Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Nerina Rustomji's "The Garden and the Fire"

Nerina Rustomji is assistant professor of history at St. John's University in Queens, New York. She recently received an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship and an American Council of Overseas Fellowship for work on female companionship in the Islamic afterworld.

She applied the “Page 99 Test”--Is Ford Madox Ford's statement "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you," accurate for your book?--to her new book, The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Culture, and reported the following:
The Islamic afterworld is a place where Muslims can live full, dynamic afterlives within the parameters of a physically described world. These otherworldly realms known as al-janna (literally the Garden) and al-nar (literally the Fire) were filled with objects, beings, and social realities that mirrored the best and worst of earthly life. In The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Culture, I analyze the material culture of the afterworld – green expanse, silk cushions, bricks of gold and silver, mortar of musk, soil of saffron, and myriad sort of infinite punishments, and I argue that while conceptions of heaven and hell began as doctrinal innovations in the seventh century C.E, they soon transformed into highly formalized ideals of perfection by the twelfth century. The book demonstrates that even otherworldly realms have histories that are shaped by Muslims’ ethical formulations, aesthetic sensibilities, religious reform, and unending impulse to contemplate the everlasting future.

Chapter 6, "Individualized Gardens and Expanding Fires," presents eschatological manuals (from the ninth to sixteenth centuries C.E.) that enhanced the dramatic quality of the Islamic afterworld by placing the apocalypse, the last judgment, and the descriptions of the Garden and the Fire within a narrative framework. The chapter addresses several mysteries presented in the previous chapters: when do houris or pure female companions overtake wives and families in the Garden? How do the class of demons and their punishments shift the notion of pain in the Fire? How much meaning is located in the architecture of adornment? While the chapter offers a crescendo, Page 99 simply introduces readers to the various kinds of eschatological manuals treated in the chapter. For the reader, it is necessary, basic material. Yet, when I look at the paragraphs, I am reminded of the many hours of pouring through manuals, many of which were not helpful. Simple paragraphs; lengthy process.

The book's expansive approach differs from the narrow list of titles on page 99. Even books about the grandest of topics depend on the most modest of paragraphs. So Ford Madox Ford’s odd mystic claim about the quality of the whole is not supported by pg. 99 of The Garden and the Fire. Sometimes pages simply do not reveal. Instead, they represent our sweat, our training, and take us along quietly to the next section where meaning may await.
Learn more about The Garden and the Fire at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue