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.