On December 10th 2011, there was a blood-red lunar eclipse which was visible in parts of the northern hemisphere including eastern Asia. This is my commentary on the event as it relates to the Muslims I worked with in Afghanistan as a contractor linguist and taught English in my spare time.
When Fazli came to me to discuss the “Bad Sign,” at first I didn’t even realize what he was talking about. I’d noted the eclipse, chastised myself for not paying better attention to current events, and went on about my evening. He told me that this was a bad omen sent by God to warn people about their sinful ways. All manner of things happened during the time of an eclipse, and he spoke so fast that much of it was lost in translation, but the most poignant part was that families would mourn and pray for salvation on a night like this, and a baby born during an eclipse would need a goat sacrificed on its behalf. Fazli was incredibly nervous, but Ali was shaking, red-eyed, and nearly in tears over the event and asked to leave early to go pray. Among all the rest of the Afghans in the chow hall and around the barracks there was an aura of discontent, and I didn’t need to interview all of them to make sense of it. Even Najeeb half-heartedly assented to the superstitions, but I insisted he come to my class; he wanted to know what I thought, but I needed a white board to properly illustrate my explanation.
While there isn’t anything explicitly negative about the eclipse in the Quran, the Old Testament references the negative connotations associated with eclipses, and Old Testament tradition is such an inseparable part of Islam.
Joel 2:31-32 “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.”
Amos 8: 9 “And [in the end],” declares the Lord God, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.
Obviously the second verse is referring to a solar eclipse, but I use it to lead into my next point which is that I think what makes Asadullah and Najeeb so unique in my experiences here. They both are set apart from the rest of the Afghans with whom I’ve worked. Hajmal, Mohammad Ali, Najibullah, and others have all been exceptionally smart, but I question if they will ever have the depths of experience to build a bridge between our societies. Asadullah is well educated and as far as I can tell is filled with an innate curiosity that transcends the bonds of religion. Najeeb, while less educated has worked with the coalition for so long that we have simply rubbed off on him to the point that he trusts us to not lead him astray. They were the only two who attended my English class the night of the eclipse. Both asked me for my opinion, and after I drew a diagram on the white board, both seemed to accept the possibility that it was merely the earth blocking the light of the sun. I wasn’t trying to convince them. I was just passing off what I believed on the issue, and they felt it made more sense than the superstition they’d been brought up with. For both of them, it was an epiphany.
In societies such as Afghanistan, we cannot take for granted that the country as a whole can be capable of understanding our level of empiricism just as we may not be able to understand their level of superstition. This puts further burden on those who can understand fundamental approaches to religion as well as the complexities of Western science, economics, and politics. Whether they are Americans who have immersed themselves in this culture or Afghans who have worked alongside Americans for years at a time, they have the unique role of developing understanding between two different societies.
It’s not that I necessarily think that our empiricism is right or that their superstition is wrong. It’s that without some basic understanding of both, our worlds cannot coexist.