Peace, one and all…
I wasn’t able to post yesterday’s reading from Ibn Ata’illah. So, here it is today.
Only the contemplation of His Attribute
can dislodge you from your attribute.
Humility is realising our weakness, our poverty, in the face of His strength, His infinite richness and profundity. We can, and should, strive to be humble, to realise our own human frailty, and yet this always seems to lead us back to Him, as if we were naught but a mirror to reflect His face. Understanding that every attribute I possess is, in deep reality, His is helpful and liberating. I experience it as a kind of folding, in which my poverty and His strength move and shift and dance, like waves in the ocean. Contemplating in this way is very beautiful.
Peace, one and all…
A fascinating exploration of the opening chapter of the Quran.
Surah al-Fatihah (Sahih International translation)
In the name of Allah , the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.
[All] praise is [due] to Allah , Lord of the worlds –
The Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful,
Sovereign of the Day of Recompense.
It is You we worship and You we ask for help.
Guide us to the straight path –
The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor,
not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray.
Peace, one and all…
In his eighth counsel, Meister Eckhart explores the need for zeal.
Counsel 8: Of constant zeal for the highest growth
A man should never be so satisfied with what he does or accomplish it in such a way that he becomes so independent or overconfident in his works that his reason becomes idle or lulled to sleep. He ought always to lift himself up by the two powers of reason and will, and in this to grasp at what is best of all for him in the highest degree, and outwardly and inwardly to guard prudently against everything that could harm him. So in all things he will lack nothing, but he will grow constantly and mightily.
Peace, one and all…
In recent posts, our readings have begun to focus on the question of will (Kabir Dede on the Will; Meister Eckhart: Counsels on Discernment 3). This question is also brought to the fore in our current portion of the Evrad-i Serif.
Our readings are all drawn from the Quran, and although these verses explore the question of will in interesting and forceful ways, it is their particular arrangement that is especially noteworthy.
Our present portion opens thus:
‘Had We sent down this Quran on a mountain, truly, you would have seen it humble itself and break apart out of awe of God. Such are the parables We offer to human beings, so that they might reflect.
God is He other than whom there is no god; the One who knows what is hidden and what is manifest, as well as all that can be witnessed by a creature’s senses or mind: Hu, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Infinitely Merciful.
God is He other than whom there is no deity: the Supreme Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace, the Inspirer of Faith, the Preserver of Security, the Exalted in Might, the One who subdues wrong and restores right, the One to whom all greatness belongs! Utterly remote is God, in limitless glory, from anything to which people may ascribe a share in His divinity!
Hu is God, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of form! To Hu belong the Most Beautiful Names. All that is in the heavens and on earth declares His praises and glory: for He is the Exalted in Might, the All-Wise!
(Surah al-Hashr 59:21-24. You can listen to a beautiful recitation of these verses below)
These verses declare the infinite and incomparable majesty of God, in forceful and evocative terms. All power, authority, knowledge and beauty belong solely to Him: anything we possess is given to us by Him, and is effectively on loan to us. Even though we may possess beauty or knowledge or power, it is always and in each instance His. Thus, our will to power, to learn and to perceive beauty are really His. In a strange, paradoxical way the more we understand our abilities as belonging to Him, the more fully ‘ours’ they become. Or, perhaps, the more clearly we understand His absolute ownership, the more authentically we can enter into our own partial occupancy, our own derivative ownership. The more we fully we realise our own weakness, the more fully we can enter into His strength. The more we are able to take back our own projections, and the more fully we are able to let Him be God, the more human we are able to be.
Ibn Arabi makes this clear throughout his writings. This example is particularly instructive:
‘Your attributes are His. Without doubt, your appearance is His appearance. What is in you is in Him. Your before is His Before; your after is His After; your essence is His essence – without Him entering into you or you entering in Him, for ‘Everything is perishing but His Face’ (Surah al-Qasas 28:88)’ (Ibn Arabi, Kitab al-Ahadiyyah)
The Evrad then explores this strange paradox by offering these subsequent verses:
‘And to everyone who is conscious of God, God always prepares a way of emergence,
and provides for him/her in ways he/she could never imagine; and for everyone who places trust in God, God is sufficient. For God will surely accomplish His purpose: truly, for all things God has appointed an appropriate measure’
(Surah al-Talaq 65:2-3)
‘And so, be patient, even though they who are bent on denying the Truth would all but kill you with their eyes whenever they hear this reminder, and though they say, ‘See, most surely he is a madman!’
For this is nothing less than a reminder to all the worlds.’
(Surah al-Qalam 68:51-52)
‘…to everyone who will to walk a straight way.
But you cannot will it unless God, the Sustainer of all the Worlds, wills it’
(Surah al-Takwir 81:28-29)
To be truly conscious of God is to realise that all things are His; at best, we are merely guests, even in the depths of ‘our’ own being. Understanding that our will is already encompassed in His will is both deeply humbling and deeply liberating, freeing us from the urge to control life. This awareness is a deeper ‘way of emergence’, a deeper liberation from the limitations of our workaday egos.
Striving to live this way is also important because it demonstrates that we live in a magical universe, in a realm of unlimited possibilities and of infinite potentiality. We are provided for in ways we could never imagine, both within and beyond ourselves. Living in a world of infinite potentiality requires that we strive to trust in God, and realise that the Divine is absolute beneficence, and absolute sufficiency.
‘…for all things has God appointed an appropriate measure’ is an interesting phrase. It reminds me that that ‘my’ will has a limit, beyond which lies His will. It also reminds me that the trials and tribulations of my own life are measured out for me: I am challenged, but never overwhelmed, stretched but never obliterated. Moreover, this ‘I’ within me that demands and urges is itself limited. There are deeper levels of being within me, beyond this passing ego; there are hidden depths below the shallow waters of conventional reality.
‘And so, be patient…’. Wait in patient readiness for all that Hu might work within and beyond us. Wait in calm alertness for His unfolding will. ‘For this is nothing less than a reminder to all the worlds’. It is a reminder to the universe around me. It is a reminder to the universe within.
‘And to everyone one of you who wills to walk a straight way. But you cannot will it unless God, the Sustainer of all the worlds, wills it’. It is His will that is primary. Our will only becomes a reality when it harmonises with His. This underlines the need for harmonisation, with God, with myself and everything around me. And, as Meister Eckhart makes clear in his counsels, this involves an inner emptying, a giving-over of ourselves to Him, in Him. In Counsel 20, Meister Eckhart says this:
‘And therefore, if you wish to receive your God worthily, be sure that your superior powers are directed toward your God and that your will is seeking His will, that you are intending Him, and that your trust is based on Him’ (Counsels on Discernment, 20)
Merciful One! Join our wills to Yours. Help us to will for ourselves what You will for us. Help us to accept life in all its diversity. Help us to see that all things come from You, for our betterment.
Peace, one and all…
In a recent post, we explored Rahma and its place within the conceptual universe of Islam. We saw that rahma can be thought of as embodied love, as love made manifest. The sayings of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) contain instructions on how to invoke God’s mercy, how to make Divine love tangible. Ibn Umar relates the following saying:
‘The All-Merciful (al-Rahman) – exalted be He – shall bestow His mercy (rahma) upon those who show mercy. Be merciful to those on earth and He who is in Heaven shall bestow His mercy upon you’ (al-Hakim)
Show loving-kindness to those on earth, and God will pour out His love upon you. Show love to those on earth, and they too shall reflect God’s own love back to us. A second hadith relates the following words (related by Abu Usama):
‘Indeed, God possesses an angel dedicated to those who supplicate by saying ‘O Most Merciful of the merciful (Arham al-Rahimin).’ To whomever repeats this three times in his supplication the angel says, ‘Indeed, the Most Merciful of the merciful is before you, therefore ask!’ (al-Hakim)
This phrase invokes God’s mercy in an intensive, superlative form. It is a reminder that God alone is the Source of all mercy, of all love. As this awareness begins to penetrate our inner beings, our hearts begin to reflect this quality of compassionate love. A’isha relates the following words of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam):
‘Indeed, God the Exalted loves kindness in everything’ (al-Bukhari)
Hz. Ali relates a very similar statement:
‘Indeed, God is kind (rifqa) and He loves kindness: He accords to it that which can never be attained through the use of force’ (Ahmad ibn Hanbal)
Elsewhere, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said:
‘The best deed after belief in God is benevolent love (tawaddud) towards people’ (al-Tabarani)
The word tawaddud is derived from the same root as the Divine Name al-Wadud (the Ever-Loving). The more compassionate we are, the more love we generate, to the point where we can reflect God’s pure light. In a commentary on the first hadith cited above, we read these words:
‘Divine mercy (rahma) must radiate within man and be offered to others in the form of generosity, forbearance, and forgiveness’ (Spiritual Teachings of the Prophet, page 9)
Our hearts are transformed by His love into a pure mirror, as these words related by Anas ibn Malik make clear:
‘The Faithful (al-Mu’min) is the mirror of the faithful (al-Mu’min)’ (al-Tirmidhi)
May the Beloved Friend of All sweep the dust from the mirror of our hearts. May His cleansing love, His tender mercy, transform us.
Peace, one and all…
In a beautiful and oft-quoted verse, the Quran states:
‘Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians, – any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve’ (2:62; see also 5:69).
I have always seen a remarkable openness in this verse, a reaching out beyond narrow human boundaries. Indeed, it has always been one of the most impressive verses in the entire Quran, especially in the way it extends the promise of redemption and salvation to all who believe. I also find the same spirit of openness in the following passage:
‘Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching’ (16:125, trans. Ali, with slight adaptation)
In this beautiful passage, Muslims are encouraged to share their faith in a gentle, and open-handed way. And, even though Muslims have sometimes strayed from such spiritual generosity, the ideal remains and continues to inspire real, human dialogue.
As I grow older, I begin to see ever more clearly that true dialogue can only occur through the development of human relationships. Indeed, when such relationships exist, communication moves beyond mere surface ‘dialogue’, to a place where our differences cease to be something that divides us; they become the ‘spice’ that makes conversation enriching. In other words, true dialogue is a means of soul-sharing.
The Sufi tradition places great emphasis on such relationships – describing them by the prophetic term suhbah (or sohbet in Turkish, and related languages). Sohbet is a means of both spiritual companionship and spiritual conversation – a way of being with our companions that moves beyond these surface differences. It is in this spirit that I wish to offer a personal exploration of some key aspects of the worldview of Islam – as a means of sharing, beyond sectarian and religious labels, from one human being to all those who happen to read these words.
In talking to others, I have occasionally encountered those who feel that the Islamic tradition has little to say of love. According to this view, although the Quran and prophetic traditions spend a great deal of time extolling the power, might and majesty of God, they say almost nothing of Divine love. Although the Quran contains numerous references to God’s kindness and compassion, as well as to His maintenance of the Universe, it presents these as attributes of a distant, cosmic ruler – Who is so exalted as to make any real relationship impossible. On reflection, I think this idea comes from a misunderstanding of the conceptual universe of Islam. In particular, it arises from a misunderstanding of how Islam conceptualises compassion, mercy and love.
A brief example might help to illustrate my point more clearly. In Surah al-Dhariyat, we find the following verse:
‘And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me’ (51:56)
Without understanding the full range of meanings behind the key term ‘worship’ (`ibadah), it is easy to misunderstand this verse. Indeed, it has often been seen as a command for mere robotic service, as though God requires human automata. When the semantic range of ibadah is explored, it then becomes possible to have a much fuller understanding of the Quran’s vision of life’s pupose (this is something I hope to do soon, insha Allah). Furthermore, even those verses that refer to Divine Immanence, are sometimes believed to paint a picture of God as an angry watcher.
Personally, this has not been how I have experienced God, as a Muslim. Indeed, this picture is not one most Muslims would recognise I suspect. So, where, then, does this idea come from? Whilst, in part, this may derive from older visions of Islam as a dry, law-bound faith, I also think this misunderstanding comes from a lack of familiarity with the conceptual universe of Islam, as broadly conceived. So, with these things in mind, I’d like to explore a key aspect of Islam’s picture of the Divine – namely, Rahma.
Arabic words are based on trilateral roots, which give the basic meaning of the term. The root of rahma, ra ha ma, has the following basic meanings:
‘the womb, blood relatives; mercy, kindness, compassion, pity, sympathy, to show mercy, to show compassion, to let off, to be kind, forgiveness, bounty, good fortune, blessing’ (Badawi and Haleem, Arabic-English Dictionary of Quranic Usage, p.354)
Forms derived from this root occur some 342 times throughout the Quran. As we can see, therefore, it is an important concept. Indeed, every chapter but one opens with the phrase Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful). As we can see, there are two basic senses: family ties and relationships (expressed in Quranic parlance as the ‘ties of the womb’) and compassion.
This connection between mercy and the ties of kinship is made explicit in an interesting tradition, related on the authority of Abdullah ibn Abu Awfa:
‘The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said, ‘Mercy is not conferred on people when there is someone among them who severs ties of kinship’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 63)
Those who deliberately weaken the bonds of family love are thus deprived of mercy in their own lives, leading to a further hardening of the heart. Conversely, as this statement attributed to Ibn Umar makes clear, maintaining the ‘ties of the womb’ encourage the outpouring of divine grace and mercy:
‘Ibn Umar said: ‘If someone fears his Lord and maintains his ties of kinship, his term of life will be prolonged, he will have abundant wealth and his people will love him’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 58)
Here, rahma is decisively linked with love. Indeed, this mercy is the intimate, personalised and life-enhancing outpouring of God’s love. Strengthening the bonds of family strengthens love, and loving-kindness allows the development of deep, spiritual bonds. It is only through rahma that one can acquire love; it is only through love (or perhaps we might say manifested mercy) that true spiritual companionship (suhbah) can emerge. Perhaps this is why religious communities are often depicted as being spiritual families, as the context in which rahma and love can grow beyond their primary genetic roots.
Islamic ideas of mercy contain love – indeed, we might say that they point to the embodiment of love in all its fullness. Compassion is presented as the embodiment of love…testifying to a greater love beyond. In a number of significant hadith, the relationship between rahma and parental love is given further nuance. In one such tradition, Anas ibn Malik relates the following story:
‘A woman came to Aisha (God be pleased with her) and Aisha gave her three dates. She gave each of her children a date and kept one date for herself. The children ate the two dates and then looked at their mother. She took the date and split it and gave each child half a date. The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) came and Aisha told him about it. He said, ‘Are you amazed at that? Allah has granted her mercy because of her mercy towards her children’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 89)
This mother’s tender concern for her children’s well-being is here underlined as the very embodiment of rahma. In the English-speaking world, we would use the word ‘love’ to refer to the quality that drives a mother’s compassion. Abu Hurayra relates another interesting hadith:
‘I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, Allah divided mercy into one-hundred parts and He kept ninety-nine parts with Him and sent down one part upon the earth, and because of that, this one single part, His creaures are merciful to each other, so that even the mare lifts up its hoofs away from its baby animal, lest it should trample on it. (Bukhari, Book 73, 29).
This hadith adds to our understanding of rahma, which is again connected to parental love. In this case, the way a mare cares for its foal is also described as mercy. That is, compassion is an innate quality given to all living creatures – in a sense, mercy is the default setting of creation. We are then told that this universal mercy is merely one small aspect of God’s compassion for creation. Again, what the Islamic tradition describes as rahma, the English-speaking world would understand as love.
It is this compassion, this loving-kindness, that should form the basis of every action. Qurra ibn Iyas relates the following hadith:
‘A man said, ‘Messenger of Allah, whenever I slaughter a sheep, I show mercy to it (by using a sharp knife to ensure the least suffering)’ – or the man said, ‘I show mercy to the sheep when I slaughter it.’ He said twice, ‘If you showed mercy towards the sheep, Allah will show mercy to you’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 373)
Performing each action from a state of loving-kindness brings a greater, deeper love from God. A number of ahadith underline this reciprocity:
Abu Hurayra said: ‘The Messenger of God (as) kissed al-Hasan ibn Ali while al-Aqra’ ibn Habis al-Tamimi was sitting with him. Al-Aqra’ said, ‘I have ten children and I have never kissed any of them.’ The Messenger of Allah (as) looked at him and said, ‘Whoever does not show mercy will not be shown mercy’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 91).
Abu Hurayra said: ‘The Prophet (as) said, ‘Anyone who does not show mercy to our children nor acknowledge the right of our old people is not one of us’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 353)
A’isha, may Allah be pleased with her, said: ‘A bedouin came to the Prophet (as) and said, ‘Do you kiss you children? We do not kiss them.’ The Prophet (as) said, ‘Can I put mercy in your hearts after Allah has removed it?’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 90)
The connection between rahma and love is again given in this early commentary on a Quranic verse:
Urwa commented on the verse, ‘Lower the wing of humility to them out of mercy’ (17:24) (It means): ‘Do not refuse them anything they love’ (Adab al-Mufrad no. 9, Ath 5)
Drawing these things together, we can see that rahma denotes loving-kindness, a mercy that flows directly from love. Perhaps we might go so far as to describe rahma as embodied love, as love made manifest, the word made flesh. Understanding the earthly operation of rahma also provides us a semantic context within which to approach more metaphysical expressions. One report has this to say:
‘Abu al-Harith al-Kirmani said: ‘A man said to Abu Raja, ‘I greet you and I ask Allah to join us both of us together in the abiding Abode of His mercy (rahma)’. Abu Raja said, ‘Is anyone capable of that? What is the abiding abode of His mercy?’ The man said, ‘The Garden’. He said, ‘That is not correct’. The man said, ‘Then what is the abiding abode of His mercy?’ He said, ‘The Lord of the Worlds’.
In other words, the true abode of divine mercy is God Himself. The true Source of Rahma is al-Rahman. This makes for a very interesting reading ofSurah al-Rahman, the 55th chapter of the Quran:
‘The Most Merciful (al-Rahman), taught the Quran, created Man, [And] taught him eloquence’ (55:1-4).
Ahmad ibn Ajiba (d. 1809), in his spiritual commentary on these verses, has this to say:
‘The mercy thus comprised by the Name of al-Rahman has two aspects. One is Essential, inseparable from the Divine Essence, and the other Attributive, by which the sustenance of creation comes about and God shows mercy to those He will … Since the Quran is among God’s greatest gifts, He relates the act of its teaching to His very Essence. Indeed, the Quran is itself a theophany of of the Attributes of the Divine Essence, of Its mysteries and Its acts, and it unveils these spiritual realities to anyone whose inner vision God Most High has opened’ (The Immense Ocean, trans. M A Aresmouk & M A Fitzgerald, 2009, page 11).
Elsewhere in the Quran we read the following verse:
‘Say, ‘Call upon Allah or call upon the Most Merciful (al-Rahman). Whichever [nam] you call to Him belong the Names Most Beautiful’ (17:110)
In this verse, al-Rahman is set beside the Name Allah, the All-comprehensive Name (Ism al-Jami`). In other words, compassion, mercy and love flow from the very Essence of God – suggesting that Creation itself represents the manifestation of loving-kindness, of embodied love. In this regard, it is worth closing with the following profound hadith qudsi (or sacred tradition):
‘Indeed My mercy and compassion (rahma) prevail over My anger’ (Ibn Arabi, Mishkat al-Anwar, 47)
Beloved, gather us all within the folds of Your mercy. Enliven every heart with Your overflowing love!
Peace, one and all…
I recently came across an excellent series of video lectures by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani, of Seekers Hub, exploring the Divine Names of God. As such, I wanted to share these videos here. May they be of benefit.
‘He is God, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or Colours). To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, doth declare His Praises and Glory: and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise’ (59:24)
God willing, I also hope to share some of the insights from the wonderful Physicians of the Heart on these Names. The authors of the book have also produced a very helpful website: Physicians of the Heart.
Peace, one and all…
‘Know, O seeker of the mysteries of Reality! What is intended by the blessed olive tree is ‘knowledge’, and by the oil thereof, ‘knowledge of God’, which is obtained through the perfection of knowledge, just as the oil is acquired from the olive tree’
(Isma`il Anqarawi, The Lamp of Mysteries, referring to 24:35)
Peace, one and all…
In a beautiful passage, the Quran speaks of the collection and distribution of the compulsory alms-tax (the zakat):
‘Alms are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect and for bringing hearts together and for freeing captives and for those in debt and for the cause of God and for the traveler – an obligation [imposed] by God. And God is Knowing and Wise’ (9:60)
This verse has long been understood as being the basis of an organised collection system, by which that alms-tax is collected. Whilst this is certainly true, a closer examination draws out a number of deeper connections.
Although this compulsory alms tax is most often described as zakat (from a root meaning ‘purification’), in this verse a different term is used. If we look a little closer at this verse, we can draw this out more clearly. The word used here is sadaqat, literally meaning ‘charity’. Significantly, this word derives from a root denoting truth and truthfulness. Thus, we can say that charity is a practical means of engaging with truth, of manifesting truth in everyday life. To engage in regular charity is thus a means of visualising and actualising truth. Moreover, given that this verse refers to the compulsory zakat, it forcefully underlines two further points: all that we own comes to us from God, of ourselves we own nothing. Secondly, a just and equitable, organised tax system is a collective means of manifesting this truth. Religion is not merely a matter of private observance, it is also concerned with social justice.
‘Sadaqa is only for … bringing hearts together and for freeing captives and for those in debt and for the cause of God and for the wayfarer…’
Charity is thus a means of bringing peoples together, and for the cause of God, which is here tied to freeing humanity from captivity and debt.
Sadaqa is thus connected with love, with truth, in a spiritual, personal and collective sense. It is therefore an aspect of justice, particularly in the social realm. To give charity to others, in an arranged, socially accepted manner, is to do justice – and to do justice is to manifest the equilibrium of love. Indeed, the more we realise this, the more deeply we are able to access truth, to plumb the depths of sadaqa. Charity is thus a means of approaching Truth.
Charity is a function of our humanity, and is a means of enhancing relationships with others. This is why the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) speaks of sadaqa in terms of its social utility, as in the following examples:
‘Charity given to one’s relatives twice multiplies its reward’ (al-Tabarani)
‘A kind word is charity’ (al-Bukhari and Muslim)
‘God has never dignified anyone due to his ignorance, nor humiliated anyone due to his knowledge. And wealth is never diminished as a result of charity’ (al-Daylami)
‘Two qualities are never coupled in a believer: miserlinenss and immorality’ (al-Bukhari)
This verse also points towards a deeper, existential truth: we are utterly dependent upon God in every aspect of our lives, in each new moment and place. This becomes clear when we look again at this verse:
‘Sadaqat is only for al-fuqara’ and al-masakin…’
Fuqara’ means those who are absolutely poor, without any other means, whilst masakin means those who are destitute, and therefore weak. Elsewhere, the Quran describes this poverty and weakness in interesting terms:
‘O mankind! You are those in need of God (literally, ‘you are the fuqara’), and God is the Free of Need (al-Ghani), the Praiseworthy (al-Hamid)’ 35:15
In other words, poverty and utter dependence are the hallmarks of the human relationship with God. Not only does God give us all that we need, we are also dependent upon God in each new moment. That the verse before us should come in Surah Tawba, or the Chapter of Repentance, is also significant – especially when it is remembered that classical Sufism understood tawba as the first stage of the spiritual journey.
Our poverty and God’s overflowing grace forms a relationship, and our breath is a living moment by moment transcription of this reality. That is, we can experience this now, in our very breath. Mevlevi tradition uses breathing techniques in its formal zikr, especially connected to the testimony of faith (the shahadah) – la ilaha illa Allah. With each exhalaltion, the practice is to breathe la ilaha (‘there is no god…’) as a means of letting go of every limitation, of realising our utter contingency. Each inhalation is accompanied by illa Allah (‘except God’) – in which our chest fills with God-given breath, with an organic awareness of Divine presence. This verse alludes to this process: we acknowledge our dependence on God, we literally breathe it by emptying and we receive a new in-breath, from the Infinite Tresuries of God, al-Ghani al-Hamid.
May God help us become open handed! May God help us realise the truth of our dependence upon Him, in each new new moment and circumstance.
Wa akhiru da`wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.
Peace, one and all…
In this beautiful and profound tradition, the Messenger of God (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) relates the following words of God:
‘O My servants, I have forbidden oppression for Myself and have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another. O My servants, all of you are astray except for those I have guided, so seek guidance of Me and I shall guide you. O My servants, all of you are hungry except for those I have fed, so seek food of Me and I shall feed you. O My servants, all of you are naked except for those I hav eclothed, so seek clothing of Me and I shall clothe you. O My servants, you sin by night and by day, and I forgive all sins, so seek forgiveness of Me and I shall forgive you.
O My servants, you will not attain harming Me so as to harm Me, and you will not attain benefiting Me so as to benefit Me. O my servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to become as pious as the most pious heart of any one man of you, that would not increase My kingdom in anything.
O My servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to be as wicked as the most wicked heart of any one man of you, that would not decrease My kingdom in anything. O My servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to rise up in one place and make a request of Me, and were I to give everyone what he requested, that would not decrease what I have, any more than a needle decreases the sea if put into it. O My servants, it is but your deeds that I reckon up for you and then recompense you for, so let him who finds good praise Allah, and let him who finds other than that blame no one but himself’.
Reported in Muslim, on the authority of Hz Abu Dharr.
Peace, one and all…
‘Indeed, God is the Knower of the Unseen of the heavens and the earth. Indeed, He has full knowledge of all that is in (humankind’s) hearts’ (Quran 35:38)
Peace, one and all…
Listen, O drop, give yourself up without regret,
and in exchange gain the Ocean.
Listen, O drop, bestow upon yourself this honour,
and in the arms of the Sea be secure.
Who indeed should be so fortunate?
An Ocean wooing a drop!
In God’s name, in God’s name, sell and buy at once!
Give a drop, and take this Sea full of pearls’
Peace, one and all…
‘And Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all commandments is, hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and with all thy understanding, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second commandment is like, namely this, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these’ (Mark 12:29-31)
This is a truly beautiful passage from the Gospel of Mark. In it Jesus (alaihi al-salam) responds to a learned Rabbi’s earnest question: ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ Our beloved master’s response, that love is the greatest commandment, is beautiful and profound.
I came across this passage once again, recently, and was struck not only by its beauty, but by its deeply evocative description of love as arising in life-giving oneness. Of course, Islam understands God’s nature differently than Christianity, but the oneness I refer to is not primarily theological in that sense. Rather, as I read this passage, I am struck by how it calls us to see the Divine as being behind, and yet mysteriously within, all things. I was also struck by the way in which it bids humankind to respond with everything to God’s call.
However, before proceeding any further, it is worth pointing out that I do not intend to explain these verses, as though ‘I’ know what they ‘really’ mean. This is for two reasons. Firstly, although, as a human being, humanity’s collective spiritual heritage is mine to draw on, I do not intend to interpret this Christian scripture to anyone, much less the worldwide Christian tradition. Secondly, what do I know anyway? No, my purpose here is simply to respond, to explore the profound beauty of these wonderful verses. Anything right or true, comes from God. Only the mistakes are mine.
Our verse begins with the Shema, the quintessential expression of Jewish monotheism: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Love arises first in the Divine, a Unity unto Itself. The world comes into being, and is sustained moment by moment by that love. To ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and with all thy understanding, and with all thy strength’ is thus to come into harmony with that overflowing Divine love. It is also to use our every faculty in pursuit of that aim. Our hearts, our souls/personalities, understandings and strengths, must all be dedicated towards the One, the Source of All.
It is, therefore, surely noteworthy that Jesus (as) begins with the heart, long perceived as the intellectual and spiritual centre of the human being. Sufi tradition understands the heart as a kind of meeting-place, in which the physical and subtle energy centres of a human being meet. The heart is also the primary entry-point of spirit, the divinely gifted source of life. Our capacity to love thus arises in the heart, and is itself a gift from God. In other words, our ability to love is given to us by the Divine; we are given everything we need to respond fully to that call.
If the heart is the centre, the ‘soul’ is the place in which our everyday notions of ourselves arise. Sufi tradition understands, broadly, that the ‘soul’ (or nafs in Arabic) is born from a kind of union between spirit (ruh) and our bodies. By soul, I am also referring to our psychological constitutions, our personalities, and our egos. This verse shows me that I can and indeed must love God in the very depths of my soul. Moreover, we are here told that our egos are capable of loving God, of becoming an active participant in our transformations. I find this profound, because it echoes the deepest registers of Sufi thought, and also because it offers a healing truth: our individualities, our workaday selves are valuable and part of a deep and noble purpose.
‘And with all thy understanding’. That Jesus (as) should mention understanding after both the heart and the soul is interesting. It is interesting because it suggests that in truth the intellect is the servant of the heart and soul. It is also interesting because it suggests that mere intellection has its own limits, when not grounded in the heart’s spiritual reality. Moreover, it contradicts the idea that spiritual growth is somehow against learning and knowledge per se. Perhaps the real point being alluded to here is that intellect must also serve. It must not master us.
‘And with all thy strength’. Not only do we possess strength, we also possess weakness – which is to say that our strength has its limitations. If, however, we can open ourselves to Divine love, we can partake of the heart’s strength, which arises in the infinite love of God. That is, if we serve in love’s cause, ‘our’ strength is enfolded by His strength. An Arabic phrase expresses this beautifully: la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah (‘there is no power or might except in God’).
‘And the second commandment is like, namely this, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these’. By these words, Jesus (as) again draws on the deep roots of Judaism, being a re-iteration of Leviticus 19:18. Once we come into harmony with love, our path takes us beyond ourselves, out into the world. The perfection of love lies in service to others – with the understanding that service to God’s creatures is service to God Himself. To love our neighbour as ourselves means many things – ethical treatment, justice, respect, and beyond all of these a deep love for those around us, that runs beyond mere superficiality, beyond sentimentality. Moreover, from the perspective of oneness, it is God’s love that brings these relationships into existence. We are faced with the Divine regardless of the direction we look. The Quran expresses this most beautifully:
‘And to God belongs the east and the west. So wherever you turn, there is the Face of God. Indeed, God is All-Encompassing, All-Knowing’ (2:115)
May the Divine Beloved open our hearts, our souls, our minds, our bodies, and every relationship we partake of, to His overflowing grace, mercy and love.
May all that you do this day be blessed.
Wa akhiru da`wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.
Peace, one and all…
We live in interesting times, it seems. Patterns are shifting and changing, and the world moves towards a great turning point. As we draw nearer to this moment of decision, we all feel the strain. I know that I do. But, as I travelled to work this morning, a calming truth emerged from deep within.
If the light were truly gone, then the end of all things would already have come. If the light had truly gone, then no one on earth would speak of love and truth and mercy; no one would strive to swim against the tides of our times. No, the light does not fade, nor is it ever diminished. It is we who turn away and we who close our own eyes.
Allah says in the Quran:
‘Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves’ (13:11)
There is hope in these words. There is life in these words. A change in our attitudes, orientations and priorities can only come from within. We are called in these days of ours to look inside ourselves with Truth, bi al-Haqq, that a way forward might be shown therein.
May every eye and every heart open. May a new dawn emerge. Ya Nur!
Peace, one and all…
We are always travelling, from place to place and from state to state. ‘Die before you die’, says beloved Mustafa (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam): travel to that place of stillness before a greater ending overtakes you. But, death is not an end, nor is stillness truly without movement. For when we die, we merge once more into the totality of all things and when are are stilled, deeper spaces open out before us.
‘Be in this world as though you were a traveller or a wayfarer’, says Habib Allah (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam). In all truth, this is what we are, travellers forever returning home, atoms of dust forever swirling around the Sun of All Being.
And praise be to God, Who maketh it so…
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
Peace, one and all…
As is perhaps widely known, in the Islamic tradition God is said to possess 99 Names (or Attributes). It has long been a practice to recite these names as a kind of litany. Here is one such beautiful rendition, from Egypt.
And here is one of the most beautiful qawwals you will ever be blessed to hear (may God have mercy on you).
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Allah Hoo
And here is another beautiful song in praise of God.
Shaam: Il Habib Araftu
Follow these links for more on the Divine Names:
- The Quran on the Divine Names
- The Most Beautiful Names of God (includes further links to each Divine Name cited)
- Mevlana on the Divine Names
Peace, one and all…
‘Allah is the Protecting Friend of those who believe. He brings them out of the darknesses into the light’
(Quran Surah al-Baqara 2:257)
Shaykh Faraz Rabbani offers a number of beautiful ayat and ahadith.
Mevlana Rumi (may God sanctify his noble soul) offers us these words:
‘That voice which is the root of every calling,
that is the true voice – all the rest are echoes.
The Persian speaker, Turk and Kurd and Arab
can know that voice with neither lip nor ear.
Why stop at Turks, Tajiks and Ethiopians?
The wood and stone can understand that voice’.