Peace, one and all..
‘Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding’ (3:190)
One of the most pleasurable aspects of Spring is being able to pray in my garden. After zuhr prayer this afternoon, I sat on the lawn (such as it is), taking pleasure in just sitting there amidst the peace and stillness. I was simply breathing, not thinking of anything in particular – a rare thing in itself.
As I sat there, I found my eyes drawn to a small plant, swaying gently in the breeze, with shadows dancing playfully on the tiny green leaves. I gradually became aware of a thought bubbling up from somewhere deep inside: the constant dance of light and shade is slowly nurturing this fragile plant. If there were too much sunlight, the plant would be exhausted before it had had a chance to fully mature. If there were too much shade, the plant would never grown forth from its seed. As I sat there, I suddenly realised that both light and shade are each, in their turn, an expression of mercy. Indeed, it is precisely this subtle balancing of energies that expresses this mercy most completely.
Interestingly, the following Quranic verses came to mind as these thoughts whirled around in my head:
‘He has raised up the sky. He has set the balance so that you may not exceed in the balance: weigh with justice and do not fall short in the balance’ (Surah al-Rahman, or the Chapter of the All-Merciful, 55:7-9; translated by M A S Abdel Haleem)
The balance (al-Mizan in Arabic) is thus established through and maintained by, justice (the word used in this context is qist). The root from which qist is derived conveys notions of equity, fairness, justice, fair distribution, correctness, balance and scale (source), all of which seem particularly relevant.
More broadly, the Islamic tradition understands justice as the ability to put things in their proper place, in the correct proportions, at the proper time. The balance of justice, which upholds all things, is thus exquisitely proportioned Divine mercy. It is God’s rahma (‘mercy’) that bestows the necessary energies for growth and transformation – in just the right amount, at just the right moment. That these verses should form a part of Surah al-Rahman is no coincidence it seems. Firstly, the entire chapter calls us to reflect deeply on the natural world, and the Divine Reality (Haqq) upholding it.
Secondly, the central refrain of this chapter runs thus: ‘Which, then, of your Lord’s blessings do you both deny?’ (first occurring in 55:13, and then throughout). In other words, we are called to respond to the natural world, and the One sustaining it. And, the appropriate response to this finely balanced mercy can only be gratitude. Thankfulness (shukr in Arabic) is the essential key by which these meanings are unlocked. Moreover, if we cannot deny this deeply embedded balance and appropriateness, we should therefore strive to embody it, to become it. Reflecting on the natural world is thus to reflect on God’s own ‘adab‘, so to speak. We are thus taught, albeit implicitly, to model this divine adab, to let it fill us and become us, all the while realising that it is God’s own action within us that makes such human balance possible.
al-Rahman, meaning approximately ‘the All-Merciful’, or ‘the Compassionate’, is one of the most important Divine Names. Interestingly, the surah begins with the proportion inherent in our own creation:
‘al-Rahman, taught the Quran, created man, and taught him eloquence’ (55:1-4)
The anfas al-Rahman (or ‘Breath of the All-Merciful’) is the life-giving spirit which causes all things to exist. The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said: ‘Do not curse the wind, for it derives from the Breath of the All-Merciful’ (quoted in William Chittick’s The Sufi Path of Knowledge, p.127).
If this is so in the physical world, it is also true in the spiritual world. Light and shade, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, are for our own inward growth, so that the rose-bush of the soul might also become like this small leaf. In the past, I imagined the darkness as a subversion of the universal order, but now I see that both are necessary. Both light and shadow are God-given; perhaps this is because duality is a necessary part of the physical universe. But, as I am learning, this duality is only apparent: it is only our limited perception that sees this way, dividing what is in fact an indivisible whole. In reality, this duality is an expression of a deeper unity – light and shade, and every other pairing of opposites, come from God, and both are held in exquisite balance by overflowing, transcendent rahma. Perhaps this is why, at this weekend’s retreat, as we spoke of the Divine Name al-Nur (the Light), I realised that this is not merely physical light, but the light of all things that shines in amidst the deepest ‘night’ of this world.
Here is a beautiful rendition of this wonderful surah, with accompanying text.
Surah al-Rahman, recited by al-Ghamdi
In closing, let me offer a beautiful quatrain of Mevlana, appropriately from this weekend’s Threshold Society retreat.
‘I am a mountain echoing the Friend.
I am a picture painted by the Beloved.
I am just a lock, but you hear His key turning.
Do you think any of these words are mine?’
(Quatrain 207, trans. Shaykh Kabir Helminski)
Adab Ya Rahman! Adab Ya Hu!
Update: 2krider’s blog has a wonderful post entitled: Adl vs Qist in Quranic Terminology