Sunday, 22 June 2014

Our Sacred Connection to Water

The Man Who Planted Water II

Looking out over the sea at Hout Bay.
I recently visited Cape Town, my home city. My family and I went down there for a number of reasons. We missed our family. My spouse, Sadia, had been out of South Africa for more than 10 months. For me, I had missed the sea so much. One afternoon, we took a drive to Hout Bay, a quaint little seaside town about 20 minutes from the city of Cape Town.

It was a typical Western Cape day: grey clouds, intermittent rain and a cold wind chill. The tumultuous waves in the bay with the mountains in the background looked foreboding and ominous. I loved it. This is what I miss for the almost 15 years I have now lived in Gauteng, an inland province kilometres away from the ocean. Also, I was born on the shortest day of year in the middle of winter: 21 June. Perhaps the weather had coloured my soul.

Looking at the troubled sea, it took me back to a talk I gave a while back on The Man Who Planted Water: Lessons from an Eco-Terrorist. It struck me that on that discussion I had focussed on our attitude to water and our socio-political relationship with it. There were dimensions I had missed partly because of the limited length of the pre-khutbah talk at the Rasooli Centre and partly because I would have most likely complicated my initial delivery.

The other side of water

What I now want to focus on is the flip side of water: its spiritual dimension and our sacred connection to it. Water is more than a resource. It is more than a physics or physical phenomenon. But even at this level, water is an extremely interesting element. As a compound it is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom hence H20. Both these elements feed fire. A flame will die if not for oxygen. Hydrogen is about 72% of the sun and is the fuel that explodes to light up our galaxy. What does this mean because, together, hydrogen and oxygen, will exterminate fire?

As human beings we are over 60% water. The earth is over 70% water. There is literally no life without water which is why the search for life in the universe is a search for water. I went searching for the references to water in the Bible and the Qur’an. I found that there are probably 722 references to water in the Bible. In the Qur’an there are most likely 874 referring directly water (422), rain (128), river (159), sea (120), sailing (35) and ocean (10).

In both these scriptures water features prominently in the stories (amongst others) of Noah and the Ark; during Mary’s pregnancy when she complains to God for her condition; Jonah and the Whale; and Moses. In the case of Moses there are several references. When he is born, it the Nile that delivers him to the start of his new destiny in Pharaoh’s palace. Later, he splits the Red Sea with his staff and then strikes a rock when the children of Israel complain of thirst. In later life Moses asks for spiritual knowledge and is informed that he will meet Khidr (the eternal prophet) where the two oceans meet.

Rain for the heart

Before the decisive battle at Badr, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and all the prophets) asks God for a sign that He will support his band of 300 hundred against the enemy of over 1000. Before the battle, a light rain descends to strengthen the hearts of the believers. 

It is no coincidence that Muhammad came from a desert community. A community whose connection to Abraham was founded in water. When Abraham leaves Hajira in Mecca with their young son Ismail, the well of Zam Zam is uncovered drawing the surrounding Arabs to this sacred city. In the desert, water becomes precious because it is rare.

Water has always played a prominent role in Islam. When I was little, the madressa taught the seven types of water to begin the lesson on cleanliness and purification. This is part of Islamic law, also referred to as the Shariah which guides Muslims with regards taking ablution in spiritual preparation for prayer. Before you come to mosque for Friday prayer, you are encouraged to take a shower for the same purpose. It should not be surprising that the word Shariah actually means the path to a watering hole.

The metaphor for explaining blessings, barakah, and that of mercy or rahmah is often of rain clouds being driven by the wind to land that was once dead. Once the rain falls then the earth comes alive with the flourishing of vegetation. At a deeper level this is the ultimate explanation for divine inspiration and enlightenment. Rumi says: “Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”

Returning to the Source

Recently I uncovered an amazing method for understanding texts or scripture. In The Forty Rules of Love by Elaf Shafak, Shamsi Tabrizi, the dervish who inspired Rumi is asked to explain a puzzling verse in the Qur’an. Shamsi says that trying to understand the Qur’an is like seeing the text as a river.
  • The first level of meaning is like being able to observe the flow of the river. From a distance you can see how and where the river flows. But you have not yet tasted its waters.
  • Tasting the water you can discern it purity, quench your thirst but you have not immersed yourself in it yet.
  • If you swim in the river, you can feel its power and completely renew your spirit yet you are still outside the river.
  • In the final instance, you can become the river and fully experience its flow and finally reach the shoreless ocean of Allah, the Source of All.

This puts an entirely new spin on the concept subhanallah. Generally this is translated as ‘Glory be to Allah’. At the level of ‘tasting’ the same phrase could also mean ‘Allah is free from any imperfection’. Swimming in the river, subhanallah now can also mean ‘swimming to Allah’. If you become the river then subhanallah is understanding that we come from the Source only to return to the Source or inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji un.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The lake will never be the same again

Review of Elif Shafak's The Forty Rules of Love

Between your fingers you hold a stone and throw it into flowing water… If a stone hits a river, the river will treat it as yet another commotion in its tumultuous course. Nothing unusual. Nothing unmanageable. If a stone hits a lake, however, the lake will never be the same again.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak will disturb your sense of Islam, your comfort zones, what you thought you understood about spirituality and your sense of self. After all, this was the mission that Shams of Tabriz had when he sought out the great Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi of Konya.

I grew up on the stories of Rumi from when I was a teenager and my late father would share with me what he had read about the founder of the whirling dervishes. It baffled me even then as to what the impact Shamsi Tabrizi had when he dumped Rumi’s book and manuscripts into the pond. Already then my mind developed an image of Shams as a sort of villain, a most unorthodox teacher, a disturber of the peace.

Why did Rumi have to go mad with yearning for Shams (assassinated by Rumi’s followers) before he could write his Mathnawi (perhaps his best work), I pondered? Why would someone go mad because another dies? Did he not have proper faith? Since my father passed I had my own arguments in defence of the sufi master. These questions drew me closer to the sufi path in my later years and nourished my own grasp of the quest for a better relationship with Allah.

Then along comes Elif Shafak with her take on the story and dumps most of my notions Rumi, the Whirling Dervishes, Shamsi Tabrizi, the tethering of the ego, understanding the Qur’an and my late father (Ebrahim Jacobs, may his grave be forever bathed in light), into the pond. 

A story within a story (actually: stories within a story), Shafak tells of how a housewife, Ella Rubinstein’s apparently tranquil existence is shattered when she is asked to evaluate a manuscript, Sweet Blasphemy. Shafak’s storytelling reminded me of a Rumi poem I had once read:

You are in love with me, I shall make you perplexed.
Do not build much, for I intend to have you in ruins.
If you build two hundred houses in a manner that the bees do;
I shall make you as homeless as a fly.
If you are the mount Qaf in stability.
I shall make you whirl like a millstone.

What Shafak has successfully done is take the ideas of Rumi and Shams, the twin suns of sufism, breathe new life into a story that has been retold so many times, and transposed it into a modern context for all lovers of the Sublime. The Forty Rules is an exquisite piece of tapestry, weaving together stories of a remorseful drunk, a prostitute who dresses up as a man, an arrogant Muslim scholar, a revengeful bitter son and a wife grappling with her love for Mary and her new found Islam.

Sufi mystics say the secret of the Qur’an lies
in the verse of Al-Fatiha,
And the secret of Al-Fatiha lies in
And the quintessence of Bismillah is the letter ba,
And there is a dot below that letter…

The dot underneath the B embodies the entire