Welcome once again to this journey into contemporary Islams, a series of explorations of the Muslim encounter with modernity.
Our monthly journey began with Haleh Afshar taking us along pathways in feminism that challenged the claim of a Western approach to gender equity as the only legitimate one.
This underscored a central theme of our series: there are plural modernities – cultural, political, social – in which Muslims are not just part of the audience but also among the makers. They have agency, like Afshar’s Muslim women with their indigenous ideas about equality.
We will hear more about this idea when Professor Mohamed Tavakoli-Targhi speaks to us on December 6 about cultural modernity in Iran. And again when Professor Sami Zubaida joins us on January 15 for his talk on the ‘everyday modern’ in the Middle East at large.
Consider the background noise against which the scribes would have written our oldest known epic verse, Gilgamesh, based in Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago. Then as now, Iraq was full of clamour, milling about with soldiers and outcasts in an organised chaos that was the ancient city of Uruk.
Stephen Mitchell’s vividly accessible version of Gilgamesh (Free Press, 2004) reminds us that the story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood is to be found almost fully formed in this epic, a millennium before the Bible. Like all great verse, Gilgamesh takes us on a journey that rises above the ordinary – but not so far above that we lose all sight of it. On the contrary, the final lines of the epic bring us back to the city.
Walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city …
Observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the orchards,
the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces,
the houses, the public squares.
This interplay of the lyrical and the ordinary is what makes poetry so pressingly relevant to us today despite - or because - of the conceits of technology and the rest of the glitz of the modern.
Again from Iraq, in particular the city of Basra, Saadi Youssef has emerged as a voice of lyrical protest against the politics of violence and exile, especially with the English translation by Khaled Mattawa of the anthology, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face (Graywold, 2002).
Saadi Youssef has spent his long exile all over the Middle East and Europe. His response to the current state of affairs in his native Iraq found expression in verse that again raised us above our everyday anger, yet engaged with it fully.
As he puts it in one his best known poems, America, America (Damascus, 1995):
I too love jeans and jazz and Treasure Island
And John Silver’s parrot and the balconies of New Orleans.
I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell of Virginia tobacco.
But I am not American.
Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me back to the Stone Age ?
Of course the engagement with reality is not just political but runs the full gamut of human experience.
Muslim poets draw on a heritage that celebrates nature and the sacred, the beauty of females and hairless youths, the pomposity and wisdom of princes and scholars, social conflict and reform.
The ‘shimmering light’ in the title of Faquir Hunzai & Kutub Kassam’s anthology of Ismaili poetry (I.B. Tauris, 1997) is not only about the visions of mystics or Sufis, but also the deeper reality beyond the mundane to which lyrical visions aspire. Surely that light is precious amidst the glitter and glare in the mixed blessings of modernity.
Our speaker today is among the torch-bearers, and like all poets he comes in many guises.
Born in South Africa of Muslim parents, Raficq Abdulla is an Oxford-educated barrister - as well as a writer, public speaker, and broadcaster.
He was formerly the University Secretary and legal adviser to Kingston University, where he now serves as Visiting Fellow.
His publications include Words of Paradise, a new collection of interpretations of the 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, and a fresh interpretation of Conference of the Birds, the allegorical poem by the medieval poet and mystic, Farid al-Din Attar.
Many of you will know him from the large number of programmes he has written and presented on BBC World Service radio, including The Four Caliphs, Rumi, The Conference of the Birds, and a series on the life of The Prophet Muhammad. He has written screenplays for Channel 4, including the award-winning films Blood of Hussein, and Born of Fire.
Most recently, he has spoken on the 20th century German poet, Rilke, at festivals across the UK.
As an international public speaker, Raficq has addressed audiences in the US, Spain, Dubai and Canada – where I had the pleasure of introducing him at McGill University in 2005. He has also lectured on Islamic law at the LSE, and on spirituality at Syracuse University in London, and advised Chatham House on multiculturalism and foreign policy.
Raficq is associated with the international writers’ group, PEN. In 1999, he was awarded an MBE for his interfaith work among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.