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Archive for December, 2011

Poem and Commentary

I bear witness that there is no god but God

I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God

I bear witness that the Garden is true and that the Fire is true

and that we will all be resurrected.

Why?

Because this world is too small for me.

The intimate details of my heart can only be satisfied by the One in whom I hope

Even if I were to live a thousand lives, this world could not fill me

of its beauties, its tragedies, its longings, its crushingly sweet/bitter moments

to know and to be known, to experience and to be experienced

all of that, over and over again

forever chasing the traces of Layla

uncontrollable tears of separation, transcendent rapture of nearness

so I set my sights on her abode

the place she is calling me to in my dreams

where she will give me everything and more

لِلَّذِينَ أَحْسَنُوا الْحُسْنَىٰ وَزِيَادَةٌ

Commentary

“I bear witness that there is no god but God / I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God / I bear witness that the Garden is true and that the Fire is true / and that we will all be resurrected. / Why?”

– The purpose of theology (‘aqida/kalam) is to distinguish what is true from what is false, and to provide us with a blueprint of the unseen things which God wants us to know about and believe in. This reality is contained in the first words of the Qur’an, “Who taught humanity that which they did not know” (96.5). However, theology does not address the emotional and psychological states which bring these beliefs to life. There has to be a deeper reason why we believe what we do, otherwise we are just theological robots. Perhaps some people are afraid of God’s punishment. Perhaps others are interested in philosophical questions about epistemology and ontology. Perhaps others are motivated by feelings of desire and longing for God and all that God has promised to give to those whom He loves.

“Because this world is too small for me. / The intimate details of my heart can only be satisfied by the One in whom I hope / Even if I were to live a thousand lives, this world could not fill me / of its beauties, its tragedies, its longings, its crushingly sweet/bitter moments / to know and to be known, to experience and to be experienced / all of that, over and over again / forever chasing the traces of Layla”

– There is so much that is beautiful and exciting in this world. One can imagine living many lives, seeking after all that seems worth seeking. However, what the spiritual life teaches us is that what we are really longing for is God. Everything that we desire in this world is a reflection of God’s infinite bounty. So the intelligent person focuses on the Source of Gifts, as opposed to obsessing about the gift itself.

In the Islamic tradition, there are stories about a man named Majnun (“the crazy one”) who is in love with a beautiful woman named Layla. Majnun is a metaphor for the human being in love with God, and Layla is a metaphor for God. If we ever caught a glimpse of the true Beauty of God, we would lose our taste for any of the pleasures of this world or the next. Majnun has seen Layla, and so he is uninterested in anything else. Whenever he shows attachment to anything that is not Layla herself, it is only because it reminds him of Layla. Most human beings are “chasing the traces of Layla” and it is only the most fortunate who move on to focus on seeking God without any intermediaries.

“uncontrollable tears of separation, transcendent rapture of nearness / so I set my sights on her abode / the place she is calling me to in my dreams / where she will give me everything and more / لِلَّذِينَ أَحْسَنُوا الْحُسْنَىٰ وَزِيَادَةٌ”

– A reality of the spiritual life is alternating states of expansion (bast) and contraction (qabd). Sometimes, God gives us a taste of spiritual bliss, and we desire nothing else. Other times, God chooses to contract our state, and we feel a painful sense of distance from God. Both states are needed to propel us forward towards God. Expansion allows us to know, with a deeper sense of certainty, that closeness to God is the greatest thing a human being can experience. Contraction allows us to prove our sincerity by persevering in our worship of God, even when we don’t seem to be getting anything out of it. The reality is that God is deserving of worship no matter what, because God is God, not because we get spiritual or material benefits from doing so.

God has called us back, through revelation (wahy), the lofty examples of the Prophets and Messengers (may peace be upon them), the stirrings of our hearts, and more. The verse of Qur’an mentioned in the poem means, “for those who do good, there is the best, and something more!” (10.26) Scholars of Qur’anic commentary differ as to what the “more” means, but the point is clear: it is better than anything we could ever imagine.

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