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Framing the Issues

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Can We Find a Unifying Theme in Middle East Literature?

The Middle Eastern modern period spans fourteen centuries and three major world religions—each with dozens of different expressions—three major language families (Semitic, Indo-European, and Turkic), and hundreds of ethnicities, languages, and dialects.

What themes tie them together? “Remembrance” (dhikr, zikr) is one of the most important. It refers to both the act of recalling or remembering another, the act of reminding someone (or oneself) to remember. Prayer, ritual, poetry, song, philosophical study, practicing or appreciating Qur’anic calligraphy, or bodily movements such as swaying or moving in a ritual circular motion as in the circulation of the Kaaba or the Sufi “whirling” ceremony—all can serve as acts of remembrance and a means of reminder. 

The Qur’an calls itself a reminder for all human kind; when the creature remembers its source, the bond to the creator is reestablished. It invites its hearers and readers to recall their creator through reciting its verses and through ritual prayer (salah); the call to prayer that sounds forth over Muslim communities five times a day is thus a dhikr of a dhikr. When Sunnis and Shi`ite perform the hajj pilgrimage, they revisit the “stations,” or sites, of the primordial events in sacred history, reenacting those events, making them present. The annual remembrance of the passion and death of Husayn (d. 680 CE) brings the Shi`ite communities together around similarly powerful journeys in time and space.

Remembrance of the lost beloved (dhikr al-habib) grounds many literary forms across religious and linguistic boundaries. To remember the beloved is to be flooded with memories of a fullness of life. Remembrances “brings back” the poet to those times and evokes the beloved, calling her forth into the present along with the lost garden (meadows, flowing streams, burgeoning flowers and fruits, gazelles and other animals grazing and giving birth) that embodies the union with the beloved. The practical voice of the poet says to “snap out” of his reverie and get on with life. Poets may drink to forget their beloved or boast they have her (or him), but the more they drink and boast, they recall her, demonstrating that even proclamations of forgetfulness can serve as dhikr.   

In Sufism, dhikr takes a technical meaning, as a phrase from the Qur’an or a litany of praise for God and Muhammad, repeated over and over again (like a Hindu mantra), as the central pulse of mystical contemplation. Sufi poets compare remembrance to an intoxicating wine being passed around, drinker to drinker, and sometimes site wine songs that praise the wine for its ancient vintage (older than the creation of the world, says one poet), its ability to seep into the spirit, and to transform time.

Supporting Links:

Dhikr—Remembrance of God. Naqshbandi Sufi Order. Link to resourcenew window (accessed February 5, 2010).

“Mevlevi.” Wikipedia. Link to resourcenew window (accessed February 5, 2010).

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