Peace, one and all…
In a well known and very interesting hadith, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:
“Made beloved to me from your world are women and perfume, and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer.” (Ahmad and An-Nasa ‘i)
Ever since I first encountered this tradition, I thought it was both beautiful and profound. I find it beautiful for several reasons. Firstly, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) speaks very movingly of the things he (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) finds beautiful. Secondly, it speaks against many of the common misconceptions of Islam – as being a faith set firmly against the autonomy of women. Thirdly, it gives me a very strong sense of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) as a man who loved women, enjoyed being with them and indeed, sought out their company.
As I was reading this tradition again recently, it struck me that we might also read this hadith in a more allegorical manner. However, before I do that, it is important to point out that this is not an attempt at exegesis. It is simply my own reaction to the Prophet’s (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) words. In that sense, it marks my attempts to think with the hadith. Therefore, whatever I say here should not be seen as authoritative. Rather, I am attempting to explore symbolic meanings – or, better yet, possible symbolic meanings (very much in the manner outlined in The Poetics of Religious Experience by Aziz Esmail: see this excerpt). If there is any truth in what I say, it has come from God. All else has come from my own misunderstandings.
When read allegorically, this hadith can also be understood as a description of our human process of encountering the other. The first thing to note in this regard is the phrase: ‘Made beloved to me from your world’. This reminds me that although the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is indelibly human, he is also part of another world entire. That is, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is the human recipient of the Divine Revelation contained in the Quran and so, in that sense, partakes of another realm. We might say that he (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) has already reached the goal (and travelled far, far beyond it): he is thus the symbol and metaphor of a perfected human being (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam). He (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is thus our role model in the long journey towards God.
It is interesting that the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) first refers to women. Our first entry into this strange world comes through a woman. The Quran has this to say:
‘We have enjoined on man kindness to his parents; in pain did his mother bear him, and in pain did she give him birth’ (46:15).
A woman, in most cases, raises us, nurtures us and teaches us love. In one way or another, every human being upon the face of the planet has had their lives affected, deeply and personally, by their mothers. To love women, and to love woman, is thus essential for any spiritual growth. In another profound statement, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:
A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father. (Bukhari, Muslim).
For men, in particular, the call to honour and love woman is also a call to honour and love what is other than themselves. In a direct, personal manner, it is an injunction to honour what is fundamentally different from maleness and from masculinity (however one might define it). On a deeper level, the call to honour the other, at the very beginning of human life, is a profound idea: it suggests, to me at least, that honouring the other is a fundamental part of living – so important, in fact, that we are forced to learn it from our first moments on earth.
The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) then refers to ‘perfume’. This reference lies behind the amazing use and diversity of perfumes in the Muslim world. Indeed, a visit to an Islamic bookshop is rarely complete with buying one or two small bottles of `Ittar. Why is perfume mentioned here? Or, to put it another way, what allegorical significance could perfume have? Well, it is worth remembering the provisional nature of these remarks. But, perhaps, it might have something to do with the nature of perfume itself. That is, we put on perfume to beautify ourselves, and to help ease away some of the less pleasant aspects of human nature. In the allegorical sense I am exploring here, perfume helps our interactions with the other. In a sense it is a form of social convention – the idea that some smells are better than others. That is, it speaks to the practice of relationship – in a metaphorical, as well as directly physical manner.
I would tentatively argue that adab (in the sense of being appropriate behaviour) is moral and behavioural perfume. To perfume our behaviour is to think about how the other might regard us, before we proceed. It is to understand the rights of others, as we consider our own course of action. On a deeper level, it is to help make the world created by our interactions as ‘sweet-smelling’ and as gentle as possible; it is to make the world more beautiful.
The last portion of this profound hadith states: ‘and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer’. The phrase ‘coolness of the eyes’ refers to something that brings a person joy and happiness, an easy sight amidst the heat of day (remember, the context for this is modern-day Saudi Arabia). In other words, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is saying that prayer is the thing that gives him the greatest amount of comfort, rest and refreshment in the entire world. Why? Well, mostly because the Quran commands Muslims to pray. But what does it mean to pray? Well, many Muslim conceptions of prayer see it in terms of appearing before a King, of presenting oneself before the King of the Universe (Malik al-Mulk). This is, of course, true. Allah is indeed al-Malik (the King). He is also al-Maalik (the Owner/Master).
On a deeper level, prayer is also an act of relationship; it is an orientation towards the Divine. I have offered a few thoughts on the Symbolism of Prayer elsewhere (see here as well). Suffice it to say here that prayer is about an ever-deepening opening out in the presence of God. When seen in relation to the rest of this hadith, perhaps we might say that true prayer (true opening to God) is the final stage of our eternal journey. As we struggle to pray, we continuously learn new things about ourselves and our relationship to God. Moreover, it is important to realise that we cannot approach God fully until we learn to approach our human relationships with love and honouring (with perfume in other words). Prayer is thus an encounter with the ultimate other, God.
And God knows best.
Related Link: Dar al-Masnavi