Islam as a Religion of Beauty
Interpreting Some Key Ideas in the Islamic Tradition
in the spirit of open and relational (process) theology
The universe is dynamic not static, slightly different at every moment, forever pulsating with rhythms which point to a deeper Rhythm -- the callings of Allah -- which can be heard in the sounds of the Qur'an. The wisdom of the Qur'an does not simply lie in the meaning of its words, but also in the sweetness of its sound. We live in a sonoral universe; Allah speaks to us in sound as well as word. The Qur'an is a revelation of the deeper sound from which all sounds emerge. The deeper sound is silence. Silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of listening. The deep listening -- the Knowing -- is Allah.
One of the most beautiful sounds we can listen to is the universe, which is itself muslim in the deepest of senses. The very word islam refers, not only to people who practice the religion of Islam, but to an act of surrendering to Allah’s will. Science is a way of listening to the universe with attention to its quantifiable properties. Poetry is a way of listening with attention to its qualitative properties. Both contain wisdom.
The universe is a multiverse, because it has many dimensions: visible and invisible. Even in science today we speak of invisible dimensions of reality. All are sonoral. All are rhythmic. All are vibrating, like the sounds of Qur'an when recited. The visible is situated within the invisible which forms a context for human self-understanding.
The many dimensions of the universe include many different kinds of creatures: angels, fiery creatures (jinn), ancestors. The multi-verse is multi-creatured. These creatures can be understood metaphorically or literally. They can be understood as forms of actuality inhabiting diverse regions of an extensive continuum; or as archetypal forms in the realm of the imaginal.
Whether understood metaphorically or literally, some of these creatures are very good. The angels are largely benevolent. But one of the fiery creatures, namely Iblis, has aims and purposes. quite dissonant from those of the divine mystery. We must guard our hearts against Iblis, who tempts us to fall into hubris, and who is the enemy of our better selves. Our better selves are our surrendered selves: not surrendered as passive slaves in the presence of a divine dictator, but surrendered as cooperative agents with a holy Beloved: Allah.
Life on Earth
Even as we are nested within this larger context; the happening we know best – and the one that is most relevant to us morally -- is the web of life on earth. Its rhythms and sounds, its colors and textures, reveal the Beauty of the divine mystery. Whenever we experience beauty we experience a sign of Allah.
Signs reveal archetypal patterns within the mind of Allah. All finite realities participate in these patterns and their participation is revealed in their beauty. Allah is the Beauty within the beauty. Allah is also the Goodness within goodness. Whenever we experience wisdom and mercy, justice and compassion, we are witnessing signs of Allah.
When it comes to knowing Allah, our inner ears are as important as our eyes. Allah is the uncreated Voice which calls us to live wisely and compassionately on our planet. Allah is the inner call to Peace. This Voice is not a social construction. Nor is it identical with conventional morality. Conventional morality may tell us that some people are not worthy of respect because they are different form us. This is not the Voice. The Voice comes from the mystery at the heart of the universe, from the deep Listening. The Voice is a call to live with respect and care for the community of life, which is itself the primordial and ever-changing mosque, and to live with special concern for the neglected and forgotten.
Many of us forget this Voice. Our problem is not willful disobedience but forgetfulness. This is why we need prophets. Prophets remind us of what we have forgotten. The deepest problem in life is not willful disobedience, but forgetfulness of the unified life in which our lives unfold. The deepest problem is forgetfulness of tawhid.
There are as many prophets as there are nations. Some prophets are also messengers, because they bring verbal messages from which all can learn. Moses was a prophet and a messenger; Jesus was a prophet and a messenger; Muhammad was a prophet and a messenger. All were messengers of the Voice which their ancestor Abraham also heard. All were calling us to be mindful of our own calling.
Prophet Muhammad was the seal of the prophets, not because revelation cannot unfold after his death, but because, after his death, the age of prophecy was over. After the age of prophecy, humans have sufficient guidance for life in terms of general principles such as love and justice. After the age of prophecy reason and faith, creativity and joy, can be our guides.
One way to respond to the guidance of the prophets is to appreciate sacred space. All space is sacred if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. The earth is a mosque, situated within a larger mosque which is the universe itself.
One of the vocations of Islam in the world today is to remind people all over the world of the wisdom and beauty of sacred space in an age when so much -- perhaps even everything -- has been desacralized by the darker sides of modernity. The darker sides of modernity include (a) its impulse to reduce all things to mere commodities for commercial exchange in a global marketplace, (b) its exaggerated individualism, in which the private ego is elevated to the measure of all things, (c) its neglect of the cognitive value of emotions such as awe and wonder and trust. These tendencies obstruct our calling as human beings. They lead us away from the straight path of trust in the Voice and its callings.
Our calling as humans is to be caretakers of the earthly mosque, respecting other people and all creatures as signs of Allah. We are entrusted by the Voice to take care of one another. We are vicegerents.
Caretaking is a communal as well as an individual activity, economic as well as personal. Our calling is to build communities which are creative, compassionate, participatory, respectful of diversity, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind. These communities need to be centered in the unity at the heart of the universe, in Allah.
We discover our calling not only by listening to the voices of prophets who guide us, but also in listening to the voices of the hills and rivers, the trees and stars. In the rustling of the wind we hear to the rustling of the divine mystery; in the colors of the rainbow we see the uncreated light of the sacred. Through them we discover the nearness -- the tashbih, تشبيه -- of Unity in which all things unfold.
Allah is also far, far away. The distance of Allah from us is not geometrical distance but epistemological distance. There is always more to Allah than our minds comprehend. We can sense the distance of Allah, too. When we feel small but included in a unity that far transcends our understanding and that is more than our minds can imagine, we experience the distance: the tanzhih of the uncreated Light.
The purpose of life is to live from a sense of this unity -- tawḥīd, توحيد . In order to do this we must relinquish our own tendencies to valorize our own egos and personal preferences, our own feelings and prejudices, as if there were the measure of all things. A primary obstacle to living in trust is idolatry or shirk. Idolatry lies in holding onto finite things as if they were infinite, and thus making gods of them.
The deeper idols dwell within us: psychological needs to be needed, to receive approval from others, to belong to groups which give us a sense of identity, to be in control of our lives. These needs are natural, but when they function as the lords of our lives, they become idolatrous.
Sometimes we must struggle to do good and struggle against evil. We must enter into jihad. Never can we do this by inflicting violence on others. Always we must do this through non-violent means. The most difficult but beautiful forms of jihad are at home and in the marketplace where we struggle to be good parents and good friends. Always we must struggle against our own impulses to be selfish and greedy.
One purpose of Islam is to provide us with rituals, such as daily prayer and fasting during Ramadan, that help center our lives in what is truly important. Rituals are activities in which we stop and remember who we are and want to be. We follow Islam, not simply from mind to body, but from body to mind.
Even as Allah is beyond us, Allah is also within us as an innermost knowledge of Allah. Intuitively, at birth, we have a sense of the unity within which we live and move and have our being. Everyone has this intuitive understanding. In These are the initial aims of God within us. Even the atheist knows the unity even as he may not believe in a supernatural being, a being among beings, who is located in the sky, three miles off the planet.
Allah is not this kind of being. When we say there is no god but Allah, there is some atheism in us, too. We mean there is no supernatural being residing three miles off the planet, there is only the deep Listening and the uncreated Voice in whose womb all things unfold.
Always we are within this Unity. We might think that we can go through life unnoticed, that ultimately we are anonymous, and no one really cares about us. But always we are noticed and cared for by Allah. Allah is the witness to all our actions and intentions. Allah is the Knowing.
Ultimately there is no knowing but the Knowing. Allah is the Truth. This Truth is not an idea in people's minds but rather a horizon of Knowing. Imagine a Mother who feels the feelings of a child developing in her womb. She feels feeling the child's feelings. Allah is like this Mother. Her love is paradise.
Paradise is not far away. Paradise lies in the womb of the divine Mother. We experience Paradise when we are open to the mystery and mercy of Allah. In feeling our feelings Allah knows our sufferings and joys, our worries and fears, our memories and hopes, our motivations and intentions.
The Fog of Selfishness
Often we go through life without awareness of our intentions. We do not see ourselves clearly. It is as if we are in a fog. It is the fog of self-misunderstanding.
This fog is partly conscious and partly unconscious. It is created by our own conscious decisions, but also by circumstances which lie beyond our conscious control. If we are born in a society which teaches us that we are better than others, because we belong to the right religion or culture, we dwell in a fog of self-misunderstanding. We may not have chosen the fog, we were socialized into it.
Still the fog must be lifted. We must understand that in the eyes and heart of Allah, all people are equal. All deserve respect. All deserve love. When we begin to awaken to this truth, we awaken to justice. Justice begins with an appreciation of tawhid: that is, our unity within the horizons of the Unity. Allah is the Unity. Sometimes we do not live justly. We forget tawhid. We are in need of a Day of Reckoning.
The Day of Reckoning
A Day of Reckoning occurs in moments when the fog of personal misunderstanding is lifted, and we see ourselves clearly. Moments of reckoning have an apocalyptic dimension to them. In moments of reckoning the familiar world falls away and we feel cannot hang on to the prior objects of attachments. We stand naked in the presence of the Unity. We know ourselves as we are known by the Knowing. In these moments we see ourselves through the heart of the Everlasting. Depending on how we lived, inwardly and outwardly, we feel sad or happy, frightened or grateful.
In moments of reckoning we may have a sense of being punished. But the punishment is not an infliction of suffering on the part of Allah. It is an awakening into self-awareness in which we feel remorse, because we see ourselves clearly. We understand the selfishness of our prior intentions; we understand the harm we have caused others; we understand the ways we have abandoned the Unity.
We cannot draw images or pictures of the Unity. Allah is not located in a particular region of space; the witness does not have borders or boundaries. Sometimes we try to draw pictures with our definitions, sometimes with images, and sometimes with rituals which we are turned into gods.
Still, rituals are important because they help us remember the Unity. This is one of the purposes of prayer. It is to help us be more mindful of the divine reality in whose presence we live and move and have our being. If we look at things with sacred eyes, we see that all things are praying all the time. They are reaching out and into the deep Listening, the receptacle for all that happens. In this reaching out they are, in their way, natural muslims. Their hearts are surrendering to the Infinite.
Our task as human beings is to join them the prayer, day by day, by living with dignity, by helping others, by struggling to do good, by remembering the timeless source from which we emerge, moment by moment. Our task is to turn our lives into prayer. The religion of Islam offers one way to turn our lives into prayer. It is not the only way. There are other ways, too. All are expressions of the original religion. It began long before the twentieth century. Even long before Abraham. It is a natural way to be alive in our world.
It is a natural way to enter into the Beauty.
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