[ by Charles Cameron — from the Iliad via hadith to Afghanistan, 2011 ]
Daniel Mendelsohn, Battle Lines: A slimmer, faster Iliad, in The New Yorker:
The August 22nd issue of Time featured, on its “Briefing” page, a quote from a grieving mother about her dead son. The mother’s name is Jan Brown, and her son, Kevin Houston, a Navy SEAL, was one of thirty-seven soldiers killed in a rocket attack in Afghanistan this past summer. What she said about him might shock some people, but will sound oddly familiar to anyone who has read the Iliad:
“He was born to do this job. If he could do it all over again and have a choice to have it happen the way it did or work at McDonald’s and live to be 104? He’d do it all over again.”
The Prophet, on the authority of Masruq, in Sahih Muslim, 4651:
The souls of the martyrs live in the bodies of green birds who have their nests in chandeliers hung from the throne of the Almighty. They eat the fruits of Paradise from wherever they like and then nestle in these chandeliers. Once their Lord cast a glance at them and said: Do ye want anything? They said: What more shall we desire? We eat the fruit of Paradise from wherever we like. Their Lord asked them the same question thrice. When they saw that they will continue to be asked and not left (without answering the question). they said: O Lord, we wish that Thou mayest return our souls to our bodies so that we may be slain in Thy way once again.
We sometimes think of the jihadist would-be martyr as motivated by the belief that paradisal life after death trumps this life and its shallow attractions. If the parallels I am seeing here between the theology of martyrdom in Islam, the heroism of the Iliad, and that of the Navy SEAL in Afghanistan do in fact represent a deeper current common to all three, it may be that we should also look at the reverse premise: that even the delights of paradise may be trumped by the exhilaration of battle in a righteous cause.
An ill-favoured thought — one quite possibly ill-favoured enough to be labeled “counter-intuitive” — but mine own.