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Language: Transcendency versus Literalism

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Photograph by the late Ansel Adams.

 In art, the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can imagine. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

The mind can only put words to  that which it can actually comprehend.  One of the events of al-Isra wal Mi’raj was described by Rasulullah:

Then Jibril took me till we reached Sidrat-ul-Muntaha (i.e., lote tree of utmost boundary) which was shrouded in colors indescribable.

Rasulullah s.a.w. had made the Miraculous Ascent, seen the Sidrat-ul-Muntaha, and upon his return to earth, did not have the words to describe the color of the tree leaves.

On one occasion, Imam Ahmad r.a. had a dream in which he spoke with Allah ta’ala, asking:

O Lord! How is it possible to achieve closeness to You?” He replied: “By the recitation of my speech (Qur’an).

Several things should be obvious at this point:

  • Language is a path of transcending the physical to the spiritual realm
  • It is a bridge between “self” and “other”
  • That bridge could have a foundational weakness at either end, or crack in the middle

When the artist sees, it is not the same “seeing” of the literalist.  I used to work in software development.  The programming department was entirely separate from the design department.  We knew how to make things work, they knew how to make things look good.  We spoke of code logic during the lunch-hour; they spoke of things we couldn’t understand.

When the spiritualist sees, it is with different vision from the materialist.  How else could the Book of Allah, or even Surat-al-Fatiha, be something through which the soul seeks Nearness.  We read it one day as a mere ritual, the next day it brings tears, the next it brings broadened understanding and wisdom.  It is the ultimate “living document”, though the words themselves are not subject to modification.

Anas b. Malik reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Allah is more pleased with the repentance of a servant as he turns towards Him for repentance than one amongst you who is traveling with a camel in a waterless desert, and there is upon (that camel) his provision of food and drink, and it is lost by him.  He, having lost all hope (to recover it), lies down in the shade of a tree and is despondent, and there he finds that camel standing before him. He takes hold of his bridle, and then out of boundless joy says: 0 Lord, Thou art my servant and I am Thine Lord. He commits this mistake out of extreme delight.

The one who takes only the literal meaning of this man’s words will cast him out of Islam for utterances of disbelief.  And yet we have Rasulullah telling us that not only does Allah ta’ala forgive his mistake, He is delighted with His repentant servant.  The story itself is a beautiful and artistic expression about which one could write a book.  It shows that the Mercy of Allah overcomes His Wrath.  It shows that the deeds of the heart take precedence over the mistakes of the tongue.

And so The Eulogy of the Mantle can only benefit those with a heart that sees:  the Mantle is to be worn only by the poet.  It is utterly forbidden for the literalist who is neither able to determine its color, nor the fabric of which it is woven.  If only the literalist would busy himself seeking his own mantle, rather than deriding those who seek warmth in the one he can’t perceive.

Is it because of your remembrance of the neighbours of Dhi-salam,
That tears mixed with blood are flowing (from your eyes)?
Or is it because of the breeze blowing from Kaadhimah?
Or is it the lightning struck in the darkness of the night in Idam?
What has happened to your eyes? (the more) you tell them to stop, the more they continue flowing.
What is the matter with your heart? (the more) you tell it to come to its senses, (the more it is agitated).
Does the lover think that his love can be concealed.
While his eyes are shedding tears and his heart is glowing?
Had it not been for the love, you would not have shed tears at the ruins (of your beloved).
Nor would you become restless at the remembrance of the cypress (tree) atop the high mountain.
How do you deny love after the testimony.
Borne against you by (such) reliable witnesses as your tears and your illness.
Love has ingrained two lines of fear, and withered your face
On your cheeks like yellow rose and the reddish tree.
Yes! Thoughts of the beloved came to me at night and kept me awake.
And love transforms pleasure into pain.
O you who reproach me, regarding my love, pardon me.
From me to you if you do justice, you would not reproach me.
My state (of love) has been expressed to you, (now) my secret is no longer concealed.
From those who malign (me), nor is there (something to) check my agony.
You have sincerely advised me , I did not heed it.
For verily a lover is deaf to those who advise him.
I regarded with suspicion the advice of the elders in reproaching me.
(Wisdom) in the advice of the elders is above suspicion.

– Qasidat-al-Burda (Eulogy of the Mantle, part 1)

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