Sunday, April 17, 2016

2016.04.17 Oceanic Wisdom Of Islam in Easter

“The mercy of Allah is an ocean. Our sins are a lump of clay clenched between the beak of a pigeon. The pigeon is perched on the branch of a tree at the edge of that ocean. It only has to open its beak.”
        from Minaret, a novel by Leila Aboulela

I love this image of the Divine Being named Allah. It’s in the first small chapter of Aboulela’s novel about Najwa, a Muslim girl from an aristocratic family who has been displaced from Khartoum, Sudan, as was Aboulela, and exiled in the wake of a 1985 military coup. Najwa struggles to adjust to the bustling urbanity of London where she cleans the houses of people who live as she used to live. The minaret in a nearby mosque becomes a symbol of hope and the hijab Najwa had eschewed at home, a garb of pride—and protection.

Minaret is a book about the power of religious symbols and traditional practices to be sturdy steadying anchors—assurances of divine compassion in any storm.

I can identify. When nothing makes sense and I have no sight, I perch, like the pigeon, in a pew, or before my home altar, on the edge of my bed or on a park bench, open my beak, and howl. Aboulela (left) is more quietly passionate.

Some days I feel like the ocean itself—vast and open and also glutted and sated with my own and everyone else’s shipwrecks stored up in my depths. Some days I’m like the pigeon staring into the ocean from a safe perch. I want to call out, assert my presence, but my "beak" is stuck in  mushy lumpiness. That’s what I feel like when I am mired in my own sin: the fear of being too exposed, too intimate, too transparent. The fear disconnects me from trusting goodness—in God, myself and others.

Aboulela’s image of sin as clay reminds me of the gray clay we used in kindergarten—all wet and squishy like mud. Our small fingers plunged deeply into the tough clay. It was like a jihad, which in Islam is the spiritual struggle within oneself against sin. I worked strenuously on my lump of clay to mold it into something that looked like something appealing that I could then put in the kiln to dry and take home to present to my parents. All of my great sculptures looked like turtles with longish legs. My mother adored every one, with a little too much adulation. My father stupidly asked what it was. It was a horse, of course! Whatever its identity, my offering fell graciously into the ocean of mercy.

My primary care physician, a Sufi Muslim named Noor, recommended Aboulela’s novel to me. In between listening to my chest for wheezes, taking my vitals, and recording my list of symptoms, she tells me where to go to enjoy the food she loves and recommends things to read. I return the favor. Noor is as sure of herself medically as she is about ethnic foods, spiritual books, and her absolute trust in Allah. Her trust in the unfailing compassion of Divinity is one-way and absolute. Mine is more two-way, favoring a co-creative process between humanity and divinity. Her husband, she says, would agree with me.

Noor, like Najwa in Aboulela's book, draws strength from her infallible faith in the oceanic Allah. Her trust is unswerving and never breaks, no matter the hardships of life on earth. My faith strengthens me, too, as the mercy of God, my Allah, participates with me, to mold my “clay"—even unto death. 

Either way, we both end up in the ocean where nothing is ever lost. Everything is nicely salted and preserved—forever. That is the most merciful outcome I can imagine.