This weekend, I finished reading Amin Maalouf’s Gardens of Light, a historical novel that traces the life of Mani, a Third Century Persian prophet who preached what is today known as Manichaeism. With this book, I have completed reading all of Maalouf’s novels (save one). I have also decided to read only one more “Arab” writer and then move on to other regions.
In order from most favorite to least, here is a list of the Maalouf novels I have read:
- Leo Africanus
- Rock of Tanios
- Balthasar’s Odyssey
- Gardens ofight
- The First Century after Beatrice
- Ports of Call (still not read)
Maalouf’s novels are foremost concerned with the history of the Middle East and the interrelationships amongst the various religious and cultural groups that have populated the region. What is fascinating to see is how incredibly rich the region is with history and multiculturalism, and also how many of today’s problems in the area are simply vestiges of the past.
Living in Europe where everyone is constantly reminding me of how the US has no history compared to Europe, while reading Maalouf, I am reminded of what Gandhi said when asked of European civilization, “it sounds like a good idea” — meaning that European history was still very young in comparison to that of Asia. For example, if you check out this Map of 5000 Years of Middle Eastern History, you will get the feeling. Or even take a look at this this Map of the History of Religion to put things into perspective.
Back to Gardens of Light, as mentioned, Maalouf tells the story of the life and teachings of Mani, a very much forgotten religious teacher from the Third Century when new religious sects were spreading throughout Roman, Sassanian and Aksumites Empires and in India. Mani’s general philosophy was the unification of the major religions of the day (Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) based on their core principles, that darkness and light dually exist in all living things, and that the search for beauty is supreme. In many ways, Mani’s teachings (or at least as they are portrayed in the story) are too simplistic for my taste. But, I particularly liked the following quote from the story that, like Walter Kaufmann’s criticism of Christianity, reveals what I see as Christianity’s ultimate failure in terms of moral philosophy:
The one who imposes privations on himself in order to receive praises deserves no praise, for he is more vain than the man who lives the most debauched life. The sage fasts only in order to be closer to himself; he alone is the judge, he alone the witness. If you deprive yourself, do not do so to conform to the demands of a community, or out of fear of punishment, or even in hope of heaping up merits to turn to good account in the next world. Such reckonings are sordid in my eyes . . . My son, if you tell me one must do good for the sake of good, without expectation of reward, then your merit is even greater.”
That’s all for now, folks.