Life of Pi

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I found this book very fascinating and interesting. For a college course, I wrote the following paper:

The State of Islam: Symbolism of The Algae Island

In Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, Pi, the multi-faith protagonist, comes upon a mysterious green algae island, as he is drifting in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean. Pi is delirious from lack of food and water. Perhaps, the island is a figment of his imagination – the readers cannot be certain. However, it is evident that the island is a symbol for Islam.

The mysterious floating Island is made from a thick web of green algae. Martel uses the color green, before Pi reaches the island, to suggest symbolism, as Pi says, “Green is the color of Islam. It is my favorite color” (Martel 257). An alga harvests the sun’s energy to produces an abundance of oxygen – more then any other plant. An alga also supports diet of many animals, just as it supports Pi and Richard Parker. Nevertheless, algae destroys habitats of marine life as its growth is unrestrained by the sunlight. In this case, the outer-wall of the algae is deliciously sweet and green in color (color of peace); the inner-wall is bitter and salty in taste and white in color (color of the divine or purity).

Martel sheds light on a debate within Islam by creating parallels with the algae structure. Islam’s Five Pillars come from ijtihad, independent judgment based on the teachings of the Quran. This principle has been a topic of debate – at great lengths – by Muslim scholars around the world for centuries. Some believe that ijtihad is open for Muslims (anyone who reads the Quran), while others disagree, and believe it was the duty of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions only. However, without the guidance of the Holy Quran, the debate becomes acidic and bitter, similar to the algae at night.  The Five Pillars (establish regular prayer; almsgiving; journey to Mecca; fasting; belief in one God) are guidelines of obedience to Allah for a peaceful and a happy life. While debating the origin of the Five Pillars by Islamic scholars (most knowledgeable about the divine’s message) becomes ‘acidic’ to the oneness of Muslims, and creates disagreement among them over their own faith.

Islam has many different factions, shaped by the Islamic scholars. Just as the tree barks are thin and smooth and easily marked by the nail, or the claws of the meerkats on the island. The trees on the algae island represent the individual factions. On every tree on the island, the leaves are large and broad, taste bitter, and end on a single point (Martel 261). The leaves are a symbolic representation of followers in the different factions within Islam. As the believers adhere to specific rules within the factions, differing slightly in beliefs from one another, they distort the message of Oneness of Islam – making Islam finite and restrictive in nature; however, they all believe in the same one God and Mohammad as the last prophet of Allah. The belief in Allah and Prophet Mohammed is the principle belief that all factions must have in common in order to be considered part of Islam. Therefore, they all end on a single point.

The roots are not independent (not rooted in soil), but are joined with the algae in a “give and take relationship” (Martel 264). Similarly, all factions are ‘rooted’ within the ultimate principles of oneness of Allah, Prophet Mohammad, and the Holly Quran. Therefore, they are part of Islam, but they defer in terms of ijtihad. Shias believe they are the direct-descendants of the Prophet Mohammad; ergo they are closer to divinity. On the other hand, Wahhabis believe in keeping themselves in a state of Islamic purity from Western influences; ergo they perceive they are closer to divinity. Consequently, the stronger they establish an exclusive identity, the farther they fall from the true principle of Oneness of Islam, or the ‘true divinity’. However close to divinity they perceive themselves to be, they are all part of Islam.  Thus, the trees that are closer to the center of the island are higher in acidity, as they receive less sunlight (divinity); the trees farther from inland are, “scraggly and not so uniformly developed as its mates” (Martell 260). Nevertheless, the trees are not independent, but part of the algae, as Pi indicates in his theory.

Martell also gives the meerkats many characteristics that suggest symbolic representation of human beings – in particular Muslims. He uses anthropomorphic traits for the meerkats, as Pi indicates; “Eyes sitting squarely in front of the face”; “non-retractable clause”; and “social in habit” (Martel 268). Also all of the meerkats climb up to the trees for safety, from the acidic algae at night, and “a group of meerkats will take a stance collectively” (Martel 265). Evidently through out the history of Islam, especially during the times of Prophet Mohammad, the Muslim ummah (community or nation) fought invaders collectively. Later on in history, during the religious crusades, Muslims stood united against the Roman Catholic Church to defend the Holy Land for an estimated 200 years. However, the sectarian violence such as, Iraq (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) war (1980-1988) and the current sectarian violence in post-Iraq war (2003), suggests that Muslims are turning to factions for safety. Today, Iraq is divided into cities that are occupied by specific factions. Transgression of these undrawn boundaries, a southern Shia in a northern Sunni city, would most likely lead to violence – sending an acidic image of Islam to the West.

Martel gives his point-of-view of Islam that he most likely observed in India, prior to the War on Terrorism. He saw signs of erosion within Islam; little did he know that a few years later, his acidic algae island would become a reality for over a billion people around the world. Unmistakably the acidic state of Islam today is not a delusion.

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