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.