Book Review: Master of the Jinn
An unearthly Sufi novel
by Ali Eteraz
Call him Ishaq. That is the name of the narrator in Irving Karchmar’s debut Sufi novel, “Master of the Jinn,” which has already been translated into twelve languages. The novel heralds the arrival of a fresh literary voice to Islam and America. It also signals the revival of Sufism, such that in addition to associating Sufism with the long-dead such as Rumi and Hafiz, we may now find cogent expositors of the ways of the heart in our midst today.
The premise of the book is astounding. A Sufi master in Jerusalem, to whom Ishaq is an apprentice, is paid a visit by an Israeli archaeologist, his daughter, and an Israeli intelligence officer who has been having something akin to paranormal visions. The officer, Captain Simach, is convinced that his visions are, in fact, actual events. He seems to be suggesting that in a far flung mission to the Sahara, he has come across the ring of the Jewish Prophet-King, Solomon. The archaeologist, Dr. Freeman, is unable to solve the matter using his scientific methods, and brings it before his friend, the Sufi Master.
The Master confirms that the ring is real; that it is imbued with immense mystical powers; and that it must be salvaged. He asks the three Israelis, accompanied by three of his apprentices, to go after the ring, and in the quest they are to be led by a beggar, who is as mysterious as Khizr, and equally cryptic. Prior to their departure, the Master reveals that Solomon’s ring was given to him by God, to command the spirits of smokeless fire, the Jinn. This revelation casts a certain fright over the group. As the chosen go to the desert, visions, dreams and painful memories enter their heart. They become humanized and vulnerable. In addition, they suffer unearthly storms, nights that don’t end, and temporal shifts. In the end they find themselves in a lost city and there the mystery of Solomon’s ring begins to be revealed to them, setting up a resolution of this magical-mythical-Islamic-Jewish mystery of such subtlety that it left me smiling. It is plausible to suggest that Karchmar has actually managed to lay before us what all others have simply suggested: the intertwined threads of theology and faith that link Judaism and Islam.
Although initially a bit off-putting due to a narratorial voice that’s more Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe), than anything post-modern, this Sufi novel is a subtle creation twelve years in the making. Not a novel; it is layered cake.
For the mystics and the metaphysicians, this story is, through and through, a meditation on Love, the mercy of God, and spiritual discipline. The Sufi Master speaks on matters of the soul with the authority that Zorba the Greek reserved for matters of lust. The journey can be read allegorically, and many secrets meanings may be unearthed in later reads. Occassionally Karchmar gives a hint of the matter being touched upon by dropping quotes from the poetry of innumerable Sufi poets. He also brings in quotations from Plato and the Psalms of David. These quotes were a favorite part of the experience.
The story can also be read as nothing more than an adventure. As such, it can make for interesting bed time reading for children and adults alike. The innocence of Karchmar’s writing (his characters sure do weep with joy a lot), suggests that perhaps that there is something important in the adventure worth analyzing.
However, in my opinion, this novel contains far more. I should like to posit that in an age where the primary association of Islam is with rage, Karchmar’s novel is a conscious counterbalance to the Zarqawis and al-Sadrs of the world. It seems no accident that the novel is set in Jerusalem, or that the chosen is a former agent of the Mossad (that bugaboo that haunts radical Islam), or that the archaeologist is a holocaust survivor, or that the star of David is a part of the mystery. Karchmar seems to be using theology to open doors. Bin Laden’s theology is one of banishment; Karchmar’s one of balance. One is put down our throats by way of Kalishinkov’s; Karchmar’s dribbles onto our hearts like cool spilled ink. Sufis are irrelevant outsiders in Islam? Seems to me that Karchmar has made them central.
There is an added social component in the novel: the modernization of Sufism. At the beginning of the 20th century, Muhammad Iqbal wrote Asrar-e-Khudi (The Secrets of Selflessness), a Sufi love poem which argued that negation (fana’), the longstanding obsession of the mystic, had to be replaced with affirmation (khudi). Without it, Sufism would become irrelevant in the modern world. Karchmar has taken that theory and done something with it. I dare not reveal what. His dervishes eat; rejoice; dance in order to laugh; they laugh in order to affirm; and they drive LandRovers. Yet his characters retain the characteristic humility, piety and likeability one associates with mystics.
I will go back again and again to hear Ishaq speak. At the moment my understanding of the adventure is of the zahir (external) components. I will read it again to find the batin (hidden). That assurance, that there is something beyond what we can’t see with our eyes, has always been Sufism’s calling card. In “The Master of the Jinn” that mystery is on every page.