We Can’t All Be Exceptional

Picture 12National Public Radio — yes, I’ve been listening to it while driving to work in the morning and yes, I do contribute — has started a year long series on what they’re simply calling sacred music — listen to the first installment here. It’s on an actor in Hollywood — Ben Youcef (pictured in the middle, above) — originally from Algeria, who is also a muezzin (one who calls other Muslims to prayer).

The article opens as follows:

Picture 11Apart from the curious way that one person is later quoted as asserting that a voice speaking words somehow transcends those very words — i.e., “‘When you hear a beautiful voice, it connects the soul to the divine in a way that words sometimes cannot do,’ says Jihad Turk, a friend of Ben Youcef’s and president of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school in Southern California…” — what connected with my ear was the indefinite article used in Youcef’s quote about what the call to prayer means.

For at least how I’ve always been taught, the adhan translates roughly as follows:

Allah is greatest.
I witness that none are worthy of worship except for Allah.
I witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah….

While I wouldn’t want to put too fine an edge on one’s choice of words in an interview, it has never seemed to me that, throughout much of Islam, Muhammad is understood to be just one among many messengers (what the indefinite article signifies). Yes, it is widely agreed that there had been prior prophets, but the definite article (i.e., the Messenger of Allah) in the translations of the article-less رسول (rasūl: messenger) that I’m familiar with carries a certain sort of weight — of culmination, finality, and exceptionalism — that is curiously absent when one bears witness to Muhammad being but a messenger of God. While the indefinite article is descriptively accurate, of course, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, non?

But perhaps such minor, yet no doubt loaded, tinkering with language — a strategic switch, if you will — is needed when one is trying (as the audio of the article ends) “to remain true to Islam” while pursuing a career in Hollywood (in which playing a terrorist is a sadly common gig for actors who, as they say, “look ethnic”) along with actively engaging in interfaith exercises with those who employ well-known exceptionalism rhetorics of their own. For if we’re going to invent the impression of some unified thing called Abrahamic religions, then each member of the threesome will need to make a few cosmetic adjustments — no doubt all depending to whom they are talking. For we can’t all be exceptional, at least not at the same time.

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