I recently attended a conference for young adults and in one of the sessions was about the Quran. Now, I have my own opinions about the Quran (which I will write about once I safely return from Arabia in February), but there was one discussion that stood out to me. The discussion revolved around a particular work from Rumi; here is a translation by William C. Chittick:
The Qur’an is like a bride.
Although you pull the veil away from her face,
she does not show herself to you.
When you investigate the Qur’an,
but receive no joy or mystical unveiling,
it is because your pulling at the veil
has caused you to be rejected.
The Qur’an has deceived you
and shown itself as ugly.
“I am not a beautiful bride.”
It is able to show itself in any form it desires.
But if you stop pulling at its veil and seek its good pleasure;
if you water its field, serve it from afar
and strive in that which pleases it,
then it will show you its face
without any need for you to draw aside its veil.
As soon as I read this quote, my immediate thought was: this is priming. Priming, in oversimplified terms, is getting a reaction from a stimulus in order to get a similar reaction to a similar other stimulus. Here’s an example you can try. Say the following words quickly and out loud: ghost, most, host, coast, post, roast, boast. What do you put into a toaster?
This is an example of semantic priming: if you said toast, you were positively primed; if you hesitated but still said bread, you were negatively primed; and if you said bread without hesitating, you’re a liar. But priming doesn’t only make you forget what bread is. It’s commonly used to make you feel a certain way. Priming is often used in books and movies to elicit certain feelings. In fact, lots of humor involves priming for one stimulus and presented something completely different (it’s called bathos, and it doesn’t always work).
Priming can also have longer term effects. Repeated life experiences can affect your long-term, unconscious memory. This kind of priming relies on repetition: we repeated the “oast” sounds, in the example above. When this priming affects our behavior down the line, it’s called associative learning. If you’re not already familiar with the subject, check out this video to learn about it (I promise it’s interesting):
One of the most prominent uses of priming is in monster movies. Often times, the monster in a movie isn’t shown straight away, a practice called “monster delay”. The monster is definitely talked about, and sometimes parts of it are shown, but the entire monster doesn’t make an appearance until usually the climax of the movie. For example, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk is heard and talked about, and the results of its attacks are shown a lot. But the basilisk itself isn’t shown until Harry is in the Chamber at the end of the movie. Likewise, the Reavers in Firefly are talked about, and their destruction is shown, but we don’t see any Reavers until after the end of the entire show.
The reason movies do this (aside from lacking budget) is to prime the audience. By delaying the monster, movies can build up the requisite fear in those watching. They show off the results of the horror, or specific scary attributes, or most importantly: people being scared of the thing. Then, when they actually show the monster, the audience is already afraid of it, even if it the monster itself isn’t too scary.
Some movies, like Blair Witch Project stop there and don’t even show a monster; the audience’s imagination is already more terrifying than what they can put on the screen because your mind already knows all your fears.
back to the quote
Rumi describes a similar process of priming, but this time in regards to the Quran. For Rumi, the veil covers the beauty of the Quran and in movies, priming acts as a veil for the monster. If you show the monster straight away, or if you dive straight into the text of the Quran, you lose out on the joy and fear in the content. Rumi adds that if you try to pull away at that veil, you’re going to see something completely different from what’s “supposed to be” presented.
Horror movies are intended to be scary just like the Quran (according to Rumi) is intended to be beautiful. If you sit back and let the movie do the legwork (or “seek [the Quran] from afar”), you should be sufficiently scared (or pleased). Both of these are due to priming of the subject (i.e. you). The important part is: in order to get the intended result out of either of these, you need to immerse yourself in their world. If you’re unwilling to entertain the idea that aliens exist, then Mars Attacks! isn’t going to scar you as a kid (I’m not putting a picture from that movie). Likewise, if you don’t “strive in that which pleases [the Quran]” you’re not going to see its beauty.
And that’s the part I have difficulty with. Priming is an amazing tool for storytelling, but it’s also a great tool for lying. Priming affects people on a psychological level that most aren’t always aware of, and because of that it’s often used in manipulation. It can be as simple as getting someone to like you by literally being warm, or as nefarious as scamming people out of millions of dollars just by making them feel good. But just because it can be used for evil, does that mean that priming is bad in this case? Maybe that’s something to consider.
clowns are scary
Hot take! Coulrophobia made it onto the phobia list. Obviously, some people have had bad experiences with clowns, but probably not most people. In certain contexts, like IT, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (another childhood trauma of mine), or the great clown scares of 1981 and 2016, clowns are juxtaposed with a terrifying context. In those cases, we’re primed to be scared of clowns. But clowns are terrifying outside of this context, too. Because they have a singular expression painted on their faces, they fall into Freud’s “uncanny”, creeping out our subconscious.
The point is: whether primed or not, clowns are creepy. When the content and the context match, the priming serves to enhance the subject: e.g. when a scary thing is in scary context, the result is extra scary. But when the content doesn’t match the context, when it’s reframed, then I would argue priming is being used dishonestly. This brings us back to Rumi’s quote.
Rumi asserts that not priming an experience with the Quran would give a completely different result than if it was primed: “the Qur’an has deceived you/and shown itself as ugly”. My interpretation of this quote is that Rumi is saying that the Quran’s beauty doesn’t exist on its own; it’s only a product of the priming. The only way to see the beauty of the Quran, according to Rumi is “if you water its field, serve it from afar”, but not if “you investigate the Qur’an”. Rumi is explaining a case where priming is used dishonestly.
does the Quran stand on its own?
Before reading this quote at the conference, we were presented with a video where people talked about how beautiful they found the quran. They talked about the beauty of its calligraphy and how the recitation of the words moved them, emotionally. But very few (if any) mentioned the words of the Quran, especially the assertions that the book makes. They were praising the form, not the content.
As Muslims, we’re conditioned to view the Quran in a certain way and that affects how we interact with the text. As a child, I was taught (as I’m sure we all were) to treat the physical book itself with a certain amount of deference: wash your hands before touching it, keep it wrapped in cloth on the top shelf, don’t put it on the floor or even a normal table, etc. These rules were enforced paradigmatically: a primed behaviour of my parents that was passed on to us before even having a chance to engage with the text. I think, with this conditioned response, it would be difficult to view the Quran as anything other than beautiful.
But if one were to look at the Quran without the preconceived veneration Muslims tend to have toward it, Rumi describes that the Quran would “show herself” as something completely unworthy of the praise it often receives. And this demonstrates something about the Quran itself: it doesn’t stand on its own merits. According to Rumi, when you’re not primed to see beauty in the Quran, you won’t, implying that the beauty isn’t a product of the Quran, but of the mentality toward the Quran. If we pull back the veil of the Quran, what will we find?
but Rumi liked the Quran
Rumi loved the Quran. His main work, Masvai e Manavi (aka Masnavi) is referred to as the “Persian Quran” and features numerous explorations of the Quran, itself. Rumi has even said: “I am the servant of the Quran as long as I have life”. A new question arises: why would someone who holds the Quran in such high regard imply it may not be as beautiful as it’s thought to be? I’m not going to pretend to know the answer, but I’d like to bring up one more quote.
On the seeker’s path, wise men and fools are one.
In His love, brothers and strangers are one.
Go on! Drink the wine of the Beloved!
In that faith, Muslims and pagans are one.
The idea of “Muslims and pagans [being] one” in the eyes of God is one often expressed by Rumi (including in one of my favorite poems: “beyond disbelief and Islam, there is a place we reside…”) and is one of the reasons he’s so popular outside of the Muslim world. It’s also an idea that’s overtly contradicted by the Quran. This is only one example of Rumi’s writing contradicting what we know to be the Quran. So, I’m left to wonder: what did Rumi see when the veil opened for him?
Of course, like most of religion, this is a topic for personal exploration. Did Rumi simply drink the kool-aid, or is there more to this?