OCTOBER, 2007

Mythic Prelude:

What'll You Have?

Hi! Welcome back. Come on in, and don't mind the crowd, and all the noise and laughter as this month's Mythic Prelude comes to you from the Universal Festival Bar. Is this indulgent at a time when more and more people are cutting back on alcohol, even abstaining from it altogether, and this month, as we'll see, it's even Ramadan in the Muslim world? The answer is yes, of course, if you believe that all we serve here is spirits of the stupefying kind that the Bible has in mind when it says "wine is a mocker." But -- if you're the kind of discriminating drinker for whom thirst is a mythic matter, then there's a lot more on draft here than will fit in a mug or even a pitcher. Name your prize, not your poison. Whatever you're thirsty for -- drinks or love, truth or comfort, mystical union or certainty, or all of the above, the good news is that we've got 'em all, and they're on the house. The delicate news is that every drink in the room is virtual, and you have to make it. Whatever you want, you'll have to order by intention. If you try to get it just by using words, the way talkative beginners do, our waiters will probably look at you like you're not from around here, and you may have to wait quite a while before your glass arrives. But if you decide exactly what you want and when you're going to get it, and you own your power to attract it, then -- zip! Here it is. Bottoms up.
As you know, a lot of our emphasis is starting to go now to the question of whether we'll still be able to afford anything to eat or drink a few months from now. Next month the Fifth Night begins in what Carl Johan Calleman calls the Galactic Creation Cycle. And if his predictions for the year from November 2007 to November 2008 prove as prescient as they've been for the Fifth Day that is now ending, then it's likely that the world's center of economic and political gravity will continue to shift from North America and Europe to East Asia, and that the American economy and the entire Western banking system will continue to unravel. How do we know that such enormous changes are underway? By the silence. In the hour before a tornado appears -- I know this well from having grown up in Kansas -- the sky turns a pearl gray and everything from birds to bozos comes to stillness. The American dollar has now dropped almost to 1.43 to the Euro, but for all anyone can tell from watching American media, the dollar is doing just fine, always does. And so it will seem to those who've never owned a passport -- as the president they have now never did until he took office -- and have no sense of what a dollar will or will not buy today in some other country, wherever that is.
The news is getting as basic as it can. China struggles to cope with the unanticipated results of one of Mao Zedong's pet projects, the diversion of enormous amounts of water from the north to the center of the country, as the Chinese find that the water table has fallen much too low in the northern area where China grows most of its wheat. Water supply and water management become such critical issues in so many places that one does not have to be a master astrologer like Bill Herbst to understand that the world's main problems today are the result of humanity's failure or outright refusal to understand and live competently within the laws of Earth's plumbing system. The availability of water to grow crops is but one of the factors that have caused grain prices to soar so high that "the days of cheap grain are gone," according to a source quoted by the Wall St. Journal a few days ago. One of the changes few of us expected as Pluto crosses the galactic center for the third and last time in this cycle on Oct. 27, hours after the Full Moon -- for the basics on this alignment, see the UFC Mythic Preludes for January and July -- is that while many of us were watching the markets, the money, and grandiose visions about whether we'll have enough to retire on those artificial islands shaped like palm trees in Dubai, the more elemental reality that would crave some attention now is whether we'll actually have . . . bread and water.
Some of what's happening now, astrologically speaking for a moment, is predictable. Uranus is still in the middle of the water sign of Pisces, bringing upsets and uncertainties in many water-related areas in a cumulating trend that runs from now until November of next year. That's when, on the very same day that we get to handle the almost-sure-to-be-unsatisfying outcome of the American presidential election, Saturn in Virgo forms an exact opposition to Uranus, with all of the implacably self-righteous opinionating and frivolous friction that that alignment implies. The runup to this no-chance-to-be-dull moment has just begun, really, as Saturn is now in Virgo, who rules the stomach and the grain. Depending on how empty or how full we perceive the silo to be, we can anticipate, starting now, everything from shocking shortages of food in places where we least expected them to occur, to more attentive and methodical Saturn-style management of resources. Much of this is already underway, albeit not yet well-known yet amid all of the current fascination on violence, fear and gossip. But our emphasis will begin to shift more rapidly now. It will have to, even amid the dumbed-down silliness in which much of the developed world may as well live while it still can. The plainer, simpler picture of the year to come will get clearer in mid-December, when Jupiter leaves his home sign of Sagittarius and exits into thrifty Capricorn, not a moment too soon.
It's likely that in the year to come, we'll have to begin learning how to live more simply, so we look now at one of the world's traditional, beloved models for dealing with scarcity. It's already underway. Ramadan karim. Welcome to the holiest month in the Muslim year, when fasting from sunup to sunset is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (along with the profession of faith, ritual prayer five times daily, the giving of alms and the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca). We look at Ramadan now, not just for its intrinsic interest and not just because this could be the last time I experience it start-to-finish in a Middle Eastern country. At a time when many of the world's people will resort to their two usual ideas and actions for coping with scarcity -- either grab what we need, by force if we have to, or make it last longer -- the spiritual point of Ramadan is worth a good look. So is the Muslim sacred calendar as a whole. Why are Islam and the West seemingly on different pages about practically everything? Some of the answer, at least, is in the way that Muslims understand sacred time.
The Islamic calendar, unlike other sacred calendars -- Hindu, Taoist, Jewish, Buddhist --that are called lunisolar because they all use the 365-day solar year to keep the lunar year on the same beat as the seasons of the Earth -- is strictly lunar. It is under no obligation to check in with the Earth or the Sun, the field or the womb, or anything but the will of God. Like everything else in the faith of Islam – the word means submission – the calendar requires an act of acceptance by believers. If they are devout, they will resist all temptation to tinker with God’s own time and try to reshape it into some “logical” or “practical” pattern that is more graspable and convenient for human beings and their workaday lives on Earth.
For Muslims, the calendar is not supposed to make mundane life more efficient, easy or predictable on the ground. Its sole purpose is to get the human mind up off the ground and into the realm of spirit. Like graceful minarets that adorn the most elegant mosques, lifting one’s focus upward to the pure air stirred by beautiful voices chanting from their towers the beauty of the Lord, the Islamic calendar aims only to connect the human mind and heart with Allah, the Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – and the community of believers who affirm their faith in an annual cycle of affirmation, sacrifice and surrender. Necessarily, the metaphors that apply to this calendar are not concrete nor mathematical, but lyrical and airy, like the bird of the soul that the Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi saw (in Coleman Barks' translations here) as flying “in a vast simple region that is itself, where it is free to sing its truth.” Or, to lift another image from Rumi, the Muslim calendar is like the man who beats his drum by the gate of an empty building at midnight, when no one seems to be around – but there is an audience, because “the only listener is God.”
The Muslim calendar has 12 months that average about 29 1/2 days each, for a total of about 354 days. So the Islamic year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year. This means that while each Muslim holy day is always observed on the same lunar date within the Islamic calendar – the New Year feast of Al Hijra, for example, is always on the first day of the month of Muharram – each Islamic date “moves backward” by about 11 days each year in relation to the Western calendar. So the holy month of Ramadan began on Sept. 23 in 2006, Sept. 13 in 2007, and will probably begin on Sept. 3 in 2008, and so on. This custom in Muslim time reckoning also means that every single holy day in the Islamic lunar year has fallen at least once, in one year or another, over the 14 centuries since Islam was born, on every single date in the Western solar year. The Prophet’s birthday has been celebrated in January, March, July and every other month, and has fallen now and then on Christmas and the birthdays of Krishna and the Buddha. So has the first day of Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that each Muslim is required to make at least once. It’s easy to wonder whether some believers see special merit in a pilgrim’s choice to make his or her trip in a year when Hajj month falls in the pitiless inferno of Arabia in August, when one could wait a few years and meet a lot less hardship in June.

Why all the “about” and “probably” in the timing of the Islamic months and feasts? Because Muslims do not determine the timing of anything according to astronomers’ timetables, and even less would the most pious among them think of touching an ephemeris, or book of planetary positions that astrologers use for what the Qur’an condemns as “fortune telling.” The beginning of a Muslim month does not conform to any calculation of the exact time when the dark Moon is exactly opposite in her cycle to the full Moon. Rather, a Muslim month begins at sunset of the day that is called Hil 1 (first day of the new month), when the first thin crescent of the new Moon is sighted by one or more authorized observers.

Westerners’ bewilderment is understandable. They can accept, if not happily, that pious Muslims don’t want to wire their worship according to a clock, a calendar or a computer. Yet what seems weirdly counterintuitive to the Western mind is that the Arabs, who have always been so brilliant at math that now the whole world uses Arabic numbers, can’t seem to design a simple, workable calendar of holy days that everybody can plan for well before they come, so that all the world’s Muslims, a billion of them, can join together the way people of other faiths do, and all celebrate the same sacred event on the same day.

But alignment with the world of human beings, even if they are Muslim human beings, is not the point. The new Moon, and any holy days linked to it, can never be proclaimed before the new crescent Moon appears, and for a reason that seems compellingly clear to believers in Islam. Human beings do not determine when the Moon will appear. Only Allah decides that. He may choose to make the Moon, or any planet, person, lamb or rose come late, or never again. For strict Muslims, it’s presumptuous at best, and blasphemous at worst, for human beings to claim that they know for certain when the Sun will rise, or the new Moon will shine, just as it is haram – forbidden – for any person to predict his own future, or anyone else’s. We leave these things to Allah’s mind and will. Insh’allah – God willing – the Moon will appear again. But there is never a guarantee.

Ramadan is the holiest month in the Muslim year, though it is not, curiously, one of the three months when battling -- that is, combat by organized armed forces -- is forbidden. During Ramadan Muslims are expected to be especially devout in practicing the Five Pillars of the faith, for example by giving small Ramadan karim (generosity) gifts in addition to zakat, the alms for the poor that the faith requires from all who can give them. Ramadan is also a time of forgiveness and the repair of broken heart cords, but its best-known requirement by far is that for this entire month, the faithful must work at purification by fasting through the daylight hours. The practice is much harder than it first appears, for the holy month requires that from sunrise until sunset, one takes no food, or water – Ramadan does, after all, mean “Parched Thirst” – or even tobacco smoke into his mouth, and also allows nothing unwholesome to pass out of his mouth either, in the form of angry and hurtful words spoken against others.
The legend about how the idea of Ramadan came to the Prophet is that one day he got absorbed in conversation with a beggar who invited Muhammad to dress down the next day and walk the streets with him, to see firsthand what a poor man’s life really is. The next morning and afternoon, Muhammad was amazed to meet no one as kind as himself, and to face the unlovely truth that no one, not even those who could most easily afford to help, would give him or his companion so much as a humble copper coin, a crust of bread or a cup of tea. The two men did receive a lot, however, from the people they met: shoves and curses, threats and spit from those they asked for help, and from rival beggars out to cut the new competition. By the hour before sunset, Muhammad was so famished and parched that he could barely stand, and, against the beggar’s advice, he knocked on the door of a fine house and asked the lady who came to the door for a sip of water.
“I’ll give you a whole cup,” she replied, and when she came back a moment later . . . she threw the water in Muhammad’s face. He now truly understood poverty for the first time, and the point Gandhi would make later: that poverty is the worst form of violence. The Prophet then proceeded to spell out the austerities of Ramadan, all aimed at one central idea: to give all Muslims, many of whom are prosperous enough to choose whether they will eat or go hungry, the experience of how it feels to have no choice but to go all day with an empty belly, and no firm prospect of feeling full anytime soon. And this is how most believers do Ramadan, enduring for an entire month, for some 12 or more hours each day, no food, no water, no tobacco and no unkind speech. Some abstain from sex.
The best place to experience Ramadan in its full intensity, in all its glorious, excruciating beauty may be Cairo, which is not only the largest city by far in the Islamic world, but the city with a greater population density than any place on Earth. The day begins an hour before sunrise when men walk through their neighborhoods beating small drums to announce the sahur, the pre-dawn meal. The morning goes along calmly enough, and even in early afternoon, as stomachs growl and throats begin to rasp, the city does not seem much more loopily urgent than it is on most days. The pressure begins in late afternoon, when it seems that all 2 million vehicles in Cairo are on the road at the same time, as everyone is trying to get home in time for the sunset iftar meal with their families. As cars break down, horns blare and tempers finally snap among men who are dealing with hunger, thirst, nicotine fits, erections and impatience all at the same time, the traffic jams of Ramadan in Cairo are a seething comedy of frustration that not even a production team of Dante, Hieronymus Bosch, Ridley Scott and Mira Nair could begin to describe.
Somehow, though, everything seems to work out. By the time the muezzin sings the sunset call to prayer, the poor have taken their places at rough tables and benches outside the mosques and in the side streets, where a simple iftar is being laid out, thanks to the local merchants who take turns buying the food. Most other people are at home with their families. Their children want to know even before the main meal is spread which of the special sweets of shredded wheat, nuts and honey they’ll have tonight. The call to prayer is heard, street lights go out and for an hour everything stops. While it's famously said that in Cairo you can find anything, one thing you won't find is a taxi in the hour after sunset in Ramadan. What you will find, if you’re on the street as the festive fanoose Ramadan lanterns go on, is that people look around before they begin to eat, and offer you some rice and vegetable stew. Ramadan does have, though no one seems to plan it, a special instinctive teamwork for making sure that every person, Egyptian or foreigner, Muslim or no, will eat his fill this evening.
Is this a somewhat idealistic portrait of Ramadan in Cairo? Not really. Most people here really do celebrate it this way. It goes without saying that there are also wealthy, idle people here whose limited utility one does have to be F. Scott Fitzgerald to perceive. For some, Ramadan is useful cover for an even more desperate, driven pursuit of the pleasures that, no matter how successfully one hunts and wins them, never seem to fill up the unengaged lives of those who come from "good families," especially sons who are certain to inherit the family business, and carry on the tradition of shouting at others. These people awaken minutes before dawn, stuffed and gaseous from the night before, wolf down as much as they can snarf before the sunrise call to prayer, go back to sleep until 9 or 10, and sometimes manage to get to their workplaces by noon. They work -- if it can be called that -- for a couple of hours, then catch some uneasy sleep as their drivers get them through the Ramadan traffic jam in time to join their friends under the hotel tent for belly dance and a feast that would make Caligula blush, until 3 in the morning. They get home gorged and exhausted, trying in vain to sleep until dawn comes again a couple of hours later.
This goes on, mercifully, for only a few weeks. Those who gain some serious weight during the holy month can take it off quickly enough by chain smoking through the day again. This is how Ramadan goes for those whose principal goal is to consume as much tasty Sudanese beef as they can hold without bursting, while never wondering for a moment whether any children in Darfur have had so much as an onion in the last week. And some things just never change, even in this sacred time of year. The imams rasp and bark in their mosques every Friday about America, Israel and every oppressor and alleged enemy of Islam except the utterly vicious and corrupt regimes that infest virtually every country in this region.
Yet -- subtracting out of the picture those whose only entitlement to any attention is the possession of money, and those whose main practice of mercy and compassion consists of not driving out of their way to hit stray dogs in the street, the fact is that most of the people here have a heroic patience and an ineffable sweetness that helps them not only to bear Ramadan in all its hardship, but to use it as the Prophet intended: as a month of purification having the dramatic build of a truly inspiring ordeal, with the greatest challenges and rewards coming at the end.
Sometime between the 20th and 29th day of Ramadan comes Laylat al-Qadr, the “Night of Measures”. This holy day commemorates the first revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in what the Western calendar calls the year 610. There are stories that the Divine Beloved imparted the entire holy book in one night to the man who would be the Prophet, and he miraculously kept it all in his memory until his wife Khadija could help him – for Muhammad himself was illiterate -- to get it all down on parchment. But most Muslims believe that transcribing the sacred words was a long labor of love that lasted until Khadija passed away in about 619. So Laylat al-Qadr also honors Khadija, and for some Muslims, it has the dignity of a Mother’s Day feast. Laylat al-Qadr begins a holy day cycle that helps the people persevere through the last few days of Ramadan, and then culminates in the great Eid al-Fitr feast that begins the next month.
Shia Muslims also call Laylat al-Qadr the Night of Decree, because they believe that on this night Allah determines their fate for the following year. Thus they spend the entire night in prayer, asking for mercy and salvation. This rite of supplication is called ehyaa, meaning “revival.” Unlike the more common custom of i’tikaf, in which Muslims spend all day in prayer and reading of the Qur’an within the communal environment of the mosque, ehyaa is an individual, introspective rite performed at home or some other private place. The ehyaa practice is based on legends about the Prophet himself. It was said that for the last ten days of Ramadan, he would pray and meditate through the night, adding severe sleep deprivation to the other hardships of the month. Whether one is Shia or Sunni, however, this night – called by many the Unknown Night because it is not announced until it's actually at hand -- is for many Muslims the most joyous of the year, when angels are said to come down from heaven and spread light, protection and peace wherever they go.
So -- at the end of the day, when the darkness and the silence begin to fall, and one hears whatever call to prayer resonates with him, which of us are likeliest to bear best the coming times of having less, and having it later? Those who are accustomed to having so much that the surrender of any luxury feels like a skid into squalor? Or those who live in gratitude for the little they have, accustom themselves to austerity by practicing it for a month every year, and thirst above all for the radiance and music of the Divine Beloved?
For those who live in simplicity here, the most delicious sensation in the mouth at sunset is not the food. It is the smile of friendship, the language and the laughter of love, and more than anything else the music of Ramadan. Amazingly, it seems somehow to grow more airy and more sensuous at the same time, both simpler and more gorgeous, more passionate and more serene. Overtones that one doesn't normally hear become more audible as Ramadan goes along, until at the end of the month the sounds are incomparably clear and simple, the silences unimaginably rich.
Listen. Remember. Keep Holding That Frequency.

 

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Copyright 2007 Dan Furst. All Rights Reserved.