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Video Games and the Qur'an: A Sacred Cultural Exegesis

The Lost City of Iram. "Uncharted 3" Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment, 2011.

Have you not seen what your Lord had done through the people of 'Ad? Iram of the Pillars, the likes of which had never been created in all the lands!

Holy Qur'an (89:6-7)

Yes, we crossed deserts, suffered hunger and thirst, witnessed the burning fears of morning, frights of night and its tranquility before we saw the walls of the City of God ... Iram of the Pillars is a real city, existing through the beings of the mountains, forests, oceans and deserts.

Amina al-'Alawiyya in Khalil Gibran's Iram of the Pillars

All men dream ... but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity... But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.
Lawrence [of Arabia] said that if he were ever to go back to Arabia, it would be to search for this place he called 'The Atlantis of the Sands.' Now the legend crops us over and over again under different names - Ubar, Iram of the Pillars, the City of Brass... but the story is always the same.

Nathan Drake, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

A few years ago, divine grace placed me at the intersection of two cultural streams. The first was a short Arabic play by Khalil Gibran titled: Iram of the Pillars, in reference to the famous city mentioned in the Qur'an. In scripture, this is a city mythic in its luxuries that was built by the people of 'Ad. They had transgressed against God's rules, whence he had destroyed them through a searing desert wind. By consensus of Muslim scholars, the city of Iram is located somewhere in the Rub' al-Khali (The Empty Quarter), a desolate part of the Arabian desert covering areas of present day southern Saudi Arabia and Northern Yemen.

In the play, two characters, a Muslim dervish named Zayn al-'Abideen and a Christian wanderer Naguib meet in a mystical forest. The latter had heard about the veiled city of Iram and a lady-saint named Amina who had disappeared in the Empty Quarter as a child while accompanying her father's trade caravan. Five years later, she emerged as the enigmatic Amina al-'Alawiyya, a powerful mystic with the ability to see into the hearts of all who meet her.

The second cultural stream was Uncharted 3, the third installment in the brilliant video game series by Naughty Dog on the PlayStation 3. As in previous iterations, the protagonist Nathan Drake, who happens to be a descendant of the 16th century British sea captain and explorer, Sir Francis Drake, continues to trace the footsteps of his ancestor in hopes of discovering lost treasures and artifacts. In Uncharted 3, Nathan discovers that his great grandfather had stumbled upon a lost city in the desert somewhere in Yemen, known - among many names - as Iram of the Pillars.

There is a particularly poignant scene in Uncharted 3 where Nathan stumbles out of a falling airplane and parachutes into the Rub' al-Khali desert. He walks for what seems like an eternity, slowly becoming delirious from the searing heat and thirst. The designers of the game brilliantly conveyed the sense of impending doom through fading screens of intense light and darkness.

As I was experiencing this climactic journey in the southern Arabian desert vicariously through Drake's eyes, I immediately realized that this particular scene is essentially a performance of Amina al-'Alawiyya's own fictional journey in the same place, albeit in a different imaginative lens.

I then remembered my own visit to that mystic land in 2013, during an excursion to the sacred city of Tarim in present day Yemen. During the month of June, coinciding with the Islamic lunar month of Sha'ban, I accompanied the entire valley of Hadhramawt during their annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Prophet Hud, who according to the Qur'an and Islamic belief, was sent to the people of 'Ad.

Much of what I experienced at the shi'b nabi Hud (Quarters of Prophet Hud) was very similar to the portrayals in Uncharted 3 and Khalil Gibran's play: a searing heat and unforgiving weather mixed with a powerful spiritual presence and enigmatic surroundings. The land continues to give birth, in the present day, to countless saints like al-'Alawiyya. And, from my experience, this holy precinct also subjects you to a searing physical, mental and spiritual heat, until your veils are broken and you are able to witness the City of God.

My own journey, Nathan Drake's and Amina al-'Alawiyya's placed me at the threshold of the Qur'an, wherein Iram is mentioned and all of these experiences can be thought of as imaginative rivers flowing forth from the spring of God's Word. Through this tertiary cultural prism, a new understanding of the scriptural verses mentioned at the beginning of this blog came to me.

Whereas the common translation of the two verses from chapter 89, al-Fajr (The Dawn) is given as follows:

Have you not seen how your Lord had done with - read punished - 'Ad? Iram of the Pillars, the likes of which had not been created in all the lands.

I wondered if there could be a deeper interpretation where the mention of Iram is actually seen as a response to the preceding question. Then I realized, that the query presented in first verse can be read not as a reference to the punishment against 'Ad, but the city of Iram itself which God had built through this people.

In this alternate reading, the first verse becomes:

Have you not seen what your Lord had done/built through 'Ad? [He built] Iram of the Pillars, the likes of which had not been created in all the lands.

This was a truly sacred moment for me, where the Qur'an, God's Word, had engaged in a sacred conversation with Khalil Gibran and Uncharted 3, two brilliant artistic artifacts in contemporary culture. All the while, the Qur'an had also sanctified these cultural productions, and by extension, opened the possibility for worldly journeys to holy geographies, literature and video games to mingle together and become transformative experiences, propelling us into the sacred unseen.

This alternate understanding of the Qur'anic verse that had arrived to me as a result of this experience also embodies the spirit of sacred cultural translations at the heart of this post: by viewing Iram as a sacred city built by God through the hands of 'Ad, it becomes a sign of divine grace, not punishment. Similarly, video games like Uncharted and literary works like Khalil Gibran's play can also be transformed into sacred spaces, once we read them through the lens of scripture ... but with an eager heart.

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