Sunday, December 27, 2015

An inner layer of the onion

The lead article in this morning’s New York Times  features a lengthy look-back on a scandalous story from March of 2015:  the mob-murder of a woman in Afghanistan, upon charges that she had just burned a Koran.    To publish such a follow-up is quite commendable, as so many complex events are misconceived during the initial period of their media notoriety.  At the time, the story was reported along the lines of:   Yes, she apparently burned one, who knows why, but she was already known as a lunatic, and should not have been held responsible for the act, let alone murdered. 
An investigation followed, and the paper today states:  Farkhunda had not burned a Koran.”   An obviously crucial point (logically, legally), entirely independently of whatever further feelings or philosophy you might personally entertain (and, as usual, we are dealing here only with the logic of the case, not trying to push one opinion or another).  -- But why, then, (you will immediately wonder) had the mob set upon her?  -- Ah, wheels within wheels.

What is alleged to have happened is this: 

Farkhunda first visited the Shad-Do Shamshira shrine … It was a Wednesday, women’s day at the shrine, when men are not allowed.  The women commiserate about their lives.  They visit the fortuneteller to buy amulets to help them get pregnant, find a husband, or have male children.  Known as tawiz, the amulets usually consist of writings on a small piece of paper  that a woman can pin to her body or keep in a pocket.  Farkhunda was appalled at the way the women’s superstitions were being exploited … She confronted … the fortuneteller.

The article then veers off in a more salacious direction, not strictly relevant to the crux of the story, about how the fortuneteller was selling Viagra and condoms on the sly.    To prevent Farkhunda with trashing her trade, the fortune-teller evidently decided that the best defense is a good offense, and accused her of burning the sacred volume;  that was passed to the mob, and grisly events followed.

There is a religious background here, however, which is crucial to the case;  and ultimately puts all this in quite a different light (theistically/legally;  no defense intended  of the quick-trigger savagery of the mob).

Now, neither birth-control nor aphrodisiacs are per se normally forbidden in Islam (though abortion is); for the latter, consult this jolly summary:

But the amulets (and the fortuneteller) are quite significant here to the essence of the story, and the article does not spell this out.
The reader might get the impression that Farkhunda was simply objecting to the use of the shrine as a place of commerce, and upbraided them the way Jesus chased the money-changers from the Temple.  But the commerce in fortunetelling and amulets is islamically much worse -- as though the Temple-defilers had been selling pagan idols rather than merely changing your drachmae into denarii.   Mainstream (Sunni) Islam is quite emphatic in condemning pagan survivals and polytheistic deviations;  here Wiki quotes a hadîth (saying of the Prophet) against amulets:

وفي الحديث: مَن عَلَّق تَمِيمةً فلا أَتَمَّ الله له. وتعليق التمائم من فعل الجاهلية، كانوا يعتقدون أنه يدفع عنهم الآفات

The word used here for ‘amulet’ is tamîmah; the verb here, atamma, is from the same root, and the saying has the air of a bit of wordplay.  The word used in the article, tawiz, is from classical Arabic  ta`wîð  (accented on the second syllable; rhymes with seethe), from a root meaning ‘to seek refuge (from evil, with God)’, familiar in the common apotropaic phrase  a`ûðu bi-llâh.
As for fortune-telling, that too is deprecated as a survival of the jâhiliyyah (the Days of Ignorance before Islam) -- though in practice, a kind of Koran-based analogue of the bibliomantic sortes Virgilianae does survive, in the tolerated form of the istikhârah. 

Thus, at this point (as the article does not notice), Farkhunda appears, on the face of it, as a defensor fidei, in the face of her backsliding compatriots;  and thus, prima facie, a charge that she burned a Koran  would seem absurd.

But now comes a crucial further development, which the article quite glides over:  It seems that, in her iconoclastic zeal, Farkhuna went on to burn some of those amulets by setting a fire in a trash can.   Left to their own devices, readers may recall Christ’s equally vigorous action in the Temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers.  And had these amulets been, say, jade idols, there would have been no Islamic problem with destroying them -- indeed, ISIL and and Taliban deem it a duty, blowing up pagan statues far and wide.   Only … that is not what the ‘amulets’ are.  Reread the description: “the amulets usually consist of writings on a small piece of paper”.   Umm… What kind of writings?  “Today you will meet a tall dark stranger”?  “Help I’m a prisoner in a Chinese fortune-cookie factory”?  No:  typically, verses from the Koran.

Thus, it would appear that, indeed, Farkhunda did burn the sacred verses after all;  only, in the form of loose pages, rather than a bound book.  And that distinction is religiously immaterial.   It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that she was, then, within the culture, actually guilty  more or less as charged.


Secular readers will be unmoved by all that, and feel justified in not even attempting to understand what is really going on theologically (and thus, within Sharia, legally).  But abhorrence of burning God’s word, or even (in whatever secular context) the mere name of God,  is familiar, not only in Islam, but in Abrahamic religion generally. We deal with the matter here:

The ancient Jews, whether learnèd or otherwise, were loath to burn any scrap of writing, lest it contain, somewhere within it, the name of God (or rather, in keeping with the Hebraic decencies, the name of G*d).   Accordingly  those  who lived in Cairo, buried all excess scrip and scripture, in storerooms and cemetaries.


Such folk-superstitions as talismans and fortune-telling  may have a particular flavor in Muslim lands, but much of it is an area rather than intra-confessional phenomenon.  Thus, consider the folk-belief in the Evil Eye, characteristically circum-Mediterranean.

Two examples from my personal experience -- everyone involved being highly educated and long living in America.

(1)  A Christian woman originally from Lebanon was introducing her class to Lebanese culture, and mention the tradition of the dreaded al-`ayn.   Of course, she said (standing there in fully modern Western dress), that’s all just superstition, people don’t really believe in it anymore, only … A change came over her, and her eyes turned inward, as she reminisced.
“Just last month something happened… I had a very fine tall potted plant in the entry-way, and a friend came to visit, and remarked on how nice the plant was.  And … the next week … it had withered and died!”
That would be a prototypical case of hexing via the Evil Eye, whose essence is envy.
Thus:  Hint to non-initiates.  When dealing with people from a Mediterranean culture, be especially cautious of praising their children, and being careful to dot your discourse on such subjects with mashaallaah!, which reputedly draws the sting of the Eye.

(2)  I once took dialect tutoring from a woman originally from Baghdad.  Though Muslim, she did not seem to have narrow religious views -- her parents had sent her to a Jewish school for one year, simply because it was conveniently in the neighborhood;  and she sometimes prays to the Virgin Mary (“since only she would understand a woman’s troubles”).  The class went well.
Later, two (Christian) young women, colleagues of mine (one blonde, one brunette, as we shall note so as to tell them apart) shared tutoring-sessions with the same teacher.  But the brunette noted that the teacher would never look directly at her, though she was at ease with the blonde.   When the brunette would ask a question in Arabic, the teacher (looking away) would respond in English -- vitiating the point of the class.
“As the weeks went by, I got more and more frustrated,” she reports.  “And then I noticed that, each week, the teacher had put on yet another piece of turquoise jewelry.”   Suddenly she realized what had been going on:  this young woman had blue eyes (not very, though), and that feature is said to be characteristic of al-`ayn.  The turquoise stones function as (blue) amulets against this.

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