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Light/Darkness in Two of the Abrahamitic Religions 3/3
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-10-26 00:38:04
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Let us now focus on a metaphor which may provide an insight into this clash of civilizations, that of the struggle between light and darkness. This metaphor pervades much of Rumi's poetry. Let us fist examine a few passages, picked almost at random, from the volume by Coleman Barks on Rumi who was a contemporary of both St. Francis of Assisi and Frederick II:

Muhammad says: I come before sunrise
to chain you and drag you off.
It is amazing and funny that you have
to be pulled away from being tortured,
pulled out into the Spring garden.

But that's the way it is

Almost everyone
must be bound and dragged here. Only a
few come on their own.
Who gets up early
to discover the moment
light begins?

The way the night knows itself
with the moon, be that way with me.

What nine months of attention does for an embryo,
forty early mornings will do for one's gradually

growing wholeness.

Some nights stay up till dawn
As the moon sometimes does for the sun,
be a full bucket pulled up the dark way
of a well then lifted out into light.

Coleman Barks has an interesting comment on this penchant in Rumi's poetry for the moment in darkness when the light begins to appear, (a tension which, by the way, which also begins the Divine Comedy of Dante): "Like the blackness of the Kaaba cloth, Sufis adore the darkness of the deep night when conversation with the divine is easiest (p. 48)."

Let us now compare the above passages from Rumi to this one of Emperor Heraclius: "This people [Heraclius said] is like an evening, between daylight and nightfall, neither unlit nor dark so is this people neither illumined by the light of Christ nor is it plunged into the darkness of idolatry." (Chronicle of Siert 106, Patrologia Orientalis 13, p. 626)

What is Heraclius trying to convey in such a passage? Is he speaking for Christianity or for the Empire? Hard to tell! Today too it is hard to tell when a fundamentalist evangelist is speaking for Christianity or the American capitalistic way of life. In any case, the above passage reveals a genuine fear, quite similar to that springing form a challenged global Western empire of today living under pax Americana, of what Heraclius considered the worst in those people who dared to challenge his imperial authority. While their monotheism is clearly a plus, in his mind it remains inadequate without the light of Christ. This fear shows through a rather paternalistic attitude toward what he considers their non-enlightened stance, "half way between light and darkness." We should recall here that Heraclius' vast Eastern-Roman empire was already under considerable stress from the constant pressures and struggles against the Persian Empire; eventually Heraclius would lose the whole of Northern Africa to Islam.

At that point in time Heraclius hardly needed a new upstart people with a brand new religion to challenge Roman peace and order. They had come to him with a rather sobering ultimatum which in its sheer arrogance comes across as a threat of sort: "They sent an embassy to [Heraclius] the emperor of the Greeks saying: 'God has given this land as an inheritance to our father Abraham and to his posterity after him. We are the children of Abraham. You have held our country long enough. Give it up peacefully, and we will not invade your country. If not, we will retake with interest what you have withheld from us.' " (Sebeos, Historie d'Heraclius 30, F.Macler, Paris, 1904, pp. 95-7) This ultimatum must have been quite sobering for the Byzantine emperor: he realized that these people, like him, took their faith seriously, to the point of zealotry, and were unwilling to dwell under the benevolent paternalistic tend of the Eastern Roman Empire, they meant to challenge it.

Let me conclude with some open ended questions on the comparison of Rumi and Heraclius border-line struggle of light against darkness. They may generate further analysis and insights. Could that quote by Heraclius be construed as a prostituting of Christianity (a faith claiming to be trans-cultural and universal) to the imperial temporal needs of the Eastern Roman Empire about to confront militarily both Persians and Arabs? Is Heraclius confusing what is Caesar's with what is God's? The same confusion which prompts a Dante to place three Popes in hell? While it is true that for Christians Christ is the light of the world, are Christians deceiving themselves when they proclaim that they are ipso facto in the light when they so proclaim (that light, the Word, which came but was not understood by the darkness as per the evangelist John) while placing the Muslims in darkness or, at best, in the sunset struggling against the darkness and destined to eventual decline, as fundamentalist evangelical Christianity misguidedly believes?

Could it be that the external militancy of the three monotheistic religions is due to this confusing of the conflict they advocate within the heart of each one of its believers with an external geo-political secular temporal struggle?; that Ji-ads and crusades are nothing more than the externalization of the conflict? It seems to me crucial to consider that while the phenomenon of the border-line between light and darkness appears to be the same at both sunset and dawn, it does matter whether one employs one or the other as an apt metaphor to interpret spiritual and geo-political historical events. At dawn the light wins, at sunset darkness prevails. Which is to say, history matters. While Rumi speaks of a dawn, Heraclius speaks of a sunset. Heraclius sees Muslims going into darkness at sunset, Rumi sees them conquering darkness at dawn.

Finally, I leave to the reader's imagination what that distinction may mean hermeneutically. We may have to wait a long, long time before it is all sorted out and resolved. I don't believe that today's secular prophets who call themselves futurists under the orthodoxy of rationalism have a clue, especially when they propose a secular salvation inimical to traditional religion. Moreover, I am afraid that those who continue to hope that it will merely be an inner conflict about which one needs not worry too much, may be also deceiving themselves. But here again, darkness always precedes the dawn of light and the barbarians of the intellect may have to do much destruction before a new age dawns. What is predictable is that this powerful metaphor of light struggling with darkness will continue haunting the Western imagination as it comes to term, in the new millennium, with the sober realization that the formidable challenge that began some thirteen centuries ago, has far from subsided.


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