Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ishmael, a Man Between Religions

      “Call me Ishmael.” (Melville 1) This is perhaps the most famous sentence of any piece of American Literature and so I feel we must examine the question of why we should call our narrator Ishmael? There are actually six men named Ishmael in the Christian Bible.  A descendant listed in (1 Chronicles 9:44); the father of Zebadiah (2 Chronicles 19:11); one of the murderers of Gedaliah, the Babylonian governor over the remnant in Judah (2 Kings 25:25); and a priest who divorced his foreign wife (Ezra 10:22). So we know Ishmael is not an uncommon name; however, the most famous of any of these is the Ishmael of Genesis, the son of Abraham and Hagar (Genesis 16:3).  This Ishmael of Genesis is a central character in Western religion; he is present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and is a central turning point in the cultural history of Muslims and Jews and thus a figure in the division and unity of the West from the Middle Eastern, and in the commonplace from the exotic.
             The most famous Ishmael, of Genesis, is the byproduct of a promise God makes to Abraham in Genesis 12:2 where God said Abraham would be the father of a great nation. As Sarah, Abraham’s wife, remained barren she had him conceive a child with her hand-maiden or slave Hagar.  The fertility of Hagar while Sarah remained barren caused Sarah to despise her and Hagar fled only to be approached by an Angel of God who told her “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude… thou [art] with child,… and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction… And he will be a wild man... and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” (Genesis 16:1-13) When he was 13 years old Ishmael was circumcised as part of Abrahams covenant with God and again promised to be fruitful, this time also promised to beget 12 princes, like the 12 tribes of Isreal but the covenant would be with his half-brother Isaac. (Genesis 17) However, after Issac is born Sarah has Hagar and Ishmael thrown out of Abrahams house (Genesis 21:11-13).  Out in the wilderness of Beer-sheba the two soon ran out of water and Hagar wept. "And God heard the voice of the lad" and sent his angel to tell Hagar, "Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation." And God "opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water", from which she drew to save Ishmael's life and her own. "And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness."(Genesis 21:14-21) 
This story marks Hagar as one of the few women to receive a message from the Jewish God and yet the story of Ishmael and his decedents is one of strife with the Israelites. His son Kedar, father of the Qedarites, is according to tradition, the ancestor of Muhammad and the Quraysh tribe (Schaff 502) thus marking Ishmael as the father of the Muslims and Isaac the father of the Jews. Ishmael is mentioned over ten times in the Qur'an, often alongside other patriarchs and prophets of ancient times. He stands with Abraham to set up the Kaaba in Mecca as a place of monotheistic pilgrimage (II: 127-129) and Abraham thanks God for granting him Ishmael and Isaac in his old age (XIV: 35-41).  In Christianity on the other hand, in my experience Sarah’s lack of faith is condemned and Ishmael and his children considered a punishment to all Jews for attempting to manipulate the will of God.
The story of Ishmael’s birth, if not his purpose or calling, is one of the few points on which Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree.  I think this is an important point in Moby Dick as it is Ishmael that is comfortable between the two worlds of the heathen cannibal and Christianity.  He worships idols with Queequeg as the Biblical Ishmael’s Arab children worshiped idols and yet he himself is a Christian and claims to believe in the Biblical God as does his namesake. Despite his Christianity and his attempts to get Queequeg in church Ishmael does not insist on the correctness of his own beliefs over Queequeg’s but instead focusses on the unity of religions and the brotherhood of man.  He is a mid-ground between two if not three different religious worlds which more often than not view the others with suspicion if not open hostility.
Ishmael, unlike other men of his time period does not view Queequeg and his religion with suspicion but with curiosity, “Surely this was a touch of fine philosophy…I began to find myself mysteriously drawn toward him.”(Melvile 56-57)  He admits time and time again that Christianity is not the answer to all the world’s problems.  The line “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (Melvile 26) is one of his quotes that humanizes both cannibals and Christians, making both religions simply made of fallible and drunken men, instead of being made up of either good or evil as others would have seen them as.  This quote also makes an interesting point if we compare the foreign cannibalism with the foreign Islam as it is against the Muslim religion to consume alcohol (al-Maa’idah 5:90-91).  If alcohol more than cannibalism  makes an unsavory bed partner and the cannibal is compared to the Muslim than the cannibal is a better man than the Christian and that is indeed what seems to be shown throughout this novel with the heroics of Queequeg if not Fedallah.
The connection between Queequeg’s cannibalism and Islam is made several times throughout Moby Dick.  This is most obvious in chapter 17, which is titled “The Ramadan”. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and is known for being the Islamic month of fasting, in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex during daylight hours. Queequeg’s “Ramadan” is only a day and also seems to restrict movements and fluids and yet Ishmael calls the religious holiday Ramadan.  We assume Ishmael must know something of Muslim tradition or wish us to connect the two or he would have connected Queequeg’s practice with the early ascetic Gnostics or others Christians who practiced great restraint instead of Islam. Melville’s calling of Queequeg’s religious observance Ramadan is then not merely drawing a parallel but asking us to draw a comparison between the religion of Queequeg and the religion of Ishmael’s children, Islam and thus his role in unification of religious worlds.
Queequeg’s religion is again brought into comparison with Islam when Ishmael decides to be polite and to worship with Queequeg to the little idol and “salamed before him twice or thrice;” (Melville 58).  This salaaming goes against the first two commandments from the Christian bible, Thou shalt not have any other gods before me and thou shalt not bow down to any graven images. Ishmael considers it harmless as he does not actually believe in the little black idol but this is very clearly pagan act. The fact that respect for Yojo is represented as a Muslim salute is again drawing a connection not only between Queequeg and Muslims but also Ishmael and Islam as he is the one who is said to “salam” or salaam before the idol.
This use of salaam also redraws the connection of Ishmael as a unifying figure between religions as the salute which we call salaam or salaaming is named from the Arabic word salām which means "peace".  By accepting Queequegs religious observance and participating in these actions Ishmael shows us a new way to achieve peace and harmony between religions. What Ishmael is doing may be considered Idol worship to some but to him he is making peace respecting Queequeg by doing as Queequeg wishes. He is learning from other religions and cultures much as Queequeg originally tried to do with Christianity.
The name Ishmael is a compilation of two elements: The first part comes from the verb (shama) meaning to hear, listen, obey. The second part is (El), the common abbreviation of Elohim, the genus God. So “God that Hears” (Hitchcock) is a common translation as well as “He Will Hear God” (Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names).
Throughout the tale of Moby Dick Ishmael is exposed to many gods, the idol god of Queequeg, the oppressive god of Ahab, the Christian god of the Quakers, and the gods of the various crew men on the ship.  He seems to accept all and none of these gods as his own.  He claims himself a Presbyterian and yet bows to an idol.  He calls Fedallah a “fire worshiper” and relates that the crew thinks he is the devil but leaves him be and believes his prophesies or at least relates their meaning to us.  Ishmael does not have the fanatical adherence of the Quakers or the different beliefs of the foreign crewmen and yet he exists between all of them and at peace with them all.  He is among many religions but he seems to have no real classification.  Like the Ishmael of the Bible Ishmael partakes in many peoples religion but seems to not be true to any one religion.  His namesake was the son of Abraham yet not a Jew, his children the fathers of Islam yet he was before there time.  Yet despite both Ishmaels ambiguous religious stances the  Ishmael of Moby Dick’s role as the sole survivor of the ship means that we can perhaps infer that he, whatever combination of beliefs he holds, is the one who knows the truth.  As his namesake wondered through the wilderness and hears and is protected by the hand of God. Ishmael wanders and is protected perhaps because he is the one who has heard the voice and will of the real god.
As a blessed child of Abraham who fathered the Jews, and the ancestor of Muhammad who came down off the mountain an Ishmael is in a unique spot between gods and religions.  Melville uses this name and this connection to the Old Testament to pull us from our understanding of religions to a new understanding built on respect and peace in a world of violence and vengeance much like Old Testament times. A not quite, Christian and a not quite cannibal Ishmael brings us away from our accepted notions about what is right and wrong in religions; such as, showing respect for another’s gods and declares his actions correct in the eyes of whatever power exists by his very survival of the Prequod.

Hitchcock, Roswell D. "Entry for 'Ishmael'". "An Interpreting Dictionary of Scripture Proper Names". . New York, N.Y., 1869. (

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