Risāla fī sh-sharq wa l-gharb, or Risāla on the East and West
“the false divide between the mental territories of East and West is a divide which serves only to justify the machinations of political and religious leaders who go cheap for power. It can be decimated, thus making it much harder for us to be manipulated and controlled.”
From Slippery Elm
The poet is a master of Time. A petrified magician with proleptic eyes and analeptic feet who stands so still and moves so slow they can appear inanimate, yet hip to that secret by which the clay pots of Story and Discourse are filled with breath and made to spin. Story, the series of events in the order in which they really unfold. Discourse, the order in which those events are narrated. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Discourse, can make the end the middle and the beginning the end as it sees fit.
The poet has an intimate relationship with Time; by metonymy, therefore, she or he is also a witch, or in other words, a Minister of Fate. Truly in poems and tales there is a sign, and in them one sees expressed in the diminutive the same notes and time signatures to which dance the stars and all things. What better way to learn about concepts like Zeno’s 7th Paradox, the Laws of Relative Motion, Entropy, or Gravity, than by contemplating the structure of a poem or tale. Edgar Allen Poe celebrated Metaphor and Simile, because, as he asserted, they are the very laws of the universe. Indeed, the laws of the universe are naught but poetry. Listen close. I mean that in the best sense of the words…
Thanks to Einstein and his Theory of Relativity, science has found a way to express a face of what our witches and magicians have always known. Time slithers, folds in on itself, bites its tail, and can give light to fractals and spirals of ineffable complexity. The understanding that there is more to Time than meets the clock has become quite commonplace. What is less common is the realization that like her sister Time, Space is also relative. This might be difficult for some people to grasp, as Space arguably appears more tangible than Time, but truly, Space might prove to be the more relative of the two.
Let us consider cosmogony, and that erotic ecstatic moment that astronomers came to term the Big Bang. This is somewhat of a misnomer; a more accurate term might be the Big Expansion. Astronomers who work in the field of cosmogony believe that rather than a big explosion giving birth to the universe, all the fabric of what would come to be the universe as we know it was condensed into a small and incomprehensibly compact point. This point—or seed, as some might choose to view it—did not explode, rather, it unravelled and continues to unravel even now.
Think of what happens when a leaf of paper crumpled into a dense ball is subsequently unravelled. This makes us ponder, if everything that was was ‘condensed’ in that seed, what could it expand into? Would there not be a something, or maybe a nothing, outside of that seed? The truth is, it would not have expanded into a something, or even a nothing, as in the time of that seed the idea of an outside did not exist.
Consider the North pole. When one is standing on the North pole, the idea of ‘North’ ceases to exist, as any which way one may step, any which way the wind may blow, leads to the East, West, or South.
And so the Rose of Winds sheds its petals. There is no North, East, South, or West without a subject. We see this in the Sun that rises in Japan as it sets in Samoa. In the way the Incas traced their constellations; not stars upon a depth of black but black shapes on a depth of stars. In pop culture drawings that contain optical illusions and allusions to Freud. In the word for China in Mandarin—Zhonggou—not Eastern Kingdom, but Middle Kingdom. In the profoundest of oceans where up can be down and down up. In the underworld where, per D.H. Lawrence, darkness is awake upon the dark. In the underworld, that, per Jake Stratton-Kent, projects its deepest asphodel meadows upon the starry sky, where souls descend into earthly grottoes only to emerge refreshed or fatigued from craters on the Moon, where the stars of heaven strike the lowliest plants and whisper them: grow.
The ancients knew this; the geography of their myths witnessing more than one Mt. Olympus pick up its skirts, pull up its roots, and travel for leagues across land and sea.
Let us remember that the same spatial subjectivity applies when we speak of the cardinal directions in terms of political entities. East and West do not refer to fixed territories with fixed characteristics. This is demonstrated by the way in which Native Americans and First Nations were until fairly recently commonly referred to as Indians, or in how Australia is considered part of the West.
When one writes about the supposed clash of civilizations, one is writing about an Orient and an Occident of the mind. Edward Said famously wrote everyone who writes about the Orient must locate himself vis a vis the Orient. Frequently, the Orient is taken to be the world of Islam and the Occident is Europe and her offshoot, the USA. It is important to make this distinction between the world of Islam and the so-called Far East, which ‘Western’ culture tends to perceive as less of a threat to and less of a direct ‘antithesis’ of itself, due to its distance and due to the fact Far Eastern civilizations are not so much derived from Abrahamic religions. In contrast, Islam is Christianity’s first cousin. Familiar, but seemingly unassimilable, similar but not exactly the same, where the West sees its own face reflected in a mirror of alterity. Let’s not forget that in the lands that would become Europe, Islam was not initially viewed as a separate religion, but as a Christian heresy.
The terms East and West have always been evocative of a dichotomy, of a history defined by wars and the inevitable clash of two opposing opposites. Of course, this is not the truth. What is considered Occidental today is in grand proportion made up of ‘Oriental DNA’ and vice versa. These mental territories have always been heterogenous, subjective, and permeable; the borders thought to define them, both mental and physical, have never been able to keep much of anything or anyone out or in. We see this in Al-Andalus during different periods, in Frederick II’s Sicily, in Saladin’s Egypt and Syria, among many other places, where by a trick of the light and an anachronistic ‘multiculturalism’ that was by no means utopian, the medieval becomes the post-modern.
As this is a risāla—which is to say, a letter, an epistle—and not a treatise, I am unable to enumerate for a Western audience the innumerable ways in which the ‘West’ is indebted to the ‘East’ and the other way around. If in doubt, I urge you do some research yourself, and assure you that, simply put, Europe would be without many of its most positive contributions and best-loved hallmarks were it not for classical Islamic civilization, which in turn found the kindling for its own growth and innovation thanks to the cultural legacy left behind by the Greeks, who in turn were profoundly influenced by the cultures that surrounded them and with whom they interpenetrated.
The terms East and West only serve to make thinking less complex, more black and white, more economical, and to serve as justification for colonialism, the seizing of wealth and resources abroad, for the control and oppression of populations at home; in short, for religious and political leaders who go cheap for power. In this sense, in one way or another, all of us are ‘victims of a map’.
The borders that delimit the East and West and the territories that each of these compose are also subjective from ‘Islamic’ perspectives. Less so than cardinal directions, these tend to be thought of as the dār al-islām—or, the house (territory) of Islam—and the dār al-kufr, or the house (territory) of disbelief. The dār al-kufr is also sometimes known as dār al-ḥarb, or house of war. An important concept that serves as the mercury or mediating agent between these two entities is hijra, or emigration as a religious duty. In its earliest context, dār al-islām refers to the city Medina, where, we are told, Muhammed and his companions were given shelter from their persecutors. Here, dār al-kufr refers to Mecca, where the idolaters are still in control, and hijra to the emigration that the Muslims in Mecca are obliged to make to join their companions in Medina.
Here we also see the relation between the term hijra and the term jihād in that Muslim men were expected to emigrate in order to join the ‘holy’ struggle against the disbelievers who threatened them. As Islam spread throughout the Arabian peninsula and the Muslims conquered new territories, the borders between the dār al-islām and the dār al-kufr were continuously renegotiated. These borders become blurred, and the meanings of the terms become mutable and fluid, as we see hijra also being used to denote a Muslim who lives surrounded by disbelievers, but cuts off all connections with them without actually uprooting themselves and emigrating; to a Bedouin who leaves behind their nomadic life and adopts the sedentary life of an urban centre; or to some members of the nascent Muslim community who emigrated voluntarily to Abyssinia. Posteriorly, the verses of the Qur’ān used in discussions of whether or not the hijra is obligatory, are often Sura VIII (Al-Anfāl) verse 72 and Sura IV (Al-Nisā’) verses 97-100. Some consider these verses to have proceeded from the same period discussed above, when the Muslims were a minority community surrounded by hostilities. Whatever the case, throughout the centuries and to this day, different traditions of Islam and different schools of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) have given these terms their own interpretations. For the khawārij (s. khārijī) the term dār al-kufr encompassed territories controlled and inhabited by Muslims, but specifically non-khārijī Muslims. In ṣūfī thought, hijra can imply an emigration from evil to good, from ignorance to light, or from forbidden practices to the path of God. In this case, to emigrate does not necessarily imply a physical journey. From a shāfi’ī perspective, as long as there is one Muslim in a territory denominated dār al-kufr, this territory becomes dār al-islām, allowing this Muslim to remain living there without obligations to emigrate. The shāfi’ī school of jurisprudence also identifies another sphere, called the dar al-ṣulḥ, in which disbelievers have signed a treaty with the Muslims, and are therefore permitted to retain their properties in exchange for paying a special tax. But from a ḥanafī perspective, this type of sphere would still be termed dār al-islām due to it being governed by Muslims.
As we can see, the borders between the different types of territory are grey, something which has given rise to several questions for the jurists to solve when treating specific cases. For example, that of the moriscos in the Iberian Peninsula. What happens when a Muslim is living in a land previously denominated dār al-islām but has been conquered by disbelievers? Must they abandon their former home and emigrate? Some jurists assert that yes, in these cases, emigration is the only option. Others would argue that they are permitted to stay if, in spite of not being able to profess Islam publicly, they lived their religion in their hearts and intentions (another example of the dār al-islām being interpreted as an interior space). Its worth mentioning that in some moments throughout the history of Islam the old, weak, women and children have been exempted from the obligation to make hijra when caught on the wrong side of the the fence. In addition to all these interpretations, for many sunnis, the dār al-islām is a territory governed by a Muslim, or a territory which, although Muslims are not in charge, they are permitted to freely practice their religion. Other jurists, such as al-Wansharīsī, have asserted that Muslims are obliged to emigrate at all costs from a land denominated dār al-kufr to one denominated dār al-islām even if the first is a just society and the second is not. The fear of these jurists is that Muslim women would marry non-Muslim men, or that Muslims would adopt foreign languages and customs such as foreign styles of dress, and that these would inevitably lead them into apostasy. This is a fascinating concept: that identity must be preserved at all costs, even if this means forfeiting justice for injustice.
The concept of hijra has also been subject to shifting interpretations in the context of European colonialism. One thing that almost all the cases have in common from Nigeria to India is the role that the concept of hijra has played in the rhetoric of the Muslim leaders fighting against the Europeans on the one hand, and in that of the Europeans themselves after having made conquests. In the first case, the concept of hijra was used by Muslim leaders to compel their coreligionists who lived in areas recently conquered by the Europeans, to emigrate to the dār al-islām—here defined as the territories that they themselves controlled—in order to fortify their troops and bases. In the second case, we see how the European colonialists requested that a muftī from Mecca issue new fatāwā (s. fatwā) regarding the concept of hijra under non-Muslim governors if these permitted them to continue freely practising their religion. Such was the tactic used by the French in Algeria whose colonial agenda was disrupted by the Algerian population emigrating en masse to other countries such as Morocco or Syria. In India the concepts of hijra and jihād became complicated when for some, Muslims were not obliged to fight against the English or emigrate from territories that these had conquered, as they were seen as a salvation for the Muslims in their struggle against the Hindus!
To complicate things further, in contemporary times the term dār al-kufr has been applied to some Muslim governments by certain fundamentalist groups in order to legitimize their struggle against these, as has been the case in Egypt, Indonesia, or Pakistan. The term hijra has also been interpreted in contemporary times by authors such as Ibn al-Ṣiddiq as the emigration a Muslim might make to Europe or the USA for economic reasons. According to Ibn al-Ṣiddiq, Muslims would be permitted to remain in the dār al-kufr as long as they had intentions to work or study there.
The liminal herm that marks the grey boundary between terms such as East or West, or dār al-islām and dār al-kufr can also be seized by artists and activists who see the extremist proponents of each of these ‘poles’ not as the defenders of their respective civilizations or religions locked in an inevitable and holy struggle, but as a single party of despicable greedy and violent villains who have sold this world at the cost of the world to come. The world to come not in the Qur’anic sense of an eschatological paradise, or in the ‘Western’ sense of a Las Vegas (Jerusalem) in the Sky, but as the world that will be inherited by future generations, among which, ironically, the children of these same villains will be counted.
The ways towards this are manifold but one extremely powerful starting point for people who find themselves on the Western side of the divide is to make an earnest effort to learn Arabic. There are truly so many practical benefits in doing this, not least of which is that learning new languages re-wires your brain; in this sense the false divide between the mental territories of East and West, a divide which serves only to justify the machinations of political and religious leaders who go cheap for power can be decimated, thus making it much harder for us to be manipulated and controlled.
Our exploration of spatial relativity also applies to concepts such as the hinterland, the global sertão, to urban human habitats and wild nature. Borders and limits writhe and fork like snakes and lighting and can be reinterpreted to good effect in all manner of rewilding or regenerative permacultural initiatives. With this sort of manipulation and redefinition of space, both one’s own spatiality and that of one’s surrounding environments, we leave the realm of the poet and enter the realm of the dancer. The poet is a master of Time, the dancer a master of Space. This is why the marriage of poet and dancer signifies an end for Time and Space.
Slippery Elm’s poetry and prose in English and Spanish have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies in both Europe and North America. He has performed as a part of flamenco groups in Europe, Africa, and North America, in courtly settings, as well as in the streets, by hearth corner, and under leaf. He is the editor and translator of the poetry anthology Your Death Full of Flowers and the author of two pocket poetry books. He compliments his poetry and dance by studying Arabic and Hebrew philologies.
All our publications can be found here.