This week I submitted a translation I have been working on for 5 months, of an Ibn ‘Arabi book on the 99 Names of God that had previously been translated into Spanish (I was translating it into English). It’s been a labour of love but also a “gift-laden carpet”* in many extraordinary ways.
The most transformative part of the work, of course, was just going over the meanings of the 99 Names over and over again, discovering new nuances. It is astonishing how few of them are negative, in our understanding of the word (Al-Muntaqim – the Avenger – and Al-Darr – the Bringer of Harm – are the only two that spring to mind; al-Mumit, the Bringer of Death, doesn’t really count, as death can be the most beautiful release, depending on how much you want it).
On the other hand, there are dozens of Names that relate to generosity, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness: Al-Rahman (The All-Compassionate), Al-Rahim (The All-Merciful), Al-Ghafar, Al-Ghafur, Al-Ghaffar (variations on the Most Forgiving), At-Tawwab (He who turns towards the one turning towards Him), Al-Sattar (He who conceals faults), Al-Karim (The Generous), Al-Jawad (He Who gives before being asked), Al-Halim (The Mild), Al-Wasi’ (The All-Embracing, as in the Qur’anic verse “His mercy embraces all things”), al-Wali (The Protecting Friend), Al-Wadud (The Loving), Al-Wahhab (in contrast to the religious conservatives who have taken on this name, it means The Giving)…
I shouldn’t be so surprised, but the impression that one often gets of Islam is that it encourages fear of God, fear of hell, fear of a patriarchal system that is supposed to order every aspect of our lives. But the reality, when you pull those appearances apart, is quite the opposite. It’s enough to melt a heart frozen stiff with fear.
Even though I’ve been Muslim all my life, or perhaps precisely because of that, I have so often found it easy to slip into assumptions about what a Muslim life is like. There always needs to be a balance between the intellectual, the ethical, the practical and the aesthetic. What often happens is that one or more of these is neglected; our faith limps along cock-eyed, developing achy joints as a result of its poor coordination.
And then we innocently go to the nearest, quickest reference points to seek out an uplifting hadith, quote, du’a or bit of history: Sheikh Google, his wife Binti YouTube and their hyperactive son, Ibn Facebook. Apart from those things that are posted by friends, whose intentions we know well enough to trust, we emerge from these virtual encounters riddled with gunshot wounds inflicted by different doctrinal angles, and shell-shocked at the bigoted, insulting, or downright stupid ideas (not to mention actions) of some Muslims.
I think it was because of my need for something that really went deep that this book landed on my table. Ibn A. seems to have a knack for explaining even the most intricate existential problems (such as the existence of evil – he says that transgressions, being brought into existence by God, ask forgiveness from Him on behalf of the place where they are carried out – that is, in the person doing them). Some of these issues have dogged me for years; no-one else has put them straight for me satisfactorily. My intellectual side can be dragged out of the closet and de-mothballed at last, to rejoin my daily wardrobe of selves.
One of the things that has hooked me most is his etymology. Sufism has a long tradition of finding correlations between words with the same letters in a different order – hence the link between ‘to do, act’ (عمل) and ‘to know’ (علم), i.e. don’t act without knowledge; or words whose graphics are the same when the vowels are not written – such as عالم, which can mean ‘knower’ (‘alim) or ‘cosmos’ (‘alam); or words whose letters themselves (each one of which has not only a numerical value associated with it but also meanings of their own, such as ʿayn, which means the letter ع, eye, spring or source) provide them with other shades of meaning: so, you could say, عدم, meaning ‘non-existence’, is differentiated from ادم, Adam, by the ‘ayn that is his eye (and thus his all-important witnessing) and the Source that brought him into being.
Everything in existence is, by Sufi logic, a sign of Allāh – including, of course, ourselves – so nothing is coincidental. All things and beings, events and non-events, are alive with meaning. Because Arabic evolved as a language for the purpose of receiving divine revelation, all of these little correlations are clues left for the careful observer to trip over, their faces lighting up with glee at what a gem was left lying around for anyone to find.
One of these correlations dawned on me the other night, late, when my brain had slipped out of analytical, left-brain mode and into that dream-like, perceptive state usually populated (in my brain, at this hour) by complete gibberish.
It was this: the verb سبح, which in form I means ‘to swim, to float’ and hence ‘to transcend’, and which in form II is translated as ‘to glorify, exalt, extol’ (as in the expression ‘سبحان الله’, translated as ‘Transcendent is Allāh’ or ‘Exalted is Allāh’), combines these two nuances for a very good reason.
When we utter (or feel) the phrase ‘subḥān’Allāh’ – on seeing something extraordinary or astonishing, or realising something that inspires awe in us, or simply when recognising the incredible beauty, harmony, or logic of something – not only do we extol Allāh, but we transcend the mundane hamster-wheel of negativity that we wade through in our daily lives ourselves.
So, while these clever little connections leap out at the word nerd and light them up like a Christmas tree, in fact everything has the ability to have that effect if we only paid enough attention to it – or, perhaps, the right kind of attention.
Which leads me to another little light-bulb that blinked on this week: that in order to become a friend of God (the term used in Arabic to mean a saint), perhaps what’s needed is to treat everything as a friend – loved ones, strangers, all creatures, nature, water, time, space… – because it all exists in and because of Divine Reality. It’s easy to make a big show of religion, to wear pious-looking gear and be kind to the poor and needy, and then snap at a child because they their need for breakfast does not coincide with my desire to get up and make it. What do you mean that’s not universal?
Several of the Companions mentioned that they never saw anything but that they saw Allah in, behind, or with it. And a famous Sufi training story tells how a fish went swimming through the ocean, asking everyone where the water was. I might only taste a drop of it of this ocean, but it leaves me realising how thirsty I am for it.
*An aphorism of the Shadhili Sufi master Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari reads: “States of need are like gift-laden carpets”. See also my previous post Song for the Crocodiles.
Oxford Botanical Gardens. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons
Autumn encroaches. In tiny increments it pulls its covers up higher each night; dusk always seems to surprise us, as if it really oughtn’t be doing that.
Nostalgia for summer tapers every conversation, string vests and grown-up blonde dashes clung to in the hope that warmth really will return. It’s as though we haven’t lived through this every year of our lives, that as far as we have heard, as far back as our genetic memory serves, this is something new and vaguely frightening.
Lanterns are lit, ghouls shooed away with rituals that keep their attraction. And the gravity that follows the upward throw of any dense object brings it crashing down towards us, unprepared and flapping our hands.
Perhaps other people deal better with autumn than me. Reading a book on Biodynamic gardening, I was reminded of how obvious these things should be – if, that is, any of us spent long enough in the elements to remember that this downward pull is only the other side of the cycle that everything turns. The moon waxes, shines, wanes, disappears. The waters in us and every other moving thing rise tidally towards it, dropping back when its magnetic allure fades.
This month, the triply descending cycle of autumn, new moon and (squeamish men look away now) an unusually well-timed period brought it all home to me. I could almost feel myself being lowered into my grave. I felt profoundly sad, a feeling I am rarely overwhelmed by, being more partial to the natural highs of laughter, growing things, creativity.
But I cannot describe how much I valued feeling so low. I had the distinct sense that it was a kind of preparation for death.
The day after descending into my grave, so to speak, I went to a Red Tent evening at a friend’s house – well, yurt. (Don’t tell me you didn’t realise I was such a hippy.) After the usual hugs and teas and catching up, we went straight into the heavy stuff: menopause and death.
As one woman, a nurse, pointed out, we Brits do death very badly. We prefer not to think about the finality of our earthly lives, concentrating on practical matters – healthcare, wills and testaments, inheritances (those enticing burdens that make a relative’s death seem confusingly attractive). We do the usual British thing of not wanting to cause a fuss, to go and hide somewhere with our grumbles and get out from under other peoples’ feet. So the elderly get packed away in homes, anaesthetised to numb them to their mortal process. Is it more to ease their suffer or to protect us from the sight of someone going, fully aware?
Spain is so different. Elderly parents, dotty and deaf as they come, are dutifully cared for by grown-up sons or daughters, taken out to events slowly on unsteady, slippered feet, forgiven for wandering off and falling asleep in strange people’s cars. This is the comedown after a lifetime of general good health, of being in service to other people: it’s an expectation that is becoming harder to honour as the grip of the Northern European work fetish tightens.
As my biodynamic gardening book maintained, winter is a time when the garden appears to be dead, but there is just as much going on beneath the surface as there is above it during the rest of the year. Life is dispersed among millions of micro-organisms, microfungi, worms; more than that, there is a quiet in this temporary fallow period that is an essential antidote to the activity and production of the rest of the year.
I like being around old people. They offer the long view, neutralising my anxiety about getting to where I want to be quicker (in that self-defeating tizz of wanting to be somewhere than isn’t the present moment).
If I live to be 80 (God willing), I’m less than halfway into my time here. What does it matter than I don’t have my book of poetry (self-)published yet, my novel finished, my album recorded? Let alone the deserts I would regreen if I had the chance, the disadvantaged youth I’d educate, the single mothers I’d support with all the millions of pounds I would have if any of those projects miraculously became huge successes. (Ha ha.)
I find I can end up turning from one goal to another with such dizzying speed, and always with the same urgency, that I drive myself closer to the ground – which is probably right where I’m needing to be.
Just as wholistic health looks at the wellbeing of the body rather than treating symptoms, and permaculture (or biodynamics) says “Look after the soil and the soil will look after you”, the soul needs lowness – not only to remember how beautiful it is to be high, but for the value of lying fallow and being nothing.
And the moon is generous when she returns: when we can see the dark lacuna of the ‘old moon’ beside the glowing curve of crescent, it’s known as ‘the old moon in the new moon’s arms’.
(If all that sounds too depressing, follow this link for things to grow through winter: http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/vegetables-grow-winter-how-guide.)
Why do we write? Why do we make music? Why do we create art?
I’ve been rolling these ideas around in the marble maze of my brain for some time now. There are various ‘things’ I ‘do’ (excepting the usual things, eating, drinking, doing dishes…). I’m referring to the things that I present to the world as products, effects, that are unique to me. Poetry, short stories, blogs posts, the odd article, translations, making clothes, geometry or painting when I get the chance…I seem to cycle through them one by one, with breaks for everyday activities and to tend my vegetable garden.
Part of me wonders if, in order to be considered a ‘proper’, professional writer, I should be sitting down at the computer for eight hours a day, clocking in and off as though I had a boss looming overhead with time-sheets clutched in his thunderous fist, the way I imagine ‘real’ writers (I mean, people who have publishers looming over them in a similar way) have to do.
I don’t know if it’s something I can blame on my womanhood, and the cyclical nature inherent in that, or being a mother, and the similar cycles of washing, hanging out to dry, collecting in and getting things dirty again that it involves.
Certainly there are days that seem to spin past in identical form, and my life appears to be a hamster wheel in which I am racing forward on the scent of a biscuit but never really going anywhere.
But then, the reality of sitting down at a computer and typing for long hours every day, as I’m currently doing for a translation job, is not really that fun – other than the enjoyment of the work itself.
Your shoulders get tense and knotty, you neck gets stiff, your eyes itch, your back aches, your legs seem to vanish from your consciousness, you get terribly cold as your circulation stagnates…it’s as though the body is kept in a battery chicken cage during those interminable working hours.
If you were to do the same kind of static, limited movements for that many hours a day in any other job, let’s say, making coffee in a café, you’d get Repetitive Strain Injury and be able to sue your employer. (Where’s that boss with the thunderous fists when you need him?)
So moving from one art to another, using different muscles, and meanwhile letting ideas mature in the back of the brain is not such a bad proposition. It fleshes out the limited nature of the job in a physical sense, makes it somehow synesthetic. Flashes of the other activities appear in the writing – the tactile sense of cloth in The Peace It Pivots On, the catharsis of pulling out weeds in Vetch, and so on.
And, not least, the interactions that occur with other people in the course of doing other things inevitably enrich a writer’s work. How do you have anything to write about if you are locked in an office all day? Can’t we count a trip to the beach as research? Everything we do as writers is research. If you aren’t careful you end up writing stories about people writing stories – the literary equivalent of pulling lint out of your bellybutton and parading it as life.
Which brings me back to my first questions. Why are we writing? To move the furniture of our subconscious around? Or are we focussing on what we get from our readers, the likes on Facebook, the comments, the shares? I have to confess to a sneaky desire to see all these things increment. I don’t know if I’d share them if the desire wasn’t there.
But it makes me wonder why I am writing, then. If I only do what I do in order to receive praise, I’m back on that hamster wheel, salivating at the thought of the biscuit but never really being satisfied by it.
In fact, whenever we do anything because we get some pleasure out of it – which inevitably only gives us that rush of pleasure temporarily, and then leaves us with a cold, dark hole in our chests and the need to go back and get more – we are basically courting addiction. It can be drugs, porn, chocolate, shopping, or it can be something subtler, like praise. It’s the celebrity’s Achilles heel.
It’s also one of those habits of parenthood that we get chided for in parenting books. Encouraging a child to do something because we’ll give them a sweet for it won’t teach them to do it for it’s own sake (which is the really crucial question). You are effectively training a dog to do tricks for a snack.
And we aren’t dogs. We have drives and needs that go way beyond anything we associate with animals – at least, as far as we can tell. Sure, a pet dog likes being stroked and tickled too – but it would bite you if it was living in the wild. We domesticate animals by yoking them with this stimulus-reward cycle. They never really grow up, and we love them for their childishness.
But why do we write, then? Or make music, or art, or do anything?
There are hormonal reactions that occur when the reward centre of the brain is prodded. The reactions rise and fall. There is another place that produces hormones, and feelings of pleasure (not that place…): I mean the heart. When you plunge into it, it opens out all round into an infinite sunlit ocean, rays streaming down in sparkling filaments that wave and point towards the depths.
Here anything is possible, and everything is done for a different sake, since there is no mirror to bounce our actions off, no Other to reward us with sweets or biscuits or a virtual like. This is not us at all. This is where our best art emerges from, gestating in this endless, gravityless space in which the drop – that tiny fractal of the ocean – is merged with the whole.
It takes a while to slip into this place, to get adjusted to the temperature of the water, to take the deepest breath possible and dare to go under. And it’s only when I’ve found a pearl and brought it up for the world to see that the mirrors start appearing again. If I see that pearl reflected in them, multiplying my admiration for it in the multiples that are reflected back at me, that’s one thing. But inevitably there’s the praise (or criticism) that comes with it too. That’s when I wonder why I am doing it, and if I shouldn’t hold that pearl as close to me as I can, forever.
But then it never gets to be multiplied in the kaleidoscope of people’s reactions. The really daring pearl diver knows that finding the pearl is not the hardest part.
Pulling vetch out of the thyme
velcro-fingered cleavers clinging
borage and bees for company
I rack my brain for that one word
in Spanish that manages to
hold this feeling in its palm.
It isn’t satisfactorio,
enriquecedor, or realizador.
I am, as they would say,
walking on the branches
dragging fingertips across
the cliffs and valleys of the bark
but never quite holding the trunk.
It was a funny Sufi woman with
stained buck teeth who sold buttons;
she used the word once
when I gave her a ride
and it struck me but never
fully stuck. Unless
I made it up.
Pulling chickweed and
out of the land’s most farflung lips
there is the orange-black striped slither
of escalopendra through the grass
each leg a scorpion’s sting,
and there are
hundreds of them.
I wait in the hammock for it to pass
and root around in the archives
laced as dead leaves
in search of the match that
kindled this joy. It must
be a word for every
wild food forager
punctured by needles
from cardoons and nettles
hunting on still
Pulling pink-tipped white
earthsmoke out from
the charcoal of sodden earth
– to slice and douse in vinegar
and steep and strain and dose with –
this word buzzes round my head
bumbling about its business.
It is a word that predates
who digs enough will know
what it feels like
before the mouth
has had its way with it.
Orange blossoms. Nectar deep in
berryish buds burst
to pale trumpets: the smell
insists you close your eyes
the better to inhale it.
I can live without
that word went.
The feeling is
It’s impossible not to notice them. They appear in social network newsfeeds, they appear in the news, in the comments on the news, in conversations overhead on café terraces. At times you can almost see them being thought.
They are the fears that flit across the minds of anyone who has ever come into contact with a Muslim. Or, more potently, who has ever read the word without ever having met a Muslim. The word has taken on a shape-shifting life of its own, at times monstruous and shadowy, at others defiant and political; the silhouette of it morphs on the screen, taking on the prickly subjects around it and shuffling forward under the burden of their horrors.
And yet at other times, and sometimes even more intensely on Facebook than anywhere else, it is a key to a vast wonderland of commonalities, of shared loves and expansions, of the imagined song of a nightingale pondering how to attain the rose, of the sorrow of separation into individual bodies when the spirit longs for union again, of the thunder that joy makes in the heart when this long-for proximity is felt. All of this depends on the projections of the thinker, on the bed the word receives in their brain.
However it beds down in yours, it is never a neutral name. It does not inspire visions of light-hearted, frolicsome, or jovial people, skipping happily through life.
In the spirit of addressing the imbalance of contexts in which the word ‘Muslim’ appears (take, for instance, ‘Muslim Rage’, ‘Muslim patriarchal values’, ‘Muslim traditions’…) I would like to suggest a few new nomenclatures.
How about ‘Muslim Badminton?’
Or ‘Muslim Knitting’?
Or ‘Muslim Strawberry Farms’?
We could really go to town here, in our invented, happy-go-lucky Muslim world, where there are no issues surrounding us like swathes of barbed wire, and we are generally pootling along, enjoying life. (Feel free to add your own Muslim Things in the comments!)
‘Muslim Poetry Slams’
‘Muslim Jam Sessions’
‘Muslim Hiking Clubs’
‘Muslim Soup Kitchens’
‘Muslims Holding Hands at the Movies’
It is curious how often even I expected myself to write something involving a revolution, repressive regime or Scud missile.
How inculcated a sense of a word becomes; I would like to do as gay people did when they inverted the sense of the word Queer and made it something they could be proud of.
In a way, the analogy is not so off the wall. If you were to round up all the gay people in the world, you’d be sure to find a decent dose of substance abusers, HIV positives, sociopaths, and worse in there somewhere. Despite this being so, the truth is that no one gay person can be called upon to answer for all of that. Virtually every gay person I’ve ever met seemed quite serious, domestically minded, and, well, pretty normal.
So it is for Muslims. Much to the annoyance of journalists, for whom it shreds the simple notions they rely upon to explain us from arm’s length, there is no such thing as a ‘Muslim community’. This hysterically funny satire shows how absurd the idea of a ‘black community’ sounds if it were to be turned on its head.
If you don’t happen to spend a decent amount of time among Muslims – and that probably accounts for a good number of Muslims themselves, who are equally vulnerable to casting aspersions over themselves after a good hammering by the news – let me tell you that I know Muslims, or know of Muslims, who happily fall into the above categories, and many more innocent, unscary others besides.
I personally know Muslim midwives and doulas, herbalists, doctors, healers, singers (female too – myself included), musicians, painters, gravestone-carvers, poets, gardeners, Montessori teachers, Steiner teachers, state school teachers, civil servants, journalists, avid PG Wodehouse fans, filmmakers, photographers, nerds, programmers, adrenaline junkies, mountain-climbers…Sometimes they are inspired, driven by a sense of joy so powerful in them that they cannot but do their art, sport, game, craft, or whatever it is, lest they implode with the excitement.
It seems peculiar to associate any of these ordinary, or extraordinary activities with being a Muslim, but are they any less relevant than a different kind of Muslim’s penchant for throwing stones at tanks, or issuing prohibitions on women revealing their ankles, or shouting ‘Death to America’? How much is each of them contingent upon the time, the context, the education of the person, the influences they are subject to, or the unfathomable movements of the human mind?
We are, at our least divided, only human beings. Separating a person’s identity from their freedom to behave like a twit is the first step to viewing them as a human being. Otherwise, we owe what we do to our colour, religion, nationality, immigration status, gender, sexuality, or any other label we have invented for the sole purpose of separating others from ourselves and scattering them into a hierarchy whose apex is us. In this ugly scheme where everything is blamed on the umbrella of identity over our heads, none of us can ever break out of the crust built up of our errors and start over.
So, dear readers, I shall now desist from my Muslim typing, since my Muslim fingers are tired, and my Muslim glasses smudged with unidentified Muslim splodges. My Muslim ideas have run to a standstill. Tomorrow, perhaps, I shall have some Muslim Fun with my kids, playing Muslim Football and doing some Muslim Weeding in my Muslim veggie plot. But for now, I shall brush my Muslim teeth, go to Muslim sleep and, I hope, have a few Muslim dreams.
I used to look for answers
in the warp and weft around
wondered what this fabric would be like
once each crease and pull had been
ironed flat, stretched out, stitched good.
The expanse of cloth was so endless it
hurt my eyes to keep looking
and all direction pulled me
’til I’d spun a skein of doubts
and arguments so thick their
soft accretion left me suffocated.
But every spool has a core
an empty space at its dead centre
where the dynamo that clothed it
finds the peace it needs to pivot on
the point of light in this vast swathe
that veils like night and we’re
the pinpricks in it where the Infinite
decided to break through the cloth
of matter so we’d see.
Instead of looking for my needs out on
savannahs of plain cloth, I looked
into the emptiness within to catch
a heartful of that Light and then
the landscape fell quite smooth,
caught diamonds as they thundered
from the sky. They are
the grains that form as Light contracts
upon our atmosphere, the mirrored discs
we sew upon our dress to make like
we’re that night, here are our stars,
to spin our skirts and get tangled again
instead of staying still and owning nothing.
This is the night. We are its stars.