“To God [Allah] belong the East and the West; whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God; God is All-embracing, All-knowing.” Koran (2:115)
I take your words that you “will bear with me” despite “our differences” and your “reservations and criticisms of Islam and Muslims” kindly. I read this as willingness on your part to continue our exchange, and this is all that you and I need ask for and no more. I am very much a part of our world, as you are. We are both engaged with it, aware of its history abounding with paradoxes, surprises, despair, rancour, and yet sustained with love.
Our differences are important for through them in our finiteness we are engaged with the infinity of which you and I are fragments. I would not want to see you forsake the vessel from which you draw your life-giving sustenance, nor do I insist that you drink from my vessel. But I do believe what we drink as life-giving from our respective vessels — each shaped and painted to our individual preferences — is the same. I often remind my students that while our fingerprints are unique our organs inside of us can be readily transplanted.
Revelation is the communication in time of the sublimely transcendent with the triflingly bounded, of the eternal with the ephemeral. Revelation is the speech of the Infinite Mind (God) compressed into the grammar of the limited mind (man). Words emanating from beyond time are meant for the bounded intellect of human beings so that they may have a sense of the Unbounded Intellect whose emanations they are. Revelations do not cease, only the form in which they occur changes in history relative to the evolution of the human mind to grasp the Infinite within the flux of time.
Muslims take the Koran as revelation, as God’s Words addressed to one individual (Muhammad) at a particular time among a particular people within specific circumstances of that people’s history. But God’s Words have resonance beyond the particular coordinates of time and space for anyone hearing those Words and discovering in them the eternal unblemished by the limitations of the transient.
I am reminded of the opening verse from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” that reads:
To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
Walt Whitman, America’s truly most generous and wide-hearted poet, expressed himself similarly in his huge uncontainable and incomparable poetry – “Come, said my Soul,/Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)” – found in Leaves of Grass. Whitman declaimed,
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,….
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
Poets have always understood, as have scientists, that the particular is the window opening to the universal. Koran is particular but not unique. There are other Revelations, but the universal is contained in the Koran as in the flame of the candle is to be found the secret of the sun.
The uniqueness of the Koran is in the nature of a particular people’s language – its grammar and idiom – by which the presence of the Infinite is disclosed. Language veils the Infinite as the shell of an oyster hides the pearl. Once we are prepared to overcome the difficulty of language – Arabic for the Koran, Sanskrit for the Vedas, Hebrew for the Torah, Greek for the New Testament, etc. – we are in the presence of the Infinite, only limited by our capacity to comprehend this presence which surrounds, penetrates and sustains us as fragments of the totality of creation.
Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, is often quoted for the saying referred to God: “I was a hidden treasure. I longed to be known, so I created all of creation.” In the Koran God reveals Himself to man in words, similes, metaphors and by reference to the marvel of His creation. In knowing God man finds his orientation and destiny – serenity of mind and tranquility of heart – despite “a sea of troubles” as the magnetic needle in compass remains steadily fixed to true North despite the rough motion of ships.
God discloses Himself in the Koran by His attributes. He is the Merciful and the Beneficent. He is the Just, the Generous, and the Magnificent. He is the Truth, the Creator and the Loving One. He is the Friend and the Protector, the Giver and the Taker of life. He is the Manifest and the Hidden, the Everlasting and the Patient, the All-Powerful and the Source of all power. He is the Lord of the Universe and the Master of the Day of Reckoning.
The Koran reads, “Say: ‘Call upon God, or call upon the Merciful; whichever you call upon, to Him belong the Names Most Beautiful.” Then there is the verse of the Koran (in A.J. Arberry’s rendition into English) often recited in recalling the Majesty of God which reads:
there is no god but He,
the Living, the Everlasting.
Slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep;
to Him belongs
all that is in the heavens and the earth.
Who is there that shall intercede with Him
save by His leave?
He knows what lies before them
and what is after them,
and they comprehend not anything of His knowledge
save such as He wills.
His Throne comprises the heavens and earth;
the preserving of them oppresses Him not;
He is the All-high, the All-glorious.
My favourite, and of many others, are the following verses of the Koran (also in Arberry’s rendition) in which God speaks of Himself.
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a niche
wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light;
(God guides to His Light whom He will.)
(And God strikes similitudes for men,
And God has knowledge of everything.)
in temples God has allowed to be raised up,
and His Name to be commemorated therein;
therein glorifying Him, in the mornings and the evenings,
are men whom neither commerce nor trafficking
diverts from the remembrance of God
and to perform the prayer, and to pay the alms,
fearing a day when hearts and eyes shall be turned about,
that God may recompense them for their fairest works
and give them increase of His bounty;
and God provides whomsoever He will, without reckoning.
God creates and fashions things out of nothing for “when He decrees a thing, He but says to it ‘Be,’ and it is.” He is Incomparable and Alone. And “had there been gods apart from God, both (the heavens and the earth) would have been despoiled.” But God’s creation is faultless, perfect and beautiful.
Thou seest not in the creation
of the All-merciful any imperfection.
Return thy gaze; seest thou any fissure?
Then return thy gaze again, and again, and thy gaze comes
back to thee dazzled, aweary.
And yet God in His awesome majesty is not at any distance from man. The Koran informs, “We are nearer to him than the jugular vein.” Muhammad is quoted saying about God, “I cannot fit into my heavens or into my earth but I fit into the heart of my believing servant.” Or another of his sayings also referring to God is: “The heart of the believer is the place of the revelation of God. The heart of the believer is the throne of God. The heart of the believer is the mirror of God.”
The Koran as Revelation then is the bridge which connects man to God, or the ladder lowered from above for man to make his ascent towards God which is also his destiny. It is the knowledge revealed of the bliss which is with God and in God. It makes “the desire of the moth for the star” (in Shelley’s poetry) a wish to be consummated.
“Light upon light” is the simile for eternal joy and echoes similar descriptions of heavenly bliss found in the Bible and the sacred texts from ancient India. In Isaiah we read,
The sun shall be no more thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory.
Similarly, in the Upanishad (from India) we find the following description of the Infinite as Brahman:
And then he saw that Brahman was Joy; for from Joy all beings have come, by Joy they all live, and unto Joy they all return.
I will end until next time quoting you Walt Whitman’s “A Persian Lesson.” It reads:
For his o’erarching and last lesson the graybeard sufi,
In the fresh scent of the morning in the open air,
On the slope of a teeming Persian rose-garden,
Under an ancient chestnut-tree wide spreading its branches
Spoke to the young priests and students.
“Finally my children, to envelop each word, each part of the rest,
Allah is all, all, all – is immanent in every life and object,
May-be at many and many-a-more removes – yet Allah, Allah, Allah is there.
“Has the estray wander’d far? Is the reason-why strangely hidden?
Would you sound below the restless ocean of the entire world?
Would you know the dissatisfaction? the urge and spur of every life;
The something never still’d – never entirely gone?
the invisible need of every seed?
“It is the central urge in every atom,
(Often unconscious, often evil, downfallen,)
To return to its divine source and origin, however distant,
Latent the same in subject and in object, without one exception.”
Peace, and may God’s blessings be with you.
“From water God made every living thing.”
-Surah Number 21 Ayah Number 30, Koran
Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario and a syndicated columnist in Canada and the United Kingdom. A Muslim native to Calcutta, India, and a noted Islamic scholar, Prof. Mansur has written extensively on Islamic extremism and the challenges facing contemporary Islam.