An Excerpt From
Many of my readers who know me in person are already quite aware of this particular, but for the benefit of those who do not know me I shall mention a significant fact about myself: I think literature is important. Now, whenever I say that to someone, they usually say something like, “Oh, I LOVE reading! I’ve read ALL of the Twilight books!” Here, an important distinction needs to be made between genre fiction and literary fiction, which, not being the purpose of this blog, I feel it best not to bog things down by going into detail over it. Instead, I encourage everyone to read this article, which breaks it down very well. Now, I’m not downplaying people that read genre fiction at all. These days, I’m happy if people read a friggin US Weekly, because people just don’t read anything anymore. I’m merely mentioning this point to clarify up front the type of literature that is important to me.
As an American Muslim, the importance of literary fiction (especially classical literature) is enhanced because, for one, I feel it is a sort of “English Language quality control.” If you really want to be able to master the English language, there is no way to do it without going through certain works of classic literature (think of it kinda like the pre-Islamic poetry, and how Arab linguists often study it to determine the structure of the Arabic language and the meaning of certain words). Obviously, as a Muslim who feels it is important to express my faith to the greater non-Muslim society that surrounds me (and to do so in the best manner), the benefits of enhancing my understanding of the language are obviously innumerable.
Another point that can be made in this same vein is that, in order for something to be considered “literature”, it has to do two primary things: 1) Grapple with complex issues faced by human beings, and 2) Do so in the highest level of understandable prose allowable. It is thus fairly obvious to me that a Muslim should feel completely at home shoving his or her nose in a work of classical literature because Muslims, at least in our “golden age“, excelled in philosophy, asking ourselves difficult questions, and coming up with difficult answers. By “reviving” literature, so to speak, the Muslims in the West would do themselves a great service on many fronts.
So, with all of that being said as an introduction, I thought I would share an amazing excerpt from the work of classical literature I’m currently reading.
The work is Moby Dick, the story of obsessive, vengeful whale-boat captain, Ahab, who is relentlessly pursuing the gigantic white whale that took his leg, crippling him (all of which is seen through the eyes of a deck hand, Ishmael, who is the narrator). It was published in 1851, and largely ignored until it was finally noticed by around 1917, and by 1920 was memorialized as the finest piece of American literature ever produced. As a disclaimer I would say I highly discourage people, if they’ve not accustomed themselves to classical literature, from diving into this book as their first foray. The language is incredibly advanced (some would say archaic, but I think that is a disservice to language), and the book is loaded with technical whaling information. Even people who love classical literature have been hesitant to give Moby Dick a go. But, if you’ve been “diving in” to classical literature for a while, then, by all means, man up and give Mr. Melville’s classic a chance (but don’t forget to bring your dictionary!).
At any rate, here is the passage, which I decided to post for no other reason than, simply, the language, the descriptions, the detail, the imagery, and the basic brilliance of the text. It is a small passage, but only in terms of length, if you understand my meaning. It is from the 51st chapter of the book, titled “The Spirit Spout” (referring to the spout at the top of the whale’s head that spurts out water):
“Days, weeks passed, and under easy sail, the ivory Pequod had slowly swept across four several cruising grounds; that off the Azores, off the Cape de Verdes, on the Plate (so called), being off the mouth of the Rio de la Plata; and the Carrol Ground, an unstaked, watery locality, southerly from St. Helena.
“It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. Fedallah first descried this jet. For of these moonlight nights, it was his wont to mount to the main mast-head, and stand a look-out there, with the same precision as if it had been day. And yet, though herds of whales were seen by night, not one whaleman in a hundred would venture lowering for them. You may think with what emotions, then, the seamen beheld this old Oriental, perched aloft at such unusual hours; his turban and the moon, companions in one sky. But when, after spending his uniform interval there for several successive nights without uttering a single sound; when after all this silence, his unearthly voice was heard announcing that silvery, moon-lit jet, every reclining mariner started to his feet as if some winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal crew. ‘There she blows!’ Had the trump of judgement blown, they could not have quivered more; yet still felt no terror; rather pleasure. For though it was a most unwonted hour, yet so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously exciting, that almost every soul on board instinctively desired a lowering.”
I could write on and on, ad infinitum, about the breathtaking beauty of the “silvery silence” that night on the sea as described here by Melville, about the metaphorical religious language (glittering god, celestial, trump of judgment, etc.) used in a scene in a book about a man (Ahab) frustrated with his fate (al-qadr, in Arabic), but I will leave much of the interpretation to you. I only wanted to give a brief introduction to English Literature, it’s importance and beauty, to my Muslim readers, and I hope I have succeeded at that task.