Sunday, June 28, 2015

How Real Is The Sacred?

11 Ramadhan 1436


The visit paid to the sacred grove of the Kikuyu paid by the protagonist of Ngugi wa Thiongo's The River Between when he is a child, along with his father, the esteemed elder Chege, is a wonderful evocation of a shared sense of the numinous. Father and son are hypnotised by the overwhelming spiritual grandeur of the ancient tree atop its hillock and the astounding prospect of all the country beyond, to the very seat of Murungu on Kerinyaga. It's a fitting location for the little boy to be told of his extraordinary lineage and his mission of bringing salvation from the hills to his people. Indeed, he will spend a good deal of the novel from this point wondering about the nature of this mission and struggling over how it is to be achieved - if it can be achieved at all.

When he returns years later to the sacred location the protagonist, Waiyaki, now a man weighed down by adult concerns and the reality of the dreadful divisions within his people, cannot see the magic of the place at all. It's a let-down, ordinary, almost tawdry. Yet, ironically, he is granted the vision he needs, in a moment of insight as to what message he can deliver his people, as he leaves the grove.

Whatever magic there is about the place is only in the minds of the characters, as an act of creative imagination, beautifully embodied in the visionary prose of the first visit and the clarity of mind achieved by Waiyaki in the second. It is ever thus with the sacred. Blake's vision of the tawdry London of the late eighteenth century as the Eternal Jerusalem could only have been in his mind, fortunately communicated and made real to us - more real than the  dismally 'real London', at times - through  his incandescent poetry.

I've been reminded by these simple truths in reading Ziauddin Sardar's engrossing Mecca: The Sacred City. His lively tracing of the history of the birthplace of the Prophet frequently reminds us of just how unholy the behaviour of those in the city has been, especially those granted some kind of power or authority there. Awful things have been done with monotonous regularity, as they have been in all cities over the centuries, I suppose, but made more awful here by the fact that this is supposed to be a holy place. The real holiness of the city as developed over time can lie only in the spiritual vision of the steady stream of pilgrims to the House of God - often, by the way, facing exploitation, abuse, extreme violence.

I found this chiming with my own experience there back in December, not, I hasten to add, that I was exploited or abused by anyone - very far from it. But I was very much aware of the city as always a rather tawdry 'real' place, especially in the vulgar opulence of the Las Vegas style clock tower, and this intersecting with the most powerful sense of the collective, creative imagination I've ever encountered. And that transformed everything.

The Holy Qur'an invites such acts of creativity when it tells us that the whole world is a mosque, fit for worship. We are invited to participate in the making of the sacred.


Now back in Hall after a generally eventless journey down the North-South Highway, something to celebrate in itself. The usual pile of letters to deal with, but only two bills, and ones I was keen to pay. Got back in time to break the fast in the homestead and am now gearing up for a bit more serious eating once the ship has achieved reasonable shape. 

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