this, even by gently calling it a “parody” of the Hebrew text, as Wayne Meeks does. It isn’t a transumption or lie against time, which is the Johannine mode; it is just a plain lie against the text. Nor is it uncharacteristic of Paul. Meeks very movingly calls Paul “the Christian Proteus,” and Paul is certainly beyond my understanding. Proteus is an apt model for many other roles, but perhaps not for an interpreter of Mosaic text. Paul's reading of what he thought was the Law increasingly seems to me oddly Freudian, in that Paul identifies the Law with the human drive that Freud wanted to call Thanatos. Paul's peculiar confounding of the Law and death presumably keeps him from seeing Jesus as a transcending fulfillment of Moses. Instead, Paul contrasts himself to Moses, hardly to his own disadvantage. Thus, Romans 9:3:
"For I could wish that I myself were accused and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race."
It may seem at first an outburst of Jewish pride, of which I would grant the Protean Paul an authentic share, but the Mosaic allusion changes its nature. All exegetes point to Exodus 30 2:32 as the precursor text. Moses offers himself to Yahweh as atonement for the people after the orgy of the golden calf. “But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” How do the two offers of intercession compare? After all, the people have sinned, and Moses would choose oblivion to save them from the consequences of their disloyalty. The allusive force of Paul’s offer is turned against both his own Jewish contemporaries and even against Moses himself. Even the Pharisees (for whom Paul, unlike John, has a lingering regard) are worshipers of the golden calf of death, since the Law is death. And all Moses supposedly offered was the loss of his own prophetic greatness, his place in the salvation history. But Paul, out of supposed love for his fellow Jews, offers to lose more than Moses did, because he insists he has more to lose. To be cut off from Christ is to die eternally, a greater sacrifice than the Mosaic offer to be as one who had never lived. This is what I would call a daemonic counter-Sublime of hyperbole, and its repressive force is enormous and very revelatory.
But I return again to John, whose revisionary warfare against Moses is subtler. Meeks has traced the general pattern, and so I follow him here, though of course he would dissent from the interpretation I’m going to offer of this pattern of allusion. The allusions begin with John the Baptist chanting a typical Johannine metalepsis, in which the latecomer truly has priority  (“John bore witness to him, and cried, ‘This was he of whom I said: He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me’”), to which the author of the Fourth Gospel adds: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:15, 17). Later, the first chapter proclaims: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth” (1:45). The third chapter daringly inverts a great mosaic trope in a way still unnerving for any Jewish reader: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up” (3:13-14). John’s undoubtedly revisionary genius is very impressive here merely from a technical or rhetorical point of view. No heavenly revelations ever were made to Moses, whose function is reduced to a synecdoche, and indeed to its lesser half. To use one of my revisionary ratios, Jesus on the cross will be the tessera or antithetical completion of the mosaic raising of the brazen serpent in the wilderness. Moses was only a part, but Jesus is the fulfilling whole. My avoidance of the language of typology, here and elsewhere, is quite deliberate, and will be defended in my conclusion, where I will say a few unkind words about the Christian and now Auerbachian trope of figura.
The same ratio of antithetical completion is invoked when Jesus announces himself as the fulfiller of the sign of manna, as would be expected of the Messiah. But here the gratuitous ambivalence toward Moses is sharper: “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (6:32-33). As the trope is developed, it becomes deliberately so shocking in a Jewish context that even the disciples are shocked; but I would point to one moment in the development as marking John’s increasing violence against Moses and all the Jews: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died… I am the living bread… if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:49, 51). It is, after all, gratuitous to say that our fathers ate the manna and died; it is even misleading, since had they not eaten the manna, they would not have lived as long as they did. But John has modulated to a daemonic counter-Sublime, and his hyperbole helps to establish a new, Christian sublimity, in which Jews die and Christians live eternally.
Rather than multiply instances of John’s revisionism, I want to conclude my specific remarks on the Fourth Gospel by examining in its full context the passage with which I began: “Before Abraham was, I am.” I am more than a little unhappy with the sequence I will expound, because I find in it John at nearly his most unpleasant and indeed anti-Jewish, but the remarkable rhetorical strength of “Before Abraham was, I am” largely depends upon its contextualization, as John undoes the Jewish pride in being descended from Abraham. The sequence, extending through most of the eighth chapter, begins with Jesus sitting in the temple, surrounded both by Pharisees and by Jews were in the process of becoming his believers. To those he has begun to persuade, Jesus now says what is certain to turn them away:
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” (8:31-32)
It seems rather rhetorically weak that Jesus should then become aggressive, with a leap into murderous insinuations:
“I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you of heard from your father.”
As John’s Jesus graciously is about to tell them, the Jews’ father is the devil. They scarcely can be blamed for answering, “Abraham is our father,” or for assuming that their accuser has a demon. I look at the foot of the page of the text I am using, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version (1977), and next to verse 48, on having a demon, the editors helpfully tell me, “The Jews turned to insult and calumny.” I reflect upon how wonderful a discipline such scholarship is, and I mildly rejoin that by any dispassionate reading John’s Jesus has made the initial “turn to insult and calumny.” What matter, since the Jews are falling neatly into John’s rhetorical trap? Jesus has promised that his believers “will never see death” and the astonished children of Abraham (or is it children of the devil?) protest:
“Abraham died, as did the prophets; and you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?” (8:52-53)
Jesus responds by calling them liars, again surely rather gratuitously, and then by ensnaring them in John’s subtlest tropological entrapment, which will bring me full circle to where I began:
“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56–58)
It is certainly the most remarkable transumption in the New Testament, though I had better explained what I mean by transumption, which is a little exhausting for me, since I have been explaining the term endlessly in eight books published over the last nine years. Very briefly, transumption or metalepsis is the traditional term in rhetoric for the trope that works to make the late seem early, and the early seem late. It lies against time, so as to accomplish what Nietzsche called the will’s revenge against time, and against time’s assertion, “It was.” Uniquely among figures of speech, transumption works to undo or reverse anterior tropes. It is therefore the particular figure that governs what we might call “interpretive allusion.” Ultimately, it seeks to end-stop allusiveness by presenting its own formulation as the last word, which insists upon an ellipsis rather than a proliferation of further allusion.
When John’s Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” the ultimate allusion is not to Abraham but to Moses, and to Yahweh’s declaration made to Moses, “I am that I am.” The transumption  leaps over Abraham by saying also, “Before Moses was, I am,” and by hinting ultimately: “I am that I am”--because I am one with my father Yahweh. The ambivalence and agonistic intensity of the Fourth Gospel achieves an apotheosis with this sublime introjection of Yahweh, which simultaneously also is a projection or repudiation of Abraham and Moses. I am aware that I seem to be making John into a Gnostic Christian, but that is the transumptive force of his rhetoric, as opposed perhaps to his more overt dialectic. His gospel, as it develops, does seem to me to become as Gnostic as it is Christian, and this is the kind of Gnosticism that indeed was a kind of intellectual or spiritual anti-Semitism. Obviously, I believe that there are Gnosticisms and Gnosticisms, and some might find considerably more attractive than others. Just as obviously, the Gnostic elements in John, and even in St. Paul, seemed to me very shadowed indeed.
Earlier in this discourse, I confessed my surprise at the normative rabbinical indifference, in ancient days, to Yahweh’s sublime declaration, eyeh asher eyeh. If the great Rabbi Akiba ever speculated about that enigmatic phrase, he kept it to himself. I doubt that he made any such speculations, because I do not think that fearless sage was in the habit of hoarding them, and I am not enough of a Kabbalist to think that Akiba harbored forbidden or esoteric knowledge. To the normative mind of the Judaism roughly contemporary with Jesus, there was evidently nothing remarkable in Yahweh’s declining to give his name, and instead almost playfully asserting: “Tell them that I who will be when and where I will be am the one who has sent you.” That is how Yahweh talked, and how he was. But to the belated author of the Fourth Gospel, as to all our belated selves, “I am that I am” was and is a kind of mysterium tremendum, to use Rudolf Otto’s language. That mystery John sought to transcend and transume with the formulation “Before Abraham was, I am.” Prior to the text of Exodus was the text that John was writing, in which the Jews were to be swept away into the universe of death, while Jesus led John on to the universe of life.
This transformation is an instance of just how the New Testament reduced the Hebrew Bible to that captive work, the Old Testament. Though the reduction is necessarily of great theological influence, it of course does not touch the Hebrew Bible. I have read the Hebrew Bible since I was a child, and the New Testament since I first took a course in New Testament Greek as an undergraduate. Clearly, I am not a dispassionate reader of the New Testament, though I do not read the Hebrew Bible as the normative Jewish tradition had read it, either. I come back to the issue of the interpreter’s authority. When I read, I read as a literary critic, but my concerns have little in common with those of any contemporary critic. Idealizations of any text, however canonical, or of the reading process itself are not much to my taste. Emerson said he read for the lustres. I follow him, but I emphasize even more that the lustres arise out of strife, competition, defense, anxiety, and the author’s constant need for survival as an author. I don’t see how any authentic literary critic could judge John as anything better than a very flawed revisionist of the Yahwist, and Paul as something less than that, despite the peculiar pathos of his protean personality. In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest, and if you think otherwise, then bless you.
But surely the issue is not aesthetic, I will be reminded. Well, we are all trapped in history, and the historical triumph of Christianity is brute fact. I am not moved to say anything about it. But I am moved to reject the idealized modes of interpretation it has stimulated, from early typology on to the revival of figura by Erich Auerbach and the Blakean Great Code of Northrop Frye. No text, secular or religious, fulfills another text and all who insist otherwise merely homogenize literature. As for the relevance of the aesthetic to the issue of the conflict between sacred texts, I doubt finally that much else is relevant to a strong reader who is not dominated by extraliterary persuasions or convictions. Reading The Book of Mormon, for instance, is a difficult aesthetic experience, and I would grant that not much in the New Testament subjects me to rigors of quite that range. But then John and Paul do not ask to be read against The Book of Mormon.
Can the New Testament be read as less polemically and destructively revisionary of the Hebrew Bible than it actually is? Not by me, anyway. But don’t be too quick to shrug off a reading informed by an awareness of the ways of the antithetical, of the revisionary strategies devised by those latecomers who seek strength, and you will sacrifice truth to get strength even as they proclaim the incarnation of the truth beyond death. Nietzsche is hardly the favorite sage of contemporary New Testament scholars, but perhaps he still has something vital to teach them. What do Jews and Christians gain by refusing to see that the revisionary desperation of the New Testament has made it permanently impossible to identify the Hebrew Bible with the Christian Old Testament? Doubtless there are social and political benefits in idealizations of “dialogue,” but there is nothing more. It is not a contribution to the life of the spirit or the intellect to tell lies to one another or to oneself in order to bring about more affection or cooperation between Christians and Jews. Paul is hopelessly equivocal on nearly every subject, but to my reading he is clearly not a Jewish anti-Semite, yet his misrepresentation of Torah was absolute. John is evidently  a Jewish anti-Semite, and the Fourth Gospel is pragmatically murderous as an anti-Jewish text. Yet it is theologically and emotionally central to Christianity. I give the last word to the sage called Radak in Jewish tradition, that David Kimhi whom I cited earlier. He quotes as proof text Ezekiel 16:53: “I will turn their captivity, the captivity of Sodom and her daughters.” And then Radak comments, rightly dismissing from his perspective all Christians as mere heretics from Judaism: “This verse is a reply to the Christian heretics who say that the future consolations have already been fulfilled. Sodom is still overturned as it was and is still unsettled.”

Harold Bloom 
from Essayists and Prophets (2005) - pp. 8–22

Thursday, May 09, 2013

From God or the Devil: The Debate over Music …

The lawfulness of music has been the subject of an ongoing debate from the time of the advent of Islam. Opponents and proponents alike have accepted the basic concept that music works on the emotions; the question has been whether or not music seemed to contradict religious faith, as its opponents have argued in numerous writings.
There are many differing views within Islamic culture about the proper role for music: what it is, what it does, and what its importance is in people’s lives. There is a sharp contradiction between supporters who show a predilection for music and others who express a marked mistrust, which in the most extreme cases becomes hostile denunciation and a call for complete banishment of the art. As a result, we are confronted with a gamut of conflicting opinions.
The central concept shared by all parties is that music produces emotions. Its innate message is thus realized through its influence upon the soul. Since music is essentially a language of the heart, the musician’s art should emphasize emotion, relying to a great extent on instinctive control and inner wisdom. Although the musician is an indispensable part of the trinity--music, musician, and listener--the relevant literature on Arab music is more concerned with the nature of the effect on the listener and his physical or spiritual response to music.
The philosophers of the first centuries of Islam considered the variety of effects aroused by particular melodies; it was considered that these melodies in turn inherently possessed the character that they imprinted on the listener. In contrast to this sophisticated theory, however, most authors prefer to refer vaguely to the power of music, without troubling themselves to consider the question of whether a specific type of music caused a specific effect. They assumed that human beings are necessarily responsive to the charm of music and are incapable of resisting its power, whatever its character may be. This “truth” is reflected in a statement made by a mystical author, al-Hudjwiri, who lived during the 10th century in Ghazna, Iran: “Anyone who says that he finds no pleasure in sounds and melodies, is either a liar or hypocrite, or he is not in his right senses and is outside the category of men and animals.”
A central concept thus emerges within Islam ascribing to music an overwhelmingly influential power whose effect may take different forms: religious ecstasy and mystical union, ethical equilibrium, sensual excitement resembling intoxication, and healing for physical and mental disturbances if administered to possessed, haunted, or anguished patients.
The great importance attached to the actual effect on the listener, especially in a religious context, was expressed by the term sama. This word means “hearing” and, by extension, “the thing heard”--music. It contrasts with the term ghina (singing), which is used to designate secular urban learned music. Under the general title sama, one can, in most treatises on mysticism, find sections dealing with instruments, performing, practice, dance, and the perennial debate on the lawfulness or morality of music.
While accepting the basic concept that music possesses an overwhelming power capable of exerting a strong effect on human beings, the leaders of the different mystical orders offered a wide variety of explanations. The first manifestations of mysticism as an organized movement go back to the middle of the eighth century. By the time the first organized ritual emerged, music and dance were already playing a prominent role in the spiritual exercises that sent the worshiper into ecstasy and mystical union. The problem of music was thus vital. In the numerous beautiful lyrical poems dedicated to music, there are statements crediting the sound of music with the power to awaken spirits immersed in the slumber of ignorance and to make them stand up and dance like the dead who will rise at the resurrection to the sound of the last Trumpet. (Dance helps people uproot their feet, which are stuck in the terrestrial mud, and transports them upward to the summit of the world.)
Beyond such eloquent reflections and sayings, the mystic leaders also paid attention to allegations regarding the harmful effect of music. One of the early Sufi leaders, al-Darani, said, “Music does not produce in the heart what is not in it.” This aphorism was widely used in subsequent periods to argue that music is not directly responsible for the effects it produces; the effect depends exclusively on the virtues of the listener or the degree of mystical initiation. More explicit are the words of al-Hudjwiri: “Listening to sweet sounds produces an effervescence of the substance moulded in men; true if the substance be true, false, if the substance is false. When the stuff of man’s temperament is evil, that which he hears will be evil too.” Therefore, virtue, spiritual preparation, and premeditated attention are essential factors in receiving the true message through music. This high achievement was not and perhaps could not be attainable by everyone, even including adepts of the mystical brotherhoods, many of whom belonged to the lower social classes, as well as the marginal groups that turned to extravagances and practiced exorcism through frenetic trance and self-mutilation.
Set more or less within the same traditional material and on the fringe of the mystical doctrines and philosophy is the 10th century treatise of the ikhwn al-Safa (Brethren of Purity). One of the most comprehensive and eloquent presentations of music theory and behavior in Arabic sources, the treatise was part of a comprehensive encyclopedia composed by a group of scholars who called themselves the Brethren of Purity.
Different currents of thought are combined in his treatise, centering on the concept that music equals harmony in its broadest sense, that is to say, as a symbol at equilibrium and orderliness in the universe (the macrocosm) and in humanity (the microcosm). Human beings cannot know all that is in the universe by going about and studying it. Life is too short in the world too large; only by studying oneself can one attained knowledge of all things, which already exists within one. Music is said to act as a focus whose purpose is to explain and illuminate the wonders of creation, the phenomena of nature, and matters lying within the domain of human creation.
The declared aim of the Brethren was to release the reader's soul from its bonds by awakening the knowledge of the exalted harmony and unity of all created things, and the knowledge of possible progression beyond material experience. Musical harmony in its most exalted and perfect form is embodied in the heavenly spheres and the music that they make. Earthly harmony, including that characterizing the music made by human beings, is only a pale reflection of that same lofty universal harmony. Whoever sets his mind to that task will necessarily acquire the knowledge that, in order to enjoy the pleasures of the most celestial and exalted music, one must free oneself from the defilement of matter and release oneself from the shackles of this world.
The last part of the treatise includes sayings of philosophers and anecdotes that illustrate the blessed benefits of music and its determining power to affect the souls of its listeners, ideas illustrated In the following home, which extols the capacity of music to speak and teach the mysteries of the heart:
Do not be astonished if the plant of the zir (the
highest pitched string of the lute) draws the
savage beasts of the desert.

Although not an arrow, from time to time, it
pierces the heart, like an arrow.

Sometimes it weeps, sometimes it moans at the
break of day and during the day until the dawn.

It speaks without tongue. Who can interpret the
speech If not lovers? Sometimes it restores
good sense to the mad, sometimes it
enslaves the man of sense.
The ideas sketched above formed part of the everlasting debate, which began soon after the advent of Islam, on the lawfulness of music. Since all the opponents accepted the basic concept of music as a producer of a motion, Islamic writers asked in what way music contradicted religious faith on the ideological or ethical grounds, or whether the opponents of music were reacting to the discrepancies between religious normative expectations and the actual behavior and experience characterized by the flourishing of learned music and its Increasing importance in social life.

— Amnon Shiloah (from The World & I
A Chronicle of Our Changing Era
- Feb 1987)

(This was a secondary text inserted into the story from the preceding post, originally a magazine article … and it deserves to be printed along with it)
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Music in Arab Life …

The initial encounter of Easterners and Westerners with each other’s music did not, in most cases, result in love at first sight, or rather sound. Instead of poetical associations or feelings of delight, the other’s music often reminded the novice listener of a dog’s barking.
In the mid-tenth century, an early Iraqi traveler to Europe, Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, reported, “I have never heard worse singing than that of the people of Schlesvig. It is a humming that comes out of their throats, like the barking of dogs, but more beastlike.”  In August 1648, the French traveler M. de Moncoys attended a dervish ceremony in Cairo, which he described in macabre terms: “They all danced for more than an hour with horrible shoutings and screamings; they whirled with violence and a vertiginous speed to the extent that their dance went beyond what the wildest imagination can conceive of the witches’ Sabbath … They frequently alter their screaming to voices which sound now as enraged wolves and now as the barking of suffocated dogs.” More courteous in his observations was the Ottoman envoy to Spain, who wrote in 1780, “All the great men, by order of the king, invited us to meals, and we suffered the tedium of their kind of music.”
Coming closer to our time, we find from the sardonic pen of the French composer Hector Berlioz such evaluations as, “The Chinese sing like dogs howling, like a cat screeching when it has swallowed a toad.” Or the following judgment on Oriental music, “They call music that what we designate by charivari … Their song consists of nasal, guttural, groaning and hideous notes similar to the sounds that dogs emit, when after a long sleep they stretch their limbs and yawn with a marked effort.”
Music is not automatically a universal language. It is subject to misunderstanding as are other aspects of culture, but music, the language of feelings and symbolic values, reflects thoughts and beliefs, and is thus able to encounter other worlds.

The Development of Arab Music

The general name Arab music covers a variety of musical genres with a long history of development, spreading over a huge geographical area stretching from central and west Asia to the Islamized lands of black Africa. It comprises the communal songs and dances of the desert Bedouin going back to the period before the advent of Islam, diverse rural styles found among the numerous ethnic groups that embraced Islam, the learned and sophisticated type of music which was elaborated in the context of the supranational Islamic civilization, and, last but not least, the sacred music of various forms and complex relationships of different religious denominations.
The advent of Islam in A.D. 622, its rapid expansion over vast territories and its encounter with old and prosperous civilizations led to profound social transformations including changes in musical concepts and behavior.
One of the most striking illustrations of transformation was that even in the first century of Islam, the two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, became celebrated places of entertainment and diversion. Witnesses recount the magnificence of the daily gathering in the literary salons that attracted crowds of female and male musicians, poets, intellectuals, and notables of the ruling class. There were competitions and distribution of prizes, and well-known musicians demonstrated their talents to an enthusiastic audience.
A contemporary musician's chronicle, in which a great deal of legend is found, describes the brilliance of these musical fêtes. One account tells that on the occasion of a concert the great crowd gathered to take delight in the singing of a famous musician, but their combined weight caused the collapse of the balcony on which they stood. Another account comments on the magnificence of the Medina songstress Djamilla’s cortège on her pilgrimage to Mecca. She was escorted by fifty singing slave girls who, lutes in hand, accompanied her singing. On her arrival in Mecca, she was welcomed by leading musicians and poets with great pomp and ceremony. In the same way, the charm exerted by the singing of the eminent Meccan musician ibn ‘Aicha occasioned a huge traffic jam on the way to the holy shrine of the Ka’aba.
The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1405) wrote in his Prologmena to History that Islam on its first appearance avoided music to some degree, because the art of music is naturally associated with luxury and easy living, usually originating in a society free from the necessities and urgent needs of survival. After the great conquest, he says, “Luxury and prosperity came to them, because they obtained the spoils of the nations. They came to lead splendid and refined lives and to appreciate leisure.” So, following the example of the Byzantines and Persians, they encouraged the elaboration of a new musical art to which numerous talented musicians contributed, both Arab and “alien” slaves and freemen from different parts of the Empire who brought their traditions and the fruits of their talent to it.
No one can tell us now how this music sounded. It was transmitted orally. Information about it is confined to thousands of pages that describe and extol its characteristics and marvels, sometimes in anecdotal form and sometimes with a scholarly speculation. The character assigned to music in these writings is sometimes entertaining, sometimes sensual, and sometimes embodies the excitement associated with getting drunk. Only the philosophers continued to extol its moral virtues.

Emotion and Music

Tarab, a common and recurring concept encountered in most Arab sources to define the effect of music, originally designated a strong feeling of joy or of sorrow stirred, for instance, by hearing beautiful verses. Later it was applied particularly to the emotion engendered by music. Some related forms were derived from the word. Thus, musical Instruments were called alat al-tarab, the musician mutrib, and the science of music al-ilm al-matribi. In its various occurrences in the literature the term covers the whole gamut of sensations engendered in the heart on hearing an expressive song, ranging from a sweet sensual feeling to intellectual delight and solace, and including exaltation and uncontrolled excitement.
Since we are concerned in this context with learned music, assumed to conform to accepted rules and established norms and to arouse the response of well-informed listeners, it is interesting to look at the role played by the musician in tarab. Is the musician expected to experience the feeling supposedly being stirred in the listener’s heart?
The evidence provided by the sources clearly indicates that the desired emotional ambience in a public performance was achieved by an interaction between those who produced the music and those who listened and responded to it. An account of the Meccan musician Ibn Jami‘, who lived in the eighth century, says that he could attain the height of his expressiveness only when he experienced sorrow. In order to test this quality, the caliph gave an order to forge a letter announcing the death of the artist’s cherished mother. The stratagem was successful. Indeed, under the shock, Ibn Jami’ intoned a song so moving that the whole audience began to weep.
To render expression more effectively, the performer usually has recourse to facial and bodily postures as well as to special vocal productions. In turn, the response of the audience is manifested by concrete and frequent applause, which encourages the artist and stimulates his creative imagination. This indispensable give-and-take plays an important part in determining the quality of the performance as well as the content of the music.
One of the important aspects of this type of music making is the relative freedom enjoyed by the artist in rendering the traditional material. This freedom is expressed by a great deal of improvisation, a technique that achieved great prestige and cultural centrality. Another significant factor of this music making is the affection manifested by Oriental artists for the details composing a work. It is as if they were less concerned with a preconceived plan than with allowing the structure to emerge from the details. However, something like a hidden mechanism of control acts toward preventing the work of art from becoming just a random association of ideas. This kind of creative representation, which in theory can be extended infinitely, is also found in other Muslim arts and sciences.
Because the representation of living beings was prohibited, Muslim art developed an abstract art form known as arabesque, to which one geometric or plant-like shape grows out of the other, without beginning or end. This approach may give rise to almost innumerable variations that are only gradually detected by the eye. Similarly, the decoration of a carpet can be endlessly extended by the variations of its forms.
The Arabic classical poem elaborated in the pre-Islamic period is based on strict formal rules and fixed meters, with the use of monorhyme at the end of the multiple verses, each of which should be independent and represent well-rounded ideas. Successful verses may migrate from one poem to another and be incorporated in their new context. Generally speaking, therefore, an Arabic poem is not judged as a unit but according to the perfection of the individual verses.
This carpet-like pattern also characterizes many historical works in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Such writings, especially in classical times, contained valuable information that was put together without being shaped into a single cohesive work. Only rarely does the historian or philosopher reach a comprehensive, systematic view.
In music, the lack of deliberate “architectural” constructions, which characterizes the modal concept and composition, embodies a general value of the culture involved. Like the artist, the poet, the storyteller, the litterateur, and the historian, the musician embroiders on a canvas, improvising within the framework of given melodic patterns attached to modal variations of the greatest subtlety. The mode chosen may also be imbued with an ethical virtue and attached to a particular emotional meaning. The performer has recourse to specific timbres, which constitute a vital element in characterizing a style. Indeed, the microscopic occurrences in this monophonic music have an important role to play in music making. Timbre is the most difficult parameter to define because it does not lend itself easily to measurement and comparison. Individual artists basically draw their material from the traditional repertory, which they enrich by their own contribution in accordance to their creative capacity. Some of these contributions may take the form of innovation.
In many cases, musicians ascribed novelties to inspiration received from supernatural beings. Numerous accounts in the classical literature report that a djinn (genii) suddenly appeared from nowhere, usually at night, disguised as an old man come to teach the astonished musician a particular novelty or a new song. He disappears furtively leaving his host stunned. Eager not to let the new song be forgotten, the inspired musician urgently calls to his service a member of the family or a singing girl to have that person memorize it.
With the emergence into the modern world, some of the above-mentioned characteristics underwent certain transformation or transvaluation. Indeed, foreign modes, instead of being integrated, were allowed to substitute for certain traditional forms and norms.

Islam and Music

After the advent of Islam, this sophisticated music became a “universal” element of the new supranational civilization. It was widely accepted, spreading over the vast territories under Moslem domination. Its great success came from the integration of disparate elements through a subtle process of Arabization of the diverse foreign borrowings. This process involved the predominance of the Arabic language, the adoption of Arabic poetry, prosody, imagery, vocal ideals, and intonations, together with the Bedouin’s aimless structure (which probably endowed musical creativity with its characteristic freedom). Thus, the manifestation of foreign borrowings in an Arabic context was experienced as genuinely Arabic.
Considering this universal music in the broadest sense, we must ask, how, if at all, it fits into the religious message of the Arabic prophet Mohammed, from which Islamic civilization developed. Was music included in the authoritative framework of questions and answers concerning the universe and humanity’s behavior in it?  In trying to discuss this fundamental question, we run up against the major difficulty: In the Quran, the holiest book containing the original core of the religious message, there is simply no reference either censuring or exalting music. The opinion that Mohammed rejected it is based on an interpretation of his denunciation of poets regarded as soothsayers and of poetry identified with a form of possession.
If we examine the facts, it seems more likely that the whole issue of the lawfulness of music is a later question, generated by the transformations imposed by the expansion of Islam, including new standards of life and ideals, as well as the extension of intellectual horizons. In their attempt to give an authoritative answer to the problem of music’s lawfulness, the theologians and legists were most probably concerned with what they saw as the disruptive effect of the dark and sensual aspect of fashionable urban aristocratic music and the growing attention paid to it. However, the equivocal nature of the evidence to which the antagonists referred gave rise to the conflicting interpretations that fill numerous polemic and apologetic writings.
The banishment of music does not usually involve the basic forms of folk musical traditions. Moreover, on a conceptual level, folk songs and dances are not considered as music, and the term music is not applied to them. Music is exclusively reserved for the learned urban art form. Therefore, folk music may be regarded as something that is not to be listened to for itself; it is subordinate to the predominating text, communal rather than personal. Its presence is useful because It is said to fulfill necessary functions in the life of the community.
The same reasons are valid for the rudimentary forms of cantillation admitted in the framework of worship--the solemn reading of the Koran and the call to prayer with occasionally a few simple hymns, close to folk tunes, used to enhance religious feasts. Hence, we may say that with the exception of the ceremonial music of the mystical brotherhoods, officially, Islam does not possess specific mosque music after the manner of church and synagogal music.
Among the arguments advanced by theologians and legists, the question of effect occurs frequently. In connection with the concept of tarab, we encounter in this context a corresponding term, lahw, which designates game, pastime, amusement. In the diatribe of the intransigents, the verb laha, from which lahw is derived, is usually defined as denoting an action aimed at amusing and at securing tarab. In the same way that tarab and its derivatives were extended to music, musicians and musical instruments, lahw, and the derived term lalahi, became synonymous with music, musical instruments, and even dance and dancer. We may assume that those associations had some bearing on theological attitudes toward music.
One of the earliest virulent attacks on music is contained in a treatise called The Condemnation of Malahi. The author, Ibn abi ‘Ioh-Dunya, a Baghdad theologian and jurist who died in A.D. 894, argues violently against music, which he regards as one of the chief catalysts of diversion from the life of devotion and piety. He links music with games and other types of pleasure. All dissipation, he claims, begins with music and ends with drunkenness. The oldest extant work of this kind, this treatise became a source of inspiration for later generations of theologians and jurists who were opposed to music.
Diversion is only one aspect of the argument. A recurrent denunciation concerned the intoxicating effect of music: In their highly emotional state, listeners lose control over their reason and act under the dominance of their passions. Hence the music, as an intoxicant provoking worldly passions in the soul and associated with sensual pleasures such as drinking and fornication, has a harmful effect on the behavior and judgment of people, who are driven to act like lunatics. This quasi-somnambulistic state was held by opponents to go against the exigencies of the rationalized religious precepts. On a more sophisticated level, the competitive influence of a humanly created world of sounds might have been regarded as a kind of polytheism.
Among the religious leaders who defended music, one finds criticism of inconsistencies in the opponents’ attitudes. Al-Nabulusi, a 17th century mystic leader and theologian born in Damascus, wrote in his treatise The Clarification of Proofs Concerning Listening to Musical Instruments: “It is astonishing to see that some of the legists attend mystical ceremonies in privacy and take pleasure in the music whether sung or played on instruments, yet when they are in the mosque they deliver sermons against it.”
Most of the antagonists found further support for their doctrines in the ultimate origin of music, ascribing to it devilish inspiration. Ibn al-Djawzi, a 12th-century jurist and preacher, delivered a violent attack in his book, The Devil’s Delusion, against the allegations of the mistakes concerning music, dance, and ecstasy. The author argues that music is basically a devil’s temptation or delusion. The devil dominates the soul and makes it the slave of its passions. The devil’s devices are illustrated in a conversation between a theologian and the devil: “‘What are these anklets on your foot?’ asked the theologist. ‘I shake them for man,’ replied the devil, ‘to make him sing or to make somebody else sing for him.’”
In support of his views, Ibn al-Djawzi cites the theory of the historian al-Tabari (d. 922) concerning the invention of musical instruments. The tradition reported by al-Tabari states that the first inventor of the instruments of music (malahi) is a descendent of Cain called Yubal. This refers to Genesis 4:21, “The father of them that play upon the harp and the organ.” Al-Tabari claims that Yubal invented the reed instruments, drums, short-necked and long-necked lutes, the zithers, and the lyres. The sons of Cain were plunged into amusements, and their behavior was reported to the inhabitants of the mountains--the descendants of Seth. Some of the latter went down to the plain, attempting to turn the sons of Cain from their depravity, but they themselves fell into the snares of beautiful women, music, and intoxicating liquors. All the elements of this tradition are found in Jewish Midrashim--the homiletical interpretative literature on the stories of creation, on which Arab authors most probably drew.
The better-known tradition than al-Tabari’s is that crediting Yubal’s father, Lamech, with the invention of the first oud (lute) and the first song. This tradition, which recur is in the literature in numerous variations, relates that Lamech in his old age lost his only male infant. He grieved sorely on the premature death of his beloved son and refused to be separated from the corpse. He hung it on a tree until the flesh fell from the bones. Then he modeled a lute from the skeleton and sang a lament to its accompaniment, the first of its kind in human annals. This myth of creation is also based on elements found in Jewish exegetic literature, which contains other interesting motives such as the relationship between music and the human body, the perpetuation of the body as a musical instrument, the symbolism of rebirth, and the like.
The battle against music has not waned even in the present day, as recent events in the fundamentalist Islamic world testify--official banishment of musical manifestations and even public burning of musical Instruments.

The Origin of Music

At this point we reach a split in the ideas concerning the origin of music. The first, we have the opinion put forward in ibn al-Djawzi’s Devil’s Delusion crediting the devil with the invention of music in describing his permanently active role in music making. This point of view corresponds to the popular belief that the inspired poet, musician, and the crazy lover are mad nun (possessed by a spirit).
In considering music as an irresistible sorcery inspired by the devil we have a denial of the basic concept of a transcendental divinity ruling absolutely over the world and all human deeds. Secondly, the attribution of the invention of music to a descendant of Cain the sinner and its assimilation with depravity implies that music is a human invention reflecting human weaknesses. As such it is full of vanity and the company’s activities incompatible with the basic requirements of religious ethics.
In the opinions of attacking music, certain mystic doctrinaires considered music as God’s creation and divine effusion. They connected the music used in divine worship with the idea that everything that existed potentially before the creation of man became actual with his creation--including song. In this respect, the mystics also sought evidence in the antedeluvian legends in support of their arguments.
An Arab legend that refers to the origin of the flute illustrates this point of view and may conclude this tour d’horizon. This flute, held in great esteem by many mystics, expresses by its groaning, according to Djalal al-Din al-Rumi, the separation of man from God and invites him to unity. The legend tells the Adam was given at divine secret by the Archangel Gabriel. When he was expelled from Paradise, the secret troubled him and caused him great pain. He was advised by Gabriel to throw it into a well. Adam did so and was relieved. Around the well grew reeds, from which were fabricated special flutes for playing hymns of praise to God.

— Amnon Shiloah (from The World & I
A Chronicle of Our Changing Era
- Feb 1987)

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