The notion of ‘modernity’ has been used to cover a multitude of complex, often very different phenomena over the last two hundred years. It has been applied for such divergent purposes that it has probably become more misleading than helpful, and we should be careful not to regard it as a criterion for distinguishing between positive and negative developments. One of the phenomena usually linked with modernity in the cultural sphere is the crisis of religions and growing scepticism towards the theological foundations of belief in God. Even if the questioning of traditional religious beliefs has never been as widespread as the social or technological phenomena of modernity, it has nonetheless been one of the most decisive factors of twentieth century intellectual life, not only in the West but also, albeit to a lesser degree, in the Islamic world. It is in this context that the work of Ali Ahmad Said Esber, known by the pen name Adonis, a naturalised Lebanese citizen born in the coastal region of northern Syria in 1930 and one of the Arab world’s most prominent poets, needs to be seen. Hardly any other modern Arab author tackles the crisis of the Divine as forthrightly as Adonis, who seeks to resolve the dilemmas spawned by this crisis through the means of poetry.
Although Adonis’ preoccupation with the Divine can be traced back to the early 1950s, it became the main thematic issue of his poetry in his famous collection The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene, published in Beirut in 1961. Expressed fifty-three times according to my count, the word Allah (and its derivations including rabb, Lord) is the most used proper noun in the volume.
The importance of the Divine and the superhuman is obvious from the opening pages. The protagonist, introduced in the grammatical third person but not yet named, is presented in the introductory Psalm – the title itself, of course, already hints at the religious dimension of this prose poem – in terms of qualities and characteristics which transcend the human. He is not only said to encompass opposites (he is the reality and its contrary, he is the life and its other), thereby escaping any definition, but has neither a bodily outward appearance (he has the shape of the wind) nor an ancestry (he has no ancestor and his roots are in his footsteps). Furthermore, he has abilities which are marked by power over life and death: He fills life and no one sees him. He whips it into foam and drowns in it, and, he scares and vivifies (…) he peels man like an onion.