Monday, January 23, 2006

Islam's blind clerics and Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex"

Why is there such a high regard for blind clerics in the Muslim world? Slate has a piece on this which came out last Friday.

"Muslims have revered blind clerics for over 1,000 years. In one scene in the Quran, the Prophet frowns and turns away from a blind man, only to have Allah castigate him for rejecting a spiritual seeker. The man, called Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum, became an important early follower of the Prophet.

Today, even blind people without religious training enjoy a certain level of respect in the Muslim world. Turks, for example, refer to a blind man as a hafiz—meaning one who has completely memorized the Quran—whether or not he has earned the title. In Egypt, blind men are casually described as moulanas, a term of respect given to Muslim scholars."

So, as this piece points out, in a religious tradition that extols a good command of the oral recitation of the Qu’ran, the blind, especially if a cleric--who has to commit to memory the words of the Islamic scripture--is admired.

But the high regard placed on blind religious leaders is also true in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, as the piece also mentions. I recall reading about the desert fathers of the Church some of whom were blind.

Now, this whole concept may seem odd in light of Jesus’ words denouncing the Pharisees and their followers as the “blind leading the blind” (Matt. 15:14). But Jesus meant something different by that. He meant that the Pharisees who refuse to see the Light of Christ, remain in their blindness. But those who “see” this spiritual truth, even though they may be blind physically, indeed see.

However, there is also a great symbolic richness to the archetypal figure of a blind spiritual guide, a symbol which predates Christianity and Islam. How and where?

Well, a blind spiritual guide is regarded as one who has spiritual and moral vision: he may be blind physically, but he is spiritually sighted. This recognizes the fact that sometimes because of our preoccupation with our perception of the material and the physical, our sense of seeing the spiritual and the ethereal is obscured.

And where can we see this articulated in the pre-Christianity and pre-Islam world? Look to the ancient Greeks. In particular, look to Sophocles’ great tragic play Oediupus Rex.

There is the blind prophet Teiresias who is the only one who knows and “sees” the truth about Oedipus’ deeds and identity which is unknown to the sighted king himself (who unknowingly married his own mother and murdered his own father).

As the play progresses, and as the truth dawns on Oediupus, the harsh glare of the truth was too much to bear. And so he takes his hands to his face and blinds himself.

The tragic Oedipus, now blind physically, nonetheless sees his true self. In a way, this is part of the reason behind the regard for these blind clerics: there is a sense that they who cannot see the physical can see the truth and the spiritual.

Here are Oediupus’ words:

My firm belief. A truce to argument.
For, had I sight, I know not with what eyes
I could have met my father in the shades,
Or my poor mother, since against the twain
I sinned, a sin no gallows could atone.
Aye, but, ye say, the sight of children joys
A parent's eyes. What, born as mine were born?
No, such a sight could never bring me joy...
Nor this Thus branded as a felon by myself,
How had I dared to look you in the face?
Nay, had I known a way to choke the springs
Of hearing, I had never shrunk to make
A dungeon of this miserable frame,
Cut off from sight and hearing;
for 'tis bliss to bide in regions
sorrow cannot reach.

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