My year ten class studies Islam, one of the most formative influences in the world that my students will inhabit and hopefully improve. I have a profound respect for Islam. Westerners, and especially western Christians, often fail to acknowledge the debt they owe to Islam, a tradition that had a huge role in bringing Europe through the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.
I tell students and anyone else who expresses a mindless contempt for Islam that if they truly feel that way then they should have the strength of their convictions and stop using Arabic numerals. The reason we use Arabic numbers in the first place is that they embody a philosophical concept that was inaccessible to Roman numerals and that, indeed, was threatening to medieval Christianity. That is the idea of zero, the representation of nothing, the articulation of the void.
Zero is a wonderful image of eternity. If you try to divide anything by zero, you have an experience of both the eternal and the absurd right before your eyes, beneath the tip of a cheap pencil. Zero is a perfect circle with nothing to enclose: it has neither beginning nor end. Christians sometimes scratch their heads when Muslims speak of the impossibility of creating visual images of the divine. Mosques don’t have statues or pictures. But zero is, in fact, not a bad representation of the sacred.
Christianity tells stories; Islam finds designs, patterns, mosaics. These communities should love each other. Often enough it looks like there is zero chance of that. The prophet Muhammad was one of the liberators of history. It’s a pity that a small number of his followers are hell-bent, to use the expression literally, on poisoning their own water. I wouldn’t want Christianity judged by the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.
I offer my students a more sympathetic account of the mysticism of Islam than they are likely to get from the media at large. We visit mosques. On one occasion, an imam explained the beliefs of Islam, then quickly moved on to a range of herbal cosmetics and medicines which he was selling, clearly as part of a pyramid scheme. There was comfort in knowing that dodgy practices could cross religious boundaries.
Another mosque, in a northern suburb, occupied a former showroom on top of nondescript shops. It was so plain that, looking for a minaret or a dome shining in the sun, we were 20 minutes late. The imam spoke simply about the need for community and belonging and a moral structure for living, precisely the messages we try to impart to the students on our side of the tracks. Someone asked about ‘jihad’. The imam explained that it has nothing to do with violence.
The word means ‘struggle’. He hoped that all of us were engaged in the struggle to become the best people we could be. To achieve that, we needed both ancient wisdom and a contemporary community. It was important not to struggle against but to struggle with.
“Why do we have to take off our shoes?’ asked one student.
‘It shows respect. Respect is one of the crutches we need to help us learn reverence.’ It was an interesting image. ‘No one runs to God. We only get there on crutches.’
In another mosque, Sherene Hassan, the founder of Melbourne’s Islamic Museum of Australia, tells us that there are about 6200 verses in the Qur’an and less than a dozen suggest any kind of violence. Sometimes the Qur’an pacifies its biblical antecedents, such as in the way it retells the story of the world’s first murder, that of Abel by his brother Cain, an event that does not record history but, like so much in sacred texts, is more focused on creating a future. The Qur’an’s version ends with the words: ‘the one who kills a soul … it is as if he killed the whole of mankind.’
Imam Mehmet Salih Dogan told us about his journey from Turkey and how he was proud of the work his wife was doing as a midwife in the enormous public hospital just across the road from where his community was trying to build a new mosque. ‘She helps bring life into the world. That is what Islam is all about. Bringing life to the world.’
The imam introduced us to a year ten student from the local high school, a young man in a cheap tracksuit. He wore his baseball hat backwards. We had to remove our shoes, but hats were acceptable. This chap had already committed a third of the Qur’an to memory. In Arabic. It poured out of him as if it was too much for a single body to contain.
‘Wow,’ said Shaun, one of our group, seldom short of a word. ‘That’s incredible.’
The boy explained that the word Qur’an meant ‘recitation’: it is a work that doesn’t yield its magic on the page, but only in being heard aloud within a community. His life’s goal was to memorise the entire book.
The Prophet Muhammad could neither read nor write, a fact often mentioned to support the belief that the Qur’an is divinely inspired. A better proof, in my view, is not so much how a book was created as what it, in turn, creates. All of my students were struck dumb by the commitment of this young man to the Qur’an and to the Arabic well from which it was drawn. I was having a holy struggle of my own to get some of them to read the 50 small pages of Mark’s Gospel, let alone commit any of it to memory.
Modern education is prone to neglect the importance of memory. This does not mean rote learning. It means taking something important into the fabric of your being. People who have memorised great poetry will speak about this. So will actors who have performed Shakespeare and other major texts, as well as pianists and singers who have remembered breathtaking works. Such things shape the memory and in turn shape the person. The memory is like a muscle. It needs to do heavy lifting to gain its strength and power. The act of memory requires humility; you have to surrender yourself.
The great traditions of wisdom are inaccessible without it. Apps are handy. You can carry a thousand works of literature in your phone. But they will never be part of you.
The students always ask the same question. ‘Why do we have to remove our shoes?’ Shaun queried the imam.
‘Because when I smell your feet,’ he replied. ‘I know we share the same humanity.’
We all laughed.
‘And if we share the same humanity,’ he continued, ‘we can only share the same God.’
Michael McGirr is the bestselling author of Snooze: The Lost Art of Sleep, Bypass and Things You Get for Free. He has reviewed almost one thousand books for various newspapers; his short fiction has appeared in Australian and overseas publications; and he has been a publisher of Eureka Street and fiction editor at Meanjin.