Thursday, June 05, 2008

Barking up the Religious Tree

Bark from Skokie holds religious message, some Muslims say

Markings made by insects allegedly show 'Muhammad' in Arabic

Something about the sound of the tree bark hitting the ground caught Assad Busool's attention, compelling the Islamic scholar to pluck the wood fragment from the pavement in front of his Skokie home.

I'm sure. After the fact this guy thought about it and, yeah, it sounded different. How different? Why would it be different? So, from all the tree bark this guy has heard hit the ground, this time it sounded different. Please.

What he found written on it has caused a minor stir among some members of his Muslim community, who view the engraving as a divine reminder of the existence of God. The word "Muhammad"—or rather the Arabic for the Islamic prophet's name—had been carved into the bark by insects.

"I was astonished," said Busool, 69. "I said, 'What is the meaning of this?' I have a holy tree in my yard."

Assad, I'm astonished too. Why couldn't this be a coincidence? Why can't you be muslim AND think this is a coincidence? Would any reasonable person be they muslim or not conclude that this 'writing' was divine?

Like Catholics who claim to have seen images of the Virgin Mary, some Muslims in Busool's community are interpreting the markings on the 14-inch-long bark chip as a sign from heaven, even though, like visages of Mary, it is mixed with other markings that open it to other interpretations.

"It's crystal clear, it says Muhammad," said Andala Mbengue, a cabdriver from Senegal who saw the wood after Friday prayers at the American Islamic College on Irving Park Road in Chicago. "Allah is always putting himself out there. Sometimes people ignore it, but he's always showing us signs."

I love this. These supernatural beings are omnipotent and decide to give us a message on overpass walls and INSIDE tree bark. Wow, that is subtle. As to the writing itself, would a disinterested observer conclude that the pattern on the bark matched the Arabic writing below? To me the two only look vaguely close. You have want this to be Muhammad to see Muhammad in the bark.

Sani Umar, a professor of religion at Northwestern University, said some sects within Islam would treat such findings with great skepticism. Other Muslim societies might be more accepting of the phenomena, he said. The most conservative sects would dismiss the sightings.

Not everyone greeted news of the bark chip with Busool's level of enthusiasm.

Unlike the tribune that publishes this crap every time it happens! It's like covering ground hog day!

Dr. Muhammad Sahloul, a physician and president of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, said mainstream Muslims "don't tend to overestimate the significance of these things."

And a colleague of Busool's at the Islamic college said he didn't see the word Muhammad the first time he looked at the bark.

"I guess it depends on how you look at it," said Ghulam Haider Aasi, chair of the Islamic Studies Department.

Of course it does. How do you even know you are looking at it right side up? Not to mention by what mechanism Alla would get the worms to do their work. I know - by magic.

While the Virgin Mary has allegedly appeared in towns such as Lourdes, France, and more recently as an image on the Fullerton Street underpass of the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, apparitions in Islam are typically in Arabic script, not human form, which is forbidden by Islam, scholars said.

What such sightings mean depends on a person's religion, experts said.

Catholics, for example, might interpret a manifestation of Mary as a rebuke of the modern world or an expression of sorrow at the state of the church, said Robert Orsi, a religion professor at Northwestern. But scholars of Islam said some Muslims would view such apparitions as mystical reminders that God is everywhere in nature, in the setting sun, in the clouds, in a blade of grass.

Look, if a 'sign' has to be interpreted maybe it's not from a higher being but just a natural phenomena. If an all powerful being wanted to communicate with us why not send an un-ambiguous sign? Rearrange the stars to spell Go CUBS. Vaporize all the water on the planet and then put it back. Turn Dick Chaney into a donkey. Something like that.

"Nature is a scripture that has to be read," said Ali Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim languages and cultures at Harvard University. "So you find these phenomena in different Muslim societies, of people finding the name of God written on things."

In Kenya, Muslim farmers noticed the brown splotches on a newborn calf spelled "Allah," the Arabic word for God, Asani said. In Australia, Muslims found a tree inscribed with the same word. And in Senegal, a Frenchman caught a fish with markings that said "Muhammad" and another fish was found in Liverpool, England, marked with "Allah."

People find the name of god because they are looking for it. A critical observer just sees scratches. . . which is what they are. Me? I want a religion that is a little more upscale than showing up in 'brown splotches'.

How about this for a sign: I look around the universe and test this and test that. I find that every test so far shows the universe to completely reasonable and testable with no phenomena that need magic to explain it. Can I be in the newspaper too?

"The idea behind this is that God manifests himself in nature, and thus these phenomena are taken as objective proofs of his existence—and, by extension, the veracity of the religion of Islam," said Ruediger Seesemann, a professor of religious studies at Northwestern.

Busool, a Sunni Muslim and Islamic judge who rules on family matters, cites a verse in the Quran, Islam's holy book, to explain why insects might cut lines in wood to spell the word Muhammad. The verse teaches that every living being on Earth sings the praises of God in languages human beings can't understand, he said.

"They don't know Arabic. To eat the inside of the branch and make that writing, it's guidance from God, of course," said Busool, who assumed the insects were termites. (Local experts said the markings were more likely made by wood borers.) "The termites were worshiping God," Busool said.

Busool sees the hand of God in much of the tree's story. Last year, he considered chopping the tree down but held off after a Skokie employee determined it was healthy. Then, a few days before Memorial Day, he was watching squirrels run up the tree when he heard the bark fall with a loud crack—as though God were trying to get his attention, he said.

"I've never heard a branch make that much noise," Busool said.

I want to scream. Yeah, in all your branch listening experience. Idiot.

His wife, Ann, a Christian who doesn't read Arabic, said she hoped the bark chip might portend good fortune.

"Either we have some very intelligent termites out there or something else is going on—some kind of omen or wish," she said.

come on keep going: . . . or its just scratches and I'm putting what I want to believe on top of it.

For now, Busool has placed the bark in a plastic bag and enclosed it in a red felt box given to him by a friend. He bought a glass case for it, but still carries the wood in his briefcase wherever he goes, his wife said. So far, he has shown it to a couple dozen people at the Muslim Community Center on Elston Avenue, where he sits on the board.

OK, this guy is under educated an overly religious. Fine. But I wish this crap didn't make the papers every time it happened. It's the weight of stories like this one, the astrology section (of every paper), TV shows like Charmed and the like all together cause a background of belief that there must be something magical out there. Could be religion. Could be fortune tellers but something. The truth is that there is no evidence of ANYTHING magical in our world. There is no reason to interpret natural happenings as having divine origins until that is the only thing left to conclude. For the believers though it is not the last thing. It is always the first thing.