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The description of time in words, its discursive representation, is inextricable from the very notion of the experience of time. Since we can refer to time only via inference—for example, through pointing to movement or change of states in objects—all descriptions of time are enmeshed within modes of signification such as language. This axiomatic observation necessitates treating the texture of language employed to create time as an essential target while investigating temporality.

Since Islam for me is not a bounded object, I do not wish to posit an essential vocabulary that can be said to be common to all substantiations of Islam. However, certain ideas do make repeated appearances in many different contexts. Of these, I will focus on the notion of paradise to illustrate the overall significance of tropes within temporal descriptions.

Religious literatures describe paradise and hell as physical abodes where beings encounter extreme pleasure or pain. One’s condition within them is supposed to last forever, something contrary to the basic fact of incessant material change familiar from worldly existence. Pleasure and pain are relative states that register through their mutual differentiation. What would it mean to experience pleasure or pain on a perpetual basis, absent the variability that makes these sensations discernible?

It would seem that paradise and hell are powerful notions precisely because they interpolate between the ordinary and the exceptional. The two purported abodes are artifacts constituted by elements that appeal to readily understandable sensations and emotions. However, experiences that are expected to occur in them have been excerpted from the causal relations that lead to them under everyday circumstances. Experiences in paradise and hell are versions of reality denuded of temporal and spatial limitations that circumscribe ordinary existence.

In and of themselves, paradise and hell mark states of exception that stand apart from normal life experience. But in Islamic narratives, the overall complexes of the ideas these entities denote are also frequent points of reference for describing the very material world they are meant to transcend. Paradise, in particular, is a pervasive trope throughout premodern Islamic historiography and cosmography; for instance, words that refer to it appear in the titles of a plethora of works in these fields.

I use the word trope here to signify discursive moves in which meaning is created through displacement or deferral rather than direct equivalence. While “unreal” in the literal sense, paradise is a trope that runs the gamut of possibilities in terms of representation through verbal figuration. It is frequently used metaphorically—for example, “Isfahan is paradise”—conveying the enunciator’s intentions compactly but in a way that is irreducible to a simple logical statement. Paradise is also used allegorically, metonymically, in similes, and so on. Its presence in verbal gestures is apprehended readily by recipients because the concept is pervasive in Islamic expression.

City as Earthly Paradise

Literature from premodern Islamic societies includes a class of texts concerned with special qualities attributed to cities and regions. These local histories consist of historiographical and geographical information, often presented with the sense that the locations that are the works’ subjects surpass other places. Tropological invocation of paradise is a good fit for this genre since it conveys preeminence in an efficient way. As a major long-standing urban hub, Isfahan has been the subject of many works of local history, perhaps more so than any other city on the Iranian plateau. One early work of this type, likely written around the close of the eleventh century, is the Arabic Kitab Mahasin Isfahan by Mufaddal b. Saʿd Mafarrukhi-Isfahani. Paradisiacal themes make an appearance early in the work:

Isfahan is a city that God has exalted through the grant of a part of his highest support. He has given it an abundant share of His magnificent gifts, made its name famous in the listing of regions, and connected its ways to that of paradise. Nothing can be added to it: an excellent abode, consisting of a wide territory, fertile soil, pure clay, clement atmosphere, sweet water, clean dwellings, and pleasing inhabitants. Its existence encapsulates the essence of proportionality (Mafarrukhi-Isfahani, Kitab Mahasin Isfahan, 53).

While this statement invokes perfection in static terms, further on, the author provides a temporal connection through reference to the life of Muhammad. He indicates Isfahan’s significance by pointing out that it was the birthplace of Salman the Persian, a companion about whom the Prophet said, “I will be the foremost to enter Paradise among the Arabs, Salman will be foremost among the Persians, Suhayb among the Greeks, and Bilal among the Blacks” (Mafarrukhi-Isfahani, Kitab Mahasin Isfahan, 71). Salman’s purported birth in Isfahan is here presented as an event that ratifies the city’s moral affinity with paradise.

Mafarrukhi-Isfahani’s work became the subject of an adaptation and approximate translation into Persian more than two centuries after its inception. Husayn b. Muhammad b. Abi ar-Riza Avi’s Tarjama-yi Mahasin-i Isfahan, completed circa 1329, repeats material from its predecessor while adding more recent historical details as well as a substantial amount of Persian poetry that contains frequent references to paradise.

In one poem that he claims as his own composition, he describes the coming of spring in the city:

Look at Isfahan: an earthly paradise,
the abode of houris and the angel Rizvan.
Its life-giving proportions manifest spring,
delightful, fresh-faced, smiling.
The east wind comes bearing a message,
a portent of the start of Solomon’s kingship.
The court and palace of worldly power,
it has also become the abode of faith.
Navel of the world’s inhabited quarter,
pride of the face of the lord, the king.
On the pattern of revolving stars,
the garden is all lights, Saturn’s sphere.
Wherever there was sand, color has taken hold,
wherever a heap of ashes, flowers bloom.
Each one of its inhabitants has become Alexander.
Its Zendeh-Rud has become the water of life.
Jayy must be paradise! Otherwise, how come that
creation has become paradisiacal, its inhabitants angels?
(Avi, Tarjama-yi Mahasin-i Isfahan, 99–100)

Tropes are conceptual and verbal intermediaries that provide pathways for interrelationships between events and narratives. [They] are critical to the jump involved in going from the shared human experience of the world as phenomena to affectively meaningful descriptions.

These verses illustrate the work tropes do during the process of creating spatiotemporal descriptions. The author’s purpose is to describe spring, a transitory state that occurs and withers away on a cyclical basis. The poem states the word springonly once, the chief object of description being displaced by a succession of references that build the picture of time piece by piece. The opening and closing verses refer to paradise directly, while in the middle, metaphors, similes, and mythical references give depth to the portrayal.

Here Isfahan acquires a fresh face, receives a message from Solomon via the wind, and is described as the center of the inhabited world. The comparison then catapults to the heavens, properties of color, and the victorious destiny of everyone who belongs to the city. In the end, we have a composite literary work that uses superlatives and references to exceptional states to convey a rich sense for something unexceptional, the yearly arrival of spring.

Tropes such as paradise are ubiquitous within descriptions of time, a fact that argues for careful attention to the surfaces of texts for an adequate grasp of what they are intending to signify. Tropes used to represent time vary greatly between all the axes of diversity we can name, such as languages, genres, eras of production, religions, cultures, and social positioning. Their most basic function in this usage is to act as idealized constants in relation to which the ever-changing material world can be described.

Tropes are also crucial conceptual and verbal intermediaries that provide pathways for interrelationships between events and narratives. Geographical, historical, and poetic invocations of paradise to describe Isfahan that I have cited are all based on creating links between events encapsulated in moments and narratives of felicity pertaining to different aspects of life. Tropes are, then, critical to the jump involved in going from the shared human experience of the world as phenomena to affectively meaningful descriptions.

By this token, tropes such as paradise and hell embody narratives’ expressive drives as well as their ethical and political projections. Muhammad’s word contained in the inscription on the mihrab in Isfahan state that building a mosque on earth gets one a house in the otherworldly paradise. But it is equally significant that, as a trope, paradise is used to describe ordinary inhabitation in the city.

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