Peace, one and all…
As I recently promised, here is the text of a short prayer/reflection I’ve been asked to lead at St. Michael’s Theological College, as part of a wider course on healthcare chaplaincy.
I hope you enjoy it and may Allah make it beneficial.
‘And Do What is Beautiful…’: Some Reflections on Beauty and Action
The aim of this brief paper is to offer a few reflections on a very famous and important tradition of Prophet Muhammad (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam). I have cast these reflections into the basic structure of a traditional jumu’ah khutba (or Friday prayer sermon). The aim here was simply to present this information in a broadly traditional format. Also, as you will notice, there are some areas of confessional belief. I have presented them in the traditional manner, without significant alteration.
Whatever I have said or written that is right and true comes from God, the Lord of All Being. Whatever is wrong, misunderstood and confused comes from me and the shortcomings of my own soul.
And God knows best…
Some Reflections on Beauty and Action
Al salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
May the peace, mercy and blessings of God be with you all.
Indeed, all praise is due to God. We praise Him, we seek His aid and His forgiveness. We believe in Him and rely upon His grace. We seek refuge in Him from the evil of our selves and from the evil results of our own actions.
I testify that none has the right to be worshipped except God alone, having no partners, and I testify that Muhammad is His chosen Servant and Messenger.
To proceed …
A very famous and profound tradition of Muhammad (peace be upon him) states: ‘Indeed, God is beautiful and loves beauty’.
Beauty comes in many forms. A rose-garden in summer is beautiful. The hands of a loved one are beautiful. A kind and goodly word is beautiful. Indeed, everywhere we turn we are confronted by signs of beauty, some hidden and some manifest. Or, to use the words of the Quran: ‘Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God’.
This tradition of Muhammad (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) also reveals another very significant and interesting aspect of beauty: it requires a response. Although this world would still be beautiful if there were no human beings to perceive it, there is an important sense in which beauty needs to be seen, to be known and to be recognised for what it is. This idea is alluded to in another famous saying within the Islamic tradition, in which God says: ‘I was a hidden treasure and I created the Universe that I might be known’.
Our very recognition of God’s beauty, as it manifests itself within and beyond us, is also beautiful. That is, we have been given the opportunity, the possibility, of perceiving great beauty, in our lives and in the world around us. Despite the world’s problems, there is much to admire and to be thankful for. The Quran has this to say on the subject:
‘It is God who made the earth a fixed place for you, and heaven a building, and He formed you, made your forms beautiful, and provided you with pleasant things’ (40:64)
Life itself is good because it is the ‘gift of God’, to paraphrase a biblical passage. The things of this world are also good, when viewed aright. In other words, beauty is a matter of perception; it is an ability to see good in all things. Or, to put it differently, it is to see all things as originating with God. But what, then, is it to recognise Divine beauty? Or, to put it another way, what are we to do with this recognition?
The answer to such a question is, perhaps, as broad and as diverse as life itself, as God’s beauty manifests itself in so many different ways: artists paint; poets compose and musicians play. The point is, I suspect, that they all create, they all respond, they all add to life’s beautiful symphony.
But, for those (like myself) without such artistic gifts there are many paths to beauty. Perhaps, though, the most beautiful path of all (and which contains all of the others) is to serve God through service to others. As hospital chaplains, there is perhaps little need to remind you all of such things, but then again it is always useful to be reminded of fundamentals.
Service is a concept found in almost all of the world’s religious traditions. Hindus and Sikhs speak of seva, or ‘service’, whilst the ancient Zoroastrians spoke of javanmardi (roughly, ‘chivalry’). Whilst it is of course important to understand the specificity of such terms, they do I believe refer to essentially the same inner truth: God requires us to serve our fellow human beings. Moreover, such service leads us to the very heart of what it means to be human.
There is much within our own respective traditions that encourage us towards beautiful action. If I may be excused quoting from the New Testament in this particular gathering, we find that Jesus (alaihi al-salam) spoke on this theme regularly, and with great eloquence and vigour. In one of the most famous passages in the entire New Testament, we find the following story:
‘1Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them saying:
3″Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ .
That these verses have long been known as ‘the Beatitudes’ aptly demonstrates the powerful beauty they contain. Those who heed this message, and seek to apply it, are evocatively described as ‘the salt of the earth’ (Matthew 5:13) and as ‘the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14). Elsewhere, we find the following exhortation to goodness: ‘Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?’ (Matthew 7:9-10).
Within a healthcare context, we see that healing was a key aspect of Jesus’ earthly mission. Examples are so numerous, and I would guess are so well known to you all, that they need no repetition. At any rate, we can all appreciate the beauty of these fine and noble ideals.
Within the Islamic tradition, service to others is also greatly emphasised. Indeed, the word generally translated ‘worship’ (`ibadah) also means ‘service’. Thus, every act of worship is an act of service to God, and every act of service is also an act of worship of God. To be a ‘Servant of Allah’ (or Abd Allah in Arabic, hence the popular boys’ name) is to become the very best a human being can become. It is not therefore accidental that Jesus himself (alaihi al-salam) is called ‘Abd Allah’ in the Quran.
There is much within the Islamic tradition that encourages the beautifying of life. A very important concept within that tradition is ihsan, which broadly means ‘making beautiful’. This is such a prevalent concept within Islam that the Prophet himself (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) described it as the highest and most complete level of faith. As part of a much longer (and very important) tradition, Muhammad spoke about three levels of interaction with God (or faith, you might say). The first is islam (or submission to God). The second is iman (or faith). Ihsan is the third and most sublime level:
‘It is to serve Allah as though you behold Him; and if you don’t behold him, (know that) He surely sees you’.
Or, to put it in the context of this short reflection, to beautify our selves and our lives through service to God is, in some way, to catch a brief glimpse of Divine beauty. There is much within Islam that encourages towards beauty. At the risk of overloading you with information, I would like to quote a few relevant passages from the Quran:
• ‘Worship none but God, and do what is beautiful towards parents’ (2:83)
• ‘God is with those who are god-wary, and those who do what is beautiful’ (16:128)
• ‘Do what is beautiful. God loves those who do what is beautiful’ (2:195)
• ‘Pardon them and forgive; God loves those who do what is beautiful’ (5:13)
• ‘Have patience. God will not leave to waste the wage of those who do what is beautiful’ (11:115)
• ‘Those who struggle for Us – We shall guide them on Our paths, and God is with those who do what is beautiful’ (29:69)
• ‘The mercy of God is near to those who do what is beautiful’ (7:56)
• ‘To God belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth, so that He may recompense those who do the ugly for what they have done, and recompense those who do what is beautiful with the most beautiful’ (53:31)
As we can see, these verses all see beauty in terms of the things we do, or to use other words, in terms of action. This brings me back to my opening contention, that beauty is magnified and strengthened through our response to it. I would also like to offer another very significant Quranic passage for our consideration:
‘It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, but righteousness is this that one should believe in Allah and the last day and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and the beggars and for (the emancipation of) the captives, and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate; and the performers of their promise when they make a promise, and the patient in distress and affliction and in time of conflicts – these are they who are true (to themselves) and these are they who are conscious of God’ (2:177)
This is the context in which Muslim attitudes towards what you might call pastoral care in general, and healthcare chaplaincy in particular, should be situated. Visiting the sick is defined as one of the hallmarks of a truly muslim life, and a truly muslim society. As such, it is a meritorious and highly praised deed. There are numerous references to this practice in the sacred sources of Islam. The following tradition is a particularly important one, and also helps demonstrate what could be called the eschatological or universal, significance of caring for the sick and infirm:
‘…God (the Glorified and Exalted) will say on Judgement Day: ‘O son of Adam! I fell ill yet you did not visit Me’. To this the bewildered person will reply: ‘O my Lord! You are the Master of the entire universe. How could I call on You?’ God will tell him: ‘One of my servants fell ill but you did not visit him. Had you called on him, you would have found Me beside him’.
So having looked at both the New Testament and the Quran, what have we learned about ‘beautiful action’? In the face of God’s overwhelming majesty, all answers are of course provisional, and so here is a provisional thought of my own. That which is truly beautiful moves us to respond to the needs of others, aware that as we do so we are helping to make this world an even more beautiful place.
As a lover of Sufi poetry, I would like to close this reflection with a short poem, attributed to a medieval writer, Yazid al-Muhallabi:
‘If you part from us, may God lead you
to beautiful places.
When you come to us, you are always welcome.
When you go, do not fear that we will ever forget you.
When you come, do not feel that we will ever have
enough of you’
(Quoted by al-Sulami The Way of Sufi Chivalry)
And my last prayer is in praise of God, Sustainer and Cherisher of all that exists.