A Meditation on Robert Frost’s Birches

“Die now, Die now, in this love die; When you have died in this love, you will all receive new life./ Die now, die now, and do not fear this death, for you will come forth from this earth and seize the heavens.”- Rumi

The child of William Prescott Frost Jr. and Isabelle Frost, Robert was born in 1874 in San Fransisco.(Frostfriends.org) His mother “was a spiritual woman, who read to her children from the Bible and Scottish legend.”(Frostfriends.org) Robert Frost wrote his first poems while a student at Lawrence High School, and in 1913 published A Boy’s Will.(English.illinois.edu) His  third work “Mountain Interval, which appeared in November 1916, offered readers some of his finest poems, such as ‘Birches’”.(English.illinois.edu) “Birches” followed the format of a Greek ode, with a strophe (introduction of talking points), antistrophe (development of aforesaid talking points), and epode (a conclusion commenting on those talking points). Greek odes were a serious, stately, and elegant treatment of a subject (normally athletic achievement), and lends itself well to the topic Frost is dealing with. Fond of deep philosophical thinking and posing questions about the ‘eternal verities’, it is little wonder that he would use the somber format of a Greek ode for this particular poem. In the following lines we will look at the development of “Birches” (i.e. the talking points and final comments), as well as explore some of the meanings behind the poem in the context of the Greek ode.

To proceed, we find that the poem opens up with a description of birch trees bent “to left and right.”(line 1) This image of bowed deciduous hardwood trees, “associated with the Tír na nÓg, the land of the dead and the Sidhe, in Gaelic folklore, and as such frequently appear[ring] in Scottish, Irish, and English folksongs and ballads in association with death, or fairies, or returning from the grave,”(Facts) is juxtaposed by the description of a nameless mass of “straighter darker trees”(line 2) hovering, almost ominously, in the background. This mixture of contrasting images is developed throughout the poem and continues as the poet begins wistfully describing how he envisions a boy “swinging them”(line 3) as the cause for their bent forms, and refutes this notion in the next lines by stating “But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay./Ice-storms do that.”(lines 4-5) That is, despite the romantic notion that this is just the boisterous fun of children, something more serious is at work on the trees. As he draws the strophe to a close, he utilizes ironic imagery: “Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground/Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.”(lines 18-20) This incongruity between youthful males and females frolicking and the pale, bent forms of what must certainly be old trees, an apt metaphor for the elderly, as well as the vagaries of life as signified by the ice-storm is developed throughout the poem. The themes of death, life, tribulations, youth, and old age  seem to be the main topics he is developing as his ‘talking points’.

The theme of youth and old age persists in the antistrophe. But here youth’s benign, if a bit dangerous, amusements are depicted as lessons, a form of learning at the hands of the wizened birch tree. The notion that the tree is symbolic of an erudite teacher is added, while Truth (death) continues to hover in the background. Frost speaks of youth gaining experience from his carefree play, “conquer[ing]”(line 32) and “subdu[ing]”(line 28) these stately trees, while detailing in a jubilant manner the glee with which this same youth “flung outward, feet first, with a swish”(line 39) Interestingly, the joyous state of the boy in this daydream, if you will, is shaped in spite of the truth. As the Arab poet has said: ladū lil mat wabnū lil kharāb “beget for death and build […] for ruin” (Google Books) The ice-storm (reality, the vagaries of life, or death) has worn these trees, and us, down. He, and we, would prefer the wear and tear to be caused by the playing of boys, but “Truth broke in/with all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm”(lines 21-22) Reality, it would seem, cannot be covered up so easily no matter how much ṭamannī (fanciful wishing) is done. Life collects a tax from us all.

This idea that life is finite, and riddled with both joys and sorrows, is something an old poet stated while lamenting the fall of al-Andalus. An old poet possessing the agnomen, Abū Ṣāliḥ/Abū al-Baqā (d. 1285), writes: Fa Jāicu al-dahru anwācun munawwacatun wa liz zamāni musarrātun wa aḥzānu (The misfortunes of time are of varied types/Time possesses happinesses and sorrows).(Fiqh ul Islam) In the epode, Robert Frost openly states that he was “once […] a swinger of birches,”(line 41) but the vigor of youth has departed, replaced, as he says, by a desire “to get away from earth for a while.”(line 48) Why is this so? The preceding lines list the reasons. He tells us he is “weary”(line 43) then draws a metaphor for his state in an individual whose “one eye is weeping/From a twig’s having lashed across it open,”(lines 46-47) and whose “face burns and tickles.”(line 45) He states that “life is too much”(). Despite this, he does not wish for death, that great destroyer of opportunity. He would like to climb birches until he was near heaven and “the tree could bear no more.”(line )

A poet fond of deep philosophical, the format of the Greek odes, especially the Pindaric which is ”generally more tranquil and contemplative than the Pindaric ode,” lends itself well to the serious contemplation of mortality. (Poets.org) Within the lines of “Birches”, in particular the epode, Frost vividly depicts the vagaries of life, contrasting youthful energy and fearlessness with the sorrows of old age when navigating the forest has become a chore, and giving up seems like a very good idea. However, he adds that there is something that makes life worthwhile, that smooths over the weariness, and is a soothing balm to the burning face. What is this cure for the sojourner through this world? Love. For “Earth’s the right place for love,”(line 52) Here, it does not seem to refer to eros, philia, or storge, due to the references to heaven, and thus, I believe, Frost speaks of love for the Creator. This is the balm, though for some the realization only comes in later years.



Waves of Light

قال الله تعالى: و تلك الايام نداولها بين الناس

“And those are the times which We rotate among the people.”

(Sūrah Ālī cImrān, Āyah: 140)

We begin in the name of Allāh, the Mighty, to Whom belongs all praise, and Who gives dominion and power to whomsoever He wishes. We ask that He send blessings and mercy in abundance upon the leader of the Children of Ādam, and upon his family, his companions, and those who follow them in goodness until the Day of Judgement. 

One of the special characteristics of the Prophet ﷺ is that he was sent, not just to his people, or his family, but to every single human and jinn to come until the Day of Judgement. To this end, he trained his companions, may Allāh be pleased with them. Lit up with the nūr obtained from spending time with the beloved of Allāh, those blessed individuals went forth into the world in order to show humanity how to live in such a manner that would be of benefit to them in this temporary life as well as the everlasting one to come after death.

Fourteen years after the Prophet ﷺ migrated from Makkah to Madīna, Ribcīy ibn cĀmir, may Allāh be pleased with him, would inform Rustum:

“Allāh deputed us to bring out whomsoever He wishes from the worship of other slaves to the worship of Allāh, from the narrowness of the world to its vastness, and from the tyranny of other ways of life to the justice of Islām. Thus, He sent us with His dīn to His creation so that we would call them to Him.”

From the lands of the Persians and Romans, from France to China, from India to Italy, from Spain to Sumatra, spiritual and worldly benefit gushed forth as the radiance of Islām and the Muslims spread into the world. Deeply concerned with the worship of Allāh, they built masājid that were hubs in which worship took place alongside spiritual reformation and teaching.

Many of these old masājid, despite being far from the Kacbah, have been found to point towards the qiblah, something which is due, in part, to the Muslim’s development of Trigonometry, all of which was done in order to ensure they were praying in the correct direction no matter where they might find themselves. From their ranks emerged people of piety like Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, people of justice like Shurayḥ al-Qādhī, and brilliant minds like Abū Ḥanīfah (May Allāh have mercy on them all).


This same dispersal of benefit occurred when merchants and traveling scholars crossed the Sahara into West Africa, spreading Islām as they moved into Senegal and other areas of sub-Saharan Africa. During the course of their business transactions they impressed the inhabitants of West Africa by their manners and trustworthiness due to which many entered Islām. Furthermore, amongst those merchants were Muslims who were also learned, and when these individuals settled somewhere they would establish halaqah where they would teach Qur’ān, etc. and invite people to Islām; because of this Islām spread out from trading centers and cities into the more distant areas of West Africa.

These merchants intermarried with the local women, brought more culamā to teach, especially as the number of Muslims increased, and sponsored the best students amongst the locals to go study in the famous schools of North Africa and Egypt so that they would return to be the leaders in their land.

Amongst the states and lands which the merchants spread into was the kingdom of Ghana which Ibn Khaldūn says was the greatest kingdom they came across. The capital of this kingdom consisted of two cities [i.e. al-Ghābah and Kūmbī Ṣāliḥ] situated on the banks of a river. At its height, the Muslim section of this twin city would house imams, mu’adhdhin, as well as jurists and scholars. Within its walls sat twelve masājid, one of which was used for jumcah. Around the Muslim section were sweet wells which they drank from and used to water their crops. Houses made of bricks and the wood of the acacia tree occupied the six miles of intervening space between the two cities.

The non-Muslim section also possessed a masjid that was situated not too far from the king’s court of justice. Even though the king was a non-Muslim, his interpreters, the official in charge of his treasury, and majority of his ministers were Muslim. Along with this, the king had exempted the Muslims from the customary greeting of kneeling before him and throwing dirt on their heads as his other subjects did. Unfortunately, when the Ṣūṣū invaded a weakened Ghana in 1240 C.E. (circa 637/638 A.H.), the Muslims of that kingdom were forced to flee.


The Ṣūṣū under the leadership of Sumanguru (Soumangourou), would  in turn be defeated by the founder of the Empire of Mali, Mārī Jāṭah (the Lion King; Soun Diata Kéita). Though, Ibn Khaldūn does not mention whether Soun Diata Kéita was Muslim, he does state that the succeeding king, Mansā Wālī performed Ḥajj. The author of Masālik al-Abşār Fī Mamālīk al-Amşār described this new empire as the mightiest of the black Muslims dominions, the most vast in terms of land, the largest in terms of military, the wealthiest, the most beautiful, the most dominant over the enemy, and the most capable of distributing copious favors. At the height of its power, under the rule of Mansā Mūsā, this new dynasty would become so massive as to rival the kingdom of Ghana. Within the shadow of Malī’s just authority, which stretched to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, sat cities like Jenne, Gao, Niani, and Timbuktu.

Mansā Mūsā’s patronage of the culamā encouraged the growth of indigenous Muslim scholarship. The wealth of Islamic knowledge in Mālī can be highlighted by the following anecdote. On Mansā Mūsā’s return from ḥajj, there was an Arab scholar who accompanied him back to his empire and settled in Timbuktu, a place described in Tarīkh al-Sūdān as “the lodging place of the culamā and worshippers, the abode of the righteous and the ascetics”. This scholar found that the indigenous legal experts knew more than him, so he left for Fez, devoted himself to the study of law, and only then returned to settle once again in Timbuktu.

During that same pilgrimage to Makkah in the year 724 A.H. [circa 1324 C.E.], while in Egypt, Mansā Mūsā was asked how he acquired his empire. In reply, he mentioned that his predecessor did not believe the baḥr al-muḥīṭ (Atlantic Ocean) was uncrossable and had dispatched four hundred ships of men and supplies with an order not to return until they reached the other side. After a long time had passed, one ship returned, having been separated from the rest, whereupon Mansā Mūsā’s predecessor prepared two thousands ships and set out himself to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That Muslims had crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus, is also supported by the 1559 C.E. map of Ḥājī Aḥmad which details “surprisingly modern” shapes of North and South America.


Yesterday they were kings in their dwellings
And today they are slaves in the land of disbelief
-Sāliḥ Bin Sharīf Ar-Randī Al-Andalūsī

Despite assurances given to the Muslims who stayed behind after the fall of Andalūs that they would be able to retain their faith, serious attempts were made to suppress Islām in Spain, one edict going so far as to make it an offense to wear clothes cleaner than one’s normal clothes on Friday, face the east and say ‘bismillāh’, tie the leg of any livestock before slaughtering it, or abstain from eating things that weren’t slaughtered Islamically, amongst a number of other practices that were considered to be habits of Muslims. In the face of this and other horrific acts of oppression, the Muslims tried to pass the dīn on to their children in secret, and some even managed to reach America as soldiers, explorers, and laborers, where they began to openly practice their Islām and spread it amongst the Native Americans. The Grand Inquisitor of Spain is reported to have “complained that Islām was being practiced openly in the Americas, especially by Moriscos [i.e. Andalusian Muslims forced to accept Catholicism, and the descendants of such Muslims].” This movement of Muslims into the Americas continued with the trans-Atlantic slave trade which forcefully brought a conservative estimate of somewhere between 3-6 million Muslims to the Americas, and just like the preceding groups, these Muslims, some of whom where huffādh and culamā, continued to practice, and attempted to pass on, Islām.

Physical Revolt

In 1835 C.E., during one of the most visible Muslim uprisings, hundreds of enslaved Africans dressed in white with turbans on their heads revolted and took over the streets of Bahia, Brazil. When they were finally defeated and an investigation was launched, it was discovered that they had created masājid and schools, and were secretly teaching Islām, Arabic, and the Qur’ān to their youth and others. Pierre Verger considered this and other revolts to be “the direct repercussion of the warring events in Africa”, and claimed that Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio’s reformist movement “continued in Bahia in the form of slave revolts…”

In response to the barbarity perpetuated by the Atlantic slave trade in the power vacuum left by the fall of Songhay, the culamā became involved in combating the scourge of kings who were engaged in the slave trade. Roughly seventy-six years before the Emancipation Proclamation, two Tukulor culamā, Sulaymaaan Baal and Abdul-Qādir Kan, established an independent state in West Africa where the transportation of slaves was forbidden and slavery abolished.

One of the root causes of Shaykh Uthmān’s reform movements, and possibly that of al-Ḥajj cUmar Taal, was the trading of slaves. Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio’s Wathīqah lists a number of items which he claims were unlawful by consensus. One of those items was: “To enslave free men among Muslims, whether they reside in the domain of Islam or in the domain of war.” The Shaykh’s poem, Tabban Hakika, which his daughter, Shaykha Nana Asma’u translated to Hausa, also admonishes, “…do not enslave free men…”

Spiritual Revolt

A Qur’ān teacher from Guinea, Lamine Kebe, was kidnapped while traveling to purchase paper for his school where he taught between fifty-five to fifty-seven students. During interviews with an American of European descent, Lamine listed thirty books studied in the schools back home which covered topics such as Arabic grammar, fiqhhadīth, and aqīdah.  After three decades of slavery, he managed to return to West Africa in 1835.

Bilālī Muhammad, originally from Futa Jallon, was the leader of a community of Muslims on Georgia’s Sapello Island that included his wife, Fatima (Phoebe), and seven daughters. He is described as regularly wearing a fez and long coat; possessed a Qur’ān, dhikr beads, and a prayer mat, and wrote a 13 page manuscript in Arabic that reproduced parts of Ibn Abī Ẓayd al-Qayrawānī’s treatise on Mālikī fiqhal-Risālah. During the War of 1812, Thomas Spalding, the owner of the plantation, gave Muhammad eighty muskets to defend the island from the British, while he hid somewhere else. It is reported that at this time, Bilali Muhammad had told his master that he would, “answer for every Negro of the true faith,” but not for the Christian slaves.

Imām Yunus/John Mohammed Bath who was described as always appearing “in public in the dress of a Moslem priest” was the leader of the Free Mandingo of Trinidad, a group of Muslims who had brought their freedom and established schools in Port of Spain. This group’s numbers were bolstered around 1815 by members of an island near Sapelo where another Muslim named Salih Bilālī resided. May Allāh have mercy on them and the countless others who held onto Islām despite the obstacles. May He keep their descendants firm in His dīn, and return those who have been led astray.

America 1.2

Evening Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California) June 3, 1902

Aside from the Muslims forcibly brought to this country during this time, there were others who willingly came to America, and European Americans who were drawn to the light of Islām. Reverend Norman, a Methodist missionary to Constantinople whom Allāh blessed with hidāyah is one of them; he returned to America circa 1875 in order to spread Islām. Another example is the Reverend James Laurie Rodgers (d. 1902), may Allāh put light in his grave, the former pastor of Gonzales Baptist Church in Santa Cruz, California, who wrote a letter to an acquaintance in which he announced his acceptance of Islām and expressed concern that his burial should be conducted properly.

In 1888, President Cleveland’s Consular Representative to the Philippines, Alexander Russel Webb, his wife, and three children accepted Islām. Four years later, Muḥammad Alexander Russell Webb returned to America where he started the American Muslim Propagation Movement which at one point had a school, newspaper, and a number of study circles across the country; he was the only Muslim to give an official speech on Islam at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.


Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) Dec. 12, 1893

Commenting on the āyah of sūrah cĀlī Imrān in which Allāh mentions to the nearest meaning in English, “And those are the times which We rotate among the people,” Mufti Shafīc writes, “In this mortal world, the customary practice of Allah Almighty is to cause the days of hardship and ease, pain and comfort, suffering and peace [to] occur among people by turns. If, for some reason, a falsely motivated power succeeds in getting a short-lived upper hand, the group motivated by the truth should not lose heart and come to think that, from this point onwards, they are always doomed to nothing but defeat. Instead of taking this negative attitude, they should rather go find out the causes of that defeat, and once they have discovered those, they should take corrective measures and eliminate all possibilities of repeating those mistakes. In the end, the group motivated by the truth shall emerge as the ultimate victor.” The main reason behind studying history is to learn: where did past individuals acquire success so we can follow in their footsteps, and where did they go astray so we can avoid their mistakes. Ibn Mascūd, may Allāh be pleased with him, once said, “The fortunate individual is the one who takes a lesson from others.”


Abdullah Hakim Quick. Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean Before Columbus to the Present. (Check location): Ta-Ha Publishers, 1996.

cAbdullāh cAbdur-Raẓẓāq & Ibrāhīm Shawqī cAtallāh al-Jamal. Tārīkh al-Muslimūn Fī Afrīqiyyā Wa Mushkilātihim. Cairo: Dār al-Thaqāfah, 1996.

cAbdur-Raḥmān ibn cAbdullāh ibn cUmrān ibn cAmir. Tarīkh al-Sūdān. Paris: Librairie D’Amerique Et D’Orient, 1981.

Abū cUbayd al-Bakarī. Masālik Wa al-Mamālik. Qartāj: Dār al-Arabīyyah lil-Kitāb, 1992.

Allan D. Austin. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Carol Bargeron. Lecture notes for HIS 1121-03H Global History to 1500, Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, August 2015.

Cheikh Anta Diop. Precolonial Black Africa. Translated by Harold J. Salemson. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987.

Firas Alkhateeb. Lost Islamic History. N.P.: C hurst & Co. Pub. Ltd, 2016.

Ibn Khaldun. Tārīkh Ibn Khaldūn. Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 2000.

Ismācīl ibn cUmar ibn Kathīr. Bidāyah Wa al-Nihāyah. N.P.: Dār Hijr, 1997.

Ibraheem Sulaiman. The African Caliphate: The Life, Works and Teaching of Shaykh Usman Dan Fodlo (1754-1817). London: Diwan Press, 2009.

J. F. P. Hopkins, Nehemiah Levitzion, eds. Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Translated by J.F.P. Hopkins. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2000.

Muhammad Shafi. Maariful Quran. Translated: Muhammad Shamim. Editor: Muhammad Taqi Usmani. N.P. N.D.

Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Port in a Storm: A Fiqh Solution to the Qibla of North America. (Check Publication location): Wakeel Books, 2001.

Patrick D. Bowen. A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 1: White American Muslims before 1975. Boston: Brill, 2015.

Rāghib al-Surjānī. Qiṣṣah al-Andalūs. Cairo: Muassasah Iqra, 2011.

“Rev. J. L. Rodgers Found.” Evening Sentinel, June 3, 1902.

Robert Dannin. Black Pilgrimage to Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Rudolph T. Ware III. The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Shihābuddīn Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā. Masālik al-Abṣār Fī Mamālīk al-Amṣār. Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-cIlimiyyah, 2010.

Sylvan A. Diouf. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas.  N.Y.: New York University Press, 1998.

Toyin Falola. Key Events in African History: A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Umar F. Abd-Allah.  A Muslim in Victorian America: the life of Alexander Russell Webb. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Umar F. Abd-Allah. “Turks, Moors, & Moriscos in Early America: Sir Francis Drake’s Liberated Galley Slaves & the Lost Colony of Roanoke.” Nawawi Foundation (2010). http://www.nawawi.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/roots_of_islam_p1.pdf.

Realism in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

Realism in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

Realism with its emphasis on the ordinary, mundane life of the middle class and depiction of the individuals struggle for an ethical responses to life arose as an ‘-ism’ in “the period of time from the Civil War to the turn of the century” and may be considered a response to the rapid changes in society during that period.(Campbell) It is this idea of change and the question of how one should respond correctly to it that tinges Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt, who passed the bar in 1887, has written a story that is the quintessential expression of Realism.

Through his careful crafting of events and characters drawn from a historic incident, he manages to depict the horror of immoral responses and the monstrous consequences that ensue from the aforementioned. Set in the south, The Marrow of Tradition has as its main characters, not senators and congressman, but a doctor, a housewife, employees of a newspaper, etc. That is, it is set squarely in the mundane.  These characters are then depicted going about their daily life. We are witness to a birth. We watch as Tom Delamere woos Clara, and fights his gambling addiction. We see Dr. William Miller navigating the strictures of an unjust law as he returns from the North. Chesnutt drags his reader through the quotidian routine of Southern life, deliberately building up his “individuals” before confronting them with “the struggle for ethical responses to life”.

The climax of this novel may be said to be the riot, a fictionalized version of the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 in which a mob went on a rampage causing the death of between 6 to 100 people. The original riot, like the fictional one, is not squashed by the government. It runs its course under the raging power of ordinary citizens in the grip of unyielding prejudice. We then have three points of “life” in the novel. There is the first one, which is the riot itself, and then the response to the riot’s aftermath. The riot, itself, is a point in relation to the white Southerners who are faced with a choice between giving into the prejudices unleashed by Captain McBane and his co-conspirators or leaving the individual accountable for the individual. That is, they have a choice between seeing individuals as responsible for their own actions, or blaming an entire group. Chesnutt depicts them as having made the wrong choice at this critical point. They give into emotions and cast reason to the winds.

The second point is in relation to Dr. William Miller, who may be seen as a symbolic representative of a specific class of blacks, ones who have not had to bear the harsh sting of racism in the form of loved one lost and who may still hold a favorable opinion towards the whites. His test comes in his response to Major Carteret’s request to aid his child. Having just lost his own child to the blind fury of rampaging mob who share commonality with Major Carteret, should Dr. William rush to aid this child? Is it ethically wrong to run his back on an innocent babe in need? Chesnutt answers this question in a unique way, reinforcing the Realism in his novel. He, again, shows us a regular, middle class individual giving into his emotions.

Perhaps, had Chesnutt ended the novel there, on such a dark note, it would have been, at the very least, cathartic. However, still working within the framework set out by Realism, he adds a third point: the reunion of the sisters. Janet, having just lost her own child and having born humiliations at the hands of Clara, chooses to forgive her half-sister, and urges her husband, Dr. William, to save the child. Chesnutt anchors this response in reality, acknowledging the pain born by this woman while at the same time allowing her to take the high ground as he writes: “…that you may know that a woman may be foully wronged, and yet may have a heart to feel, even for one who has injured her…”(195) It may be worth noting that Chesnutt makes the character who takes the moral high ground, the one who makes the right and ethical decision, a woman. Perhaps, he is toying with Realism and stereotypical European ideas of womanhood in his time, or perhaps he is hinting that “masculine”, rather than chivalric, codes of revenge will tear the world in two, leaving its burnt husk for none to enjoy.

Islām in Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba

Islām in Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba

This paper will consider the historical account of Islam’s spread in West Africa, pedagogical structures, ritual worship, the social institute of marriage and the place of women. It concludes with a meditation on the need for an interdisciplinary approach to Tales of Amadou Koumba.

Islam in West Africa: A Nonviolent Model of Expansion?
The character Narr the Moor in “Fari the She-Ass” is a devout Muslim, but we are not supposed to be surprised or impressed by this “since it was his duty to show himself worthy of his ancestors who had introduced Islam into the country by force”.(B. Diop 99) Similarly, in “Mother Crocodile” we are told that Islām was  spread by a bloody sword when she speaks “of the red colour of the water after the passing of the white men, who had taught the black men to bow down like them to the rising sun…”(B. Diop 47) These apocryphal accounts of Islām’s dispersal in West Africa fly in the face of historical fact. Indeed, Cheikh Anta Diop attributes the success of Islam in West Africa to “the fact that it was propagated peacefully at first by solitary Arabo-Berber travelers”.(163) This paradigm is reinforced by Sylviane Diouf, who writes that “the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa followed a mostly peaceful and unobtrusive path… [being] diffused not by outsiders (except in the early years) but by indigenous traders, clerics, and rulers.”(4)

Preparatory to detailing this invasion-conversion model, Mother-Crocodile informs us of Ghanian merchants, past kings and a glorious empire, of ”Soumangourou… Soun Diata Kéita and… the empire of Mali”.(B. Diop, “Mother Crocodile” 47) One of the great Empires of West Africa was that of Mali, which had a great muslim ruler who deflated the value of gold in Egypt when he went for Ḥajj. Toyin Falola writes, “Under Mansa Musa (ca. 1312-37), Mali attained the height of its power … adding areas twice the size of the former kingdom of Ghana.”(95) Further, Stride and Ifeka credit Mansā Mūsā with being “responsible for establishing islam as the official religion of Mali cities,” and attributes his patronage of the culamā with encouraging the growth of indigenous Muslim scholarship.(52)

The Marabout: Pedagogical Structures in West Africa and Scholarship
In “The Deer and the Two Huntsmen” we are told of a marabout by the name of Serigne who “had a greater mastery of literary Arabic than any scholar of timbuktoo”(B. Diop 34). The task of preserving and disseminating knowledge (
cilm) in West Africa, as in the rest of the Muslim world, was the job of the culamā. Rudolph Ware III asserts that culamā was not the preferred term in West Africa and that a more widely used Arabic term was “mrābiṭ and its Europeanized equivalent, ‘marabout’”(78-79). The word mrābiṭ is derived from ribāṭ which has the meaning of being consistent in something, as well as guarding.(Ibn Manthūr 1561) Perhaps, this connotation is how the word mrābiṭ/marabout is to be understood. That is, these are individuals guarding the intellectual tradition of Islām, as well as its practical implementation.

In “The Deer and the Two Huntsmen” we are told of a marabout by the name of Serigne returning from Makkah who “had a greater mastery of literary Arabic than any scholar of timbuktoo”.(B. Diop 34) Timbuktu (timbuktoo), “the lodging place of the culamā (scholars) and worshippers, the abode of the righteous and the ascetics,” was the residence of “the elite amongst the culamā, pious people, and the wealthy from every tribe and land”.(Al-Sacdī 22) That Serigne is described as having more knowledge of literary Arabic than the inhabitants of this city is no small matter. Cheikh Anta Diop records the incident of an Arabian scholar who returned to Mali with Mansā Mūsā:  “He settled in Timbuktu and found this city full of Sudanese legal experts. As soon as he realized that they knew more than he in legal matters, he left for Fez, devoted himself to the study of law there, then returned again to Timbuktu to settle here.”(181)

We are further told that Serigne, who had just come back from Ḥajj, spent his time at his host “[intoning] litanies and verses of the Koran”.(B. Diop, “The Deer and The Hunstmen” 33) Serigne is a walking example of the verse: ata’murāun al-nās bi al-birr wa tansawna anfusakum wa antum tatlūn al-kitāb afalā ta
cqilūn [Do you command mankind with righteousness and forget your own selves, while you are reading the book, do you not have intellect?]. (Qur’ān 2:44) One exegete of the Qur’ān, Ibn Kathīr, records Ibn Juraij as saying about this āyah (verse), “So whoever commands good should be the severest of people in hastening to it.”(1:246)

We also find in Tales of Amadou Koumba references to the small schools scattered across the continent of Africa where foundational cilm was covered. These Qur’ān schools were run by marabout and attended by “little talibés… who beg their morning bread, their midday meal and their evening provender.”(B. Diop, “The Excuse” 27) The act of begging mentioned in “The Excuse” is termed “yalwaan (begging for food) [and] was an important part of the Qur’an school experience”(Ware III 46). Dorte Thornston writes that “education in Daaras often is free or almost free but implies that pupils –Talibés– may beg for alms”(3). Ware  III explains, “Because it was thought to produce humility and good character, yalwaan was esteemed by some teachers who did not require or even use the proceeds of the children’s quest for alms.”(47) Qur’ān schools were geared towards making functioning adults with upright morals and character.

“A Judgment” describes the importance which West African Muslims placed on their children’s education: “…in Maka-Kouli, as soon as a child could say to his mother, ‘Mama, carry me on your back,’ he was sent to school to learn the Fatiha and the other teachings of the Koran.”(B. Diop 13) This is little wonder, as one ḥadīth says: afdhalukum man tcallam al-qur’ān wa callama [the most virtuous of you are those who learn and teach the Qur’ān]. (Ibn Mājah 1:199)

Besides covering the Qur’ān, the curriculum also included “elementary education instruction in the obligatory rituals”(Reichmuth 424) Such studies would have covered basic beliefs, ritual purity, prayer, fasting, and other subjects. The concept of ritual purity is alluded to in “A Judgement”  when it describes the detrimental nature of dog’s urine which “if it touches the slightest part of the body…reduces the most fervent prayers to nothing.”(B. Diop 12) One of the preconditions of prayer (salāh), as opposed to ducā (supplication), is the body being free of ritual impurity which can take a corporeal form (e.g. urine, blood, wine, etc.) or be intangible.

Faith In Practice: Ritual Worship
One of the main pillars of Islām is ṣalāh (prayer). We can see this form of worship in several stories, though most clearly in “A Judgement”. In that story we are told of how Madiakate-Kala leads the faithful in prayer after the muadhdhin “had already launched the izan on to the evening wind”.(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 14) Congregational prayers in particular are proceeded by an ordinary individual calling out adhān (i.e. the call to prayer) to let everyone know that the time for prayer has entered. The particular prayer being described here is more than likely the
cAṣr prayer (the other prayers being, respectively: Maghrib, cIshā, Fajr, and Dhuhar). As is seen in  “A Judgement” the men pray together in the masjid, an act which is deemed to be more rewarding for them, whereas it is more rewarding for women to pray in their homes.

Another pillar, the Ḥajj is presented in “Fari the She-Ass” which informs us about a moor who “had departed on the pilgrimage to Mecca”.(B. Diop 101)  We are told that the story may have turned out better if the poor man had remained “for the rest of his days near to the Kaaba, to be closer to paradise”.(B. Diop, “Fari the She-Ass” 101) The Kaaba, which is a brick structure erected by the prophet Ibrāhim (Abraham), peace be upon him, in Mecca is the direction towards which Muslims are directed to face when performing prayer, just like they are asked to point the palms of their hands towards the sky while making ducā (supplicating), and is not strictly speaking consider to be closer to Paradise than any other place in the world.
In “The Bone” after Mor Lame is shrouded we find that “holy words were spoken” before he was “carried to the cemetery”.(B. Diop 133) Salāh in the graveyard is prohibited because it gives the impression that one is grave worshipping. The reference to holy words refers to the funeral ṣalāh prayed before the deceased is taken to be buried in which the congregants pray for forgiveness for the deceased and all Muslims. They then take the body to be buried and, as we are told in “The Bone”, put the body into the grave “lying on the right side”.(B. Diop 133)

The Institution of Marriage and Women
“A Judgement” deals with the case of a marriage that turns sour. It tells us of a husband who vents his ire at some outside problem on his wife, subtly critiquing this behavior by chastising the husband’s choice “to pass his annoyance on to his wife.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 9)  Marriage in Islām is not, to borrow a term,  a morganatic construct, by which I mean that it is not a union between people of unequal social status.

With his mind clouded by anger, Demba, the husband eventually “…began to beat Koumba…”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 9) Unsatisfied with physically abusing her, he utters the following words: ”Go back to your mother, I repudiate you.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 9) In Islamic jurisprudence, a man may not mentally, verbally, or physically abuse his wife. The ḥanafī madhab (i.e. the school of law founded by the Persian, Nucmān bin Thābit) takes the stance that this is grounds for a wife to annul the marriage.(Ibn cĀbidīn 6:131) This odious behavior of Demba’s exceeds the limits of Islamic decorum. He violates the aȳah of the Qur’ān which commands: wa cāshirūhunna bi al-macrūf [And live with them with macrūf].(4:19) Imām Tabrī (May Allāh have mercy on him) explains that this āyah means: “O Men, socialize with your women utilizing good manners…”(6:538)

Later, Koumba refuses to return to Demba when he comes to regret his rash actions and there is a distinct lack of social pressure compelling her to acquiesce to his demands. Furthermore, her apparent status as a divorcée has not caused her to drop in social standing, nor to be considered damaged goods, rather she is swarmed “by the many suitors who invaded her hut every evening, from the first day of her arrival.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 10) In this she resembles Awa, the widow in “The Bone” who is remarried soon after losing her husband. In these two episodes the  critique of a commonly held notion that Muslims prefer virgins is scathing.

Nevertheless, the legality of Koumba’s refusal eludes the village elders and the couple are sent off in search of a verdict. They eventually arrive in the village of Maka-Kouli. In this village ḥijāb (i.e. separation of marriageable members of the opposite sex) is practiced as proven by the following: “Koumba dined in the company of the women and Demba shared the men’s meal.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 13) Furthermore, when it comes time to sleep, Koumba refuses to join Demba because she does not consider herself his wife, and Madiakate-Kala staves off an argument, ordering one of his own wives, “Take Koumba to your hut with you…”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 13)

Recognizing the natural attraction of the sexes to one another and the ensuing harms that unmarried sexual relations bring to society, Islām has prohibited unnecessary interaction between members of the opposite sex, termed ghair maḥram, who can marry one another. Such individuals are the polar opposites of another category, labeled maḥārim (i.e. people whom one may never marry due to blood ties or marriage). This prohibition is one of the reasons why we see that the narrator informs us in “The Bone” that “[woman] do not accompany a burial to the cemetery, any more than they go into a Mosque.”(B. Diop 133) Such strictness does not, however, preclude interactions that occur due to some valid legal reason. An example of this is the interaction between Demba, Koumba, and Madiakate-Kiala.

As an aside, this story also highlights the practice of polygny. The priest, Madiakate-Kala has more than one wife and, it would appear that, in keeping with Islamic law, they have separate houses. The Islamic allowance to take up to four wives is qualified in the Qur’ān with a stipulation that one be just when it sternly states: fankiḥū mā ṭāba lakum min al-nisā’ mathnā wa thulātha wa rubac fa in khiftum allā tacdilū fa wāḥid […then marry what pleases you of women: two, and three, and four; but if you fear that you cannot be just, then one…]”(4:3) Additionally, this is not a command to marry up to nine wives, as Ibn Kathīr explains, “Marry whatever one of you wishes of women besides them; if one wishes two, and if one wishes three, and if one wishes four.”(1:598) That is, if the husband fulfills the conditions he can marry up to four women, but not more than that at one time.

To return to Koumba and her failed marriage, Madiakate-Kala tricks Demba into admitting that he has divorced his wife, thus allowing Koumba to move on to  a new phase detailed by Serigne-the-Marabout in “The Bone” when he states “As soon as the period of a widow’s mourning is over, you [i.e. Moussa] will take her [i.e. Awa] for your wife.”(B. Diop 134) Due to shortage of space and time the legality of giving away a matron without consulting her will be left to others. Nonethless, Serigne-the-Marabout is correct in delaying any marriage until after a certain period, termed an ciddah, has passed. The ciddah is defined as: “muddah manc al-nikāh li faskhihi aw li mawt al-ẓawj aw li ṭalāqihi [the period in which marriage is forbidden after its annulment or the death of the husband or his divorce]”(al-Ẓarqānī & al-Bunānī 4:354) This period does not include locking a woman in a room, and is only a period during which it is forbidden for her to marry, though suitors may make chaste hints of their intentions.

From the above we see that men and women have certain rights and responsibilities. We also see that Islām has a robust legal system derived from jurisprudential principles that take years to master. A grounding in the classical law schools is needed to understand and expound on certain legal aspects in the
Tales of Amadou Koumba. Furthermore, conflation of European models of expansion in pre-Colonial and Colonial Africa with the growth of Islam in West Africa will lead to the propagation of historic untruths. Readings of Tales of Amadou Koumba should be strongly rooted in the history of West Africa to avoid such interpolations. While acknowledging the painful truths of history, we should also celebrate the contributions of autochthonous Muslim laymen, scholars, and rulers to the social-intellectual health of the region.

Works Cited

cdī, cAbdur-Raḥmān ibn cAbdullāh ibn cUmrān ibn cĀmir. Tārīkh al-Sudān. Paris: Librairie D’Amerique Et D’Orient. 1981. Electronic.
Al-Ṭabrī, Abū Ja
cfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr. Tafsīr al-Ṭabrī. Ed. cAbdullāh ibn cAbdul-Ḥasan al-Turkī. Cairo: Dār al-Hijr. 2001. Electronic.
cAbdul-Bāqī ibn Yūsuf ibn Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad and al-Bunānī, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan ibn Masˇūd. Sharḥ al-Ẓarqānī cAlā Mukhtaṣar Sīdī Khalīl wa Macahu al-Fatḥ al-Rabbānī Fimā Dhahala cAnhu al-Ẓarqānī. Ed. cAbdus-Salām Muḥammad Amīn. 1st ed. Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-cIlimiyyah. 2002. Electronic.
Diop, Birago. “A Judgement.” Tales of Amadou Koumba. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. London: Oxford University Press. 1966. Print.
—“Dof-Diop.” Tales of Amadou Koumba. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. London: Oxford University Press. 1966. Print.
—“Fari the She-Ass.” Tales of Amadou Koumba. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. London: Oxford University Press. 1966. Print.
—“Mother Crocodile.” Tales of Amadou Koumba. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. London: Oxford University Press. 1966. Print.
—“The Bone.” Tales of Amadou Koumba. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. London: Oxford University Press. 1966. Print.
—“The Deer and The Two Huntsmen.” Tales of Amadou Koumba. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. London: Oxford University Press. 1966. Print.
—“The Excuse.” Tales of Amadou Koumba. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. London: Oxford University Press. 1966. Print.
Diop, Cheikh Anta. Precolonial Black Africa. Trans. Harold Salemson. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. 1987. Print.
Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas.New York: New York University Press. 1998. Print.
Falola, Toyin. Key Events in African History: A Reference Guide. 1st ed. Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 2002. Print.
cĀbdīn, Muḥammad Amīn. Rad al-Mukhtār cAlā Durr al-Mukhtār Sharḥ Tunwīr al-Abṣār. Ed. cĀdil Aḥmad cAbdul-Mawjūd and cAlī Muḥammad Mucawwidh. 1st ed. Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-cIlimiyyah. 1994. Electronic.
Ibn Kathīr, Abū al-Fadā Ismā
cīl ibn cUmar. Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-cAdhīm. Ed. Sāmī ibn Muḥammad al-Salāmah. 2nd ed. Riyadh: Dār Ṭaybah. 1999. Electronic
Ibn Mājah, Abū
cAbdullāh Muḥammad ibn Yaẓīd. Sunan Ibn Mājah. Ed. Bashhār cAwwāmah Macrūf. 1st ed. Lebanon: Dār al-Jīl.1998. Electronic.
Ibn Manthūr. Lisān al-
cArab. Ed. cAbdullāh Alī al-Kabīr, Muḥammad Aḥmad Ḥasballāh, and Hāshim Muḥammad al-Shādhalī. Cairo: Dar al-Ma’cārif. N.d. Electronic.
Quran. Karachi, Pakistan. N.P. 1994. Print.
Reichmuth, Stefan. “Islamic Education and Scholarship in Sub-Saharan Africa.” The History of Islam in Africa. Ed. Nehemia Levitzon and Randall L. Pouwels. 1st ed. Ohio: Ohio University Press. 2000. Print.
Shafi’, Muhammad. Ma’ariful-Quran.Trans. Muhammad Hasan Askari and Muhammad Shamim. N.p. N.d. Electronic.
Stride, G. T. and Ifeka, Caroline. Peoples and Empires of West Africa: West Africa in History 1000-1800. 1st ed. New York: Africana Publishing Corporation. 1971. Print.
“Sumanguru”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
Thorsen, Dorte. “Children Begging for Qur’ānic School Masters: Evidence from West and Central Africa.” Children Begging for Qur’ānic School Masters: Evidence from West and Central Africa. UNICEF, Apr. 2012. Electronic.
Ware III, Rudolph T. The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. 1st ed. The University of North Carolina Press. 2014. Print.

al-Sawād al-A’dham: Usāmah Ibn Zaid Ibn Ḥārithah

Usāmah Ibn Zaid Ibn Ḥārithah

“The beloved, son of the beloved.”

Usāmah Ibn Zayd Ibn Ḥārithah Ibn Sharāhīl al-Kalbī is the son of Zayd Ibn Hārithah, the Prophet’s freed slave and adopted son, and Umm Ayman, the Prophet’s freed slave and “mother after (his) mother”. He was born into Islam and was eighteen or twenty years old when the Prophet died. cUmar would honor him and treat him with deference, and gave preference to him, with respect to gifts, over his own son, cAbdullāh Ibn cUmar.

He removed himself from the fitnah after the murder of cUthmān and died in the latter portion of Mucāwiyah’s, may Allāh be pleased with him, khilāfah. He lived in Mizzāh, one of the districts of Damascus, Wādiy al-Qurrāh, and Madīnah where he died in the year fifty-three A.H.

Imām Dhahabī writes, “He was extremely black [in complexion], amiable, shrewd, and courageous. The Prophet raised him and loved him immensely. He was the son of the nurse of the Prophet , Umm Ayman, and his father was white[1]. The Prophet  was extremely happy at the statement of Mujaẓẓiẓ al-Mudlijīyyu: Certainly, these feet are related.”

Usāmah Ibn Ẓayd narrates that the Prophet used to take him and al-Ḥasan and say, “O Allāh, love them for, indeed, I love them.”

Ibn cUmar relates that the Prophet deputed a detachment and put Usāmah ibn Ẓayd over them. Some of the people disapproved of his leadership, so the Prophet said, “If you disapprove of his leadership, you disapproved of the leadership of his father before. By Allāh, [his father] was qualified to lead and was the most beloved of people to me, and this one [Usāmah] is the most beloved of people to me after him.”

cĀisha relates that the Messenger of Allāh came to see her once and was so happy that the features of his face were shining. He enquired, “Did you hear what al-Mudlijīyyu said to Ẓayd and Usāmah [when he saw their feet]? Certainly, these feet are related.”

cAbdullāh ibn Dinār reports that Ibn cUmar was in the masjid once when he saw a man in a corner of the masjid whose clothes were trailing on the ground. He asked, “Who is this? If only he were near me [so I could advise him].” Someone said, “O Abū cAbdur-Raḥmān, don’t you recognize this person? This is Muḥammad, the son of Usāmah.” At this, Ibn cUmar put his head down and struck the earth with his hand. After a while he said, “If the Messenger of Allāh saw him he would have loved him.”

[1] Imām Al-Dhahabī writes in Sīyar Aclām al-Nublā:

‭  ‬ثم‭ ‬إن‭ ‬العرب‭ ‬إذا‭ ‬قالت‭ ‬فلان‭ ‬أبيض‭ ‬فإنهم‭ ‬يريدون‭ ‬الحنطي‭ ‬اللون‭ ‬بحلية‭ ‬سوداء‭ ‬فإن‭ ‬كان‭ ‬في‭ ‬لون‭ ‬أهل‭ ‬الهند‭ ‬قالوا‭ ‬أسمر‭ ‬و‭ ‬آدم‭ ‬و‭ ‬إن‭ ‬كان‭ ‬في‭ ‬سواد‭ ‬التكرور‭ ‬قالوا‭ ‬أسود‭ ‬و‭ ‬كذا‭ ‬كل‭ ‬من‭ ‬غلب‭ ‬عليه‭ ‬السواد‭ ‬قالوا‭ ‬أسود‭ ‬أو‭ ‬شديد‭ ‬الأدمة‭ ‬و‭ ‬من‭ ‬ذلك‭ ‬قوله‭ ‬صلى‭ ‬الله‭ ‬عليه‭ ‬و‭ ‬سلم‭ ‬بعثت‭ ‬إلى‭ ‬الأحمر‭ ‬و‭ ‬الأسود‭ ‬فمعنى‭ ‬ذلك‭ ‬أن‭ ‬بني‭ ‬آدم‭ ‬لا‭ ‬ينفكون‭ ‬عن‭ ‬أحد‭ ‬الأمرين‭ ‬و‭ ‬كل‭ ‬لون‭ ‬بهذا‭ ‬الإعتبار‭ ‬يدور‭ ‬بين‭ ‬السواد‭ ‬و‭ ‬البياض‭ ‬الذي‭ ‬هو‭ ‬الحمرة

 “When the Arab says,’ So-and-so is abyaḍ (white),’ they mean a wheatish color embellished with black. If one were the complexion of the people of Hind (India) they would say, ‘Asmar and ādam (brown).’ and if they were black like the people of Takrūr (West Africa) they would say, ‘Aswad (black).’ Likewise, those who were overwhelmingly black would be called, ‘Aswad (black) or shadīd al-udmah (extremely brown).’ An example of this is his statement, ‘I was sent to the aḥmar and the aswad,’[Muslim #521] meaning that the children of Ādam are not free of one of these two. With this in mind, every complexion fluctuates between aswad, and biyāḍ, which is ḥumrah (red).” (2:168-169 of the Muassas al-Risālah print)

Tagore, Rabindranath. “The Conclusion,” in The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Trans. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. David Damrosch, ed. 1st edition. 2004.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “The Conclusion,” in The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Trans. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. David Damrosch, ed. 1st edition. 2004.

Like other colonies of Britain, India was left in a woeful mess. The psychological and physical scars left by years of colonialism can only be imagined by outsiders. This paper will attempt to take a peek at those scars and one individual’s manner of dealing with it through an exert of one of his works: ‘The Conclusion’. It will consider the social and quasi-political background of the author and ultimately the educational argument that rather glaringly leaps forth from the written word of Tagore’s writings when the historical background is considered, specifically as depicted by the couple described in the story.

Utilizing the “keys…[of] superior weaponry, a strong profit motive, and Eurocentric confidence[,]”(“Learn About British Rule in India“) Britain managed to subdue an entire nation with its own rich history spanning centuries. The author, Tagore, was born ”three years after Britain took over the government of India.”(949) That is, the Bengali, Tagore, was born three years after rumors, if we are to believe this explanation of events, “…that the cartridges [of the Indian Army] had been greased with pig and cow fat, an abomination to both major Indian religions [caused the “Indian Mutiny”, which was started by] mainly Bengali Muslim troops.”(“Learn About British Rule in India“)

After this mutiny, the British Raj started, and along with controlling the government of the Indians, Britain began “educating them in British modes of thought, and stamping out cultural practices…”(“Learn About British Rule in India“) Though Tagore “benefitted… from the early example of the Bengali reformer Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) who, offered an early synthesis of European enlightenment with brilliantly reinterpreted Hindu tradition[,]”(949) we find that “he found his outside formal schooling to be inferior and boring and, after a brief exposure to several schools, he refused to attend school.”(“Rabindranath Tagore on education“) One may well wonder what it was about the education system in India at the time that produced such a dislike. Shades of this dislike can be found in his work.

Briefly, The Conclusion is the story of Apurba Krishna, a hindu who has just passed his BA exams in Calcutta and no longer has an excuse for warding off marriage. Instead of marrying right away though, he goes to see the girl, a meeting that is disrupted by the village “pagali”, Mrinmayi, whom he finds intriguing. Upon returning home he announces his intention to marry this rebellious madwoman and digs in his heels in the face of his mother’s opposition. The marriage gets off to a rocky start, appears to smooth out when the couple visits Mrinmayi’s father, hits a roadblock once they return home, and then finally comes to a “blissful” end once Mrinmayi realizes she loves her husband.

The work itself cannot be mistaken for anything but Indian, steeped as it is in that culture. Mouth watering references to “rice pudding, curds, and rui fish,”(951) and “dal and rice”(956) flesh out a story punctured with descriptions of clothing that is distinctly Indian in name. Apurba sets out to see his bride-to-be, decked out not in his “usual dhoti and chadar”(951) but in a “long silken chaplain, a puggree on his head…”(951) and finds her “trembling…painted and polished, tinsel round the bun in her hair, and wrapped in a fine colourful sari…”(951)

However, there appears to be a certain subtext running underneath it. Considering the fact that Tagora disdained formal education, as we have mentioned earlier, it is impossible not to view Apurba’s refusal to marry until after passing his BA “in keeping with the slogan of the day”, as something viewed in a positive manner. This is compounded by the fact that instead of being a dutiful son, Apurba refuses to marry the woman picked out for him by his wise mother and chooses a “pagli”(950) tomboy “bone-burning good-for-nothing”(950) who, “[i]n the ranks of biddable children […,] was regarded as a scrouge(sic)”(950) and who had the village woman in “a constant state of alarm at her wayward behavior.”(950)  Clearly, cultural practices are being undermined by formal British education, it being assumed that Apurba would have dutifully submitted to his mother’s wishes had he not been polluted by outside influences.

It is rather noteworthy that these two mismatched people are Other in the face of an organic and wholesome social structure. They both stick out like sore thumbs. Apurba causes trouble in his family, arguably due to his formal education, while Mrinmayi’s agitation seems due to a lack of proper upbringing, her father’s utter fondness for her preventing “her mother from imposing too strict a discipline.”(950) Thus we see that Apruba’s descision to marry Mrinyamayi is not due to love, but due to a revulsion at his mother’s choice. “The more he thought of the dolled-up kind of girl, the more repulsive became the idea of marrying one.”(953) This choice of his, and here one may wonder if it was not caused by exaggerated romances studied during the course of gaining his BA, can be contrasted by Mrinyamayi’s response.

In spite of the fact that she is “mad”, and had orally refused to marry: “I’m not going to get married,”(953) we find that she does get married, and we are not led to believe that she did so because she was forced to, the picture having already been painted of a free-willed individual who will not bend. In fact, she runs away multiple times after she is married, however, and quite unlike Apurba, she takes her rightful place in society, becoming the epitome of her father’s words, “Let no one find fault with my Minu.”(956)

Thus we find that though Minu is Other she is redeemable, whereas no such indications are given in the case of Apurba. Certainly he comes to love Minu, but do we ever see him change from the arrogant man-child just returned from exams who finds fault with his mother’s match? Does he mature over the course of the story? It is hard to tell from this brief excerpt, but from what we are given, very little about him changes and he never appears to integrate fully back into society in spite of the impressive alphabet soup he is acquiring at the end of his name, and that, it would seem, is the problem Tagore has with formal education.

Works Cited

“Learn About British Rule in India.” About. Web. 8 Dec. 2014. <http://asianhistory.about.com/od/colonialisminasia/p/profbritraj.htm&gt;.

“Rabindranath Tagore on Education.” Infedorg. Web. 8 Dec. 2014. <http://infed.org/mobi/rabindranath-tagore-on-education/&gt;.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “The Conclusion.” The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Trans. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. 1st ed. Vol. E. N.p.: n.p., 2004. 949-60. Print.