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SEEN By Gai Eaton

These precious talks on Islam, ninety in all, and each one a jewel of less than 700 words, were written and delivered by Gai Eaton for the Reflections and Words of Faith series of short Friday broadcasts by the BBC between 1978 and 1996.

They provide a beautifully clear and accessible introduction to the central tenets, principles and practices at the heart of Islam. As such, they are not only a unique guide for non-Muslims, but also an inspiring reminder to Muslims of the essence of the faith.

As yet unpublished, the Book Foundation is privileged to be able to serialise these talks in printed form as a monthly offering, starting with five talks delivered in October 1986.

Seeing and Being Seen (1)

by Gai Eaton

The Prophet made use of three terms to define our religion: first, islam, meaning submission to God and to His law; then iman, meaning faith in God and in what He has revealed to us, and finally ihsan, which is usually translated as "excellence", in other words "submission" and "faith" brought to their highest point, perfected. And he defined ihsan in this way: It is to worship God as though you saw Him; for, though you see Him not, yet He sees you".

The Quran – the sacred Scripture of Islam – speaks again and again of God as al-Basir, the All-Seeing, and also as al-Khabir, He who is totally aware of everything. "Not a leaf falls but He knows it", says the Quran; and "He knows the secret thoughts and what is even more hidden".

So He sees us at every moment, and He sees into the most secret recesses of our being. Now here, I think, we are on dangerous ground. I have known people brought up in a Christian environment who have turned against religion precisely because they were taught, as children, that God is some sort of super-Spy. They were told that a fearsome Old Man in the Sky sees everything that they do; he was just waiting to catch them out when they were naughty, and he would punish them even for those shameful secret thoughts which they hardly dared acknowledge to themselves. No wonder they rebelled against this. Most of us have an impulse to duck when we come into a building and notice a security camera pointing in our direction. Surely we have a right to a bit of privacy?

This is not – I believe – the way Muslims understand God's all-seeing presence. They find it reassuring, comforting. They are glad not to be alone in an alien universe. They want to be understood, and they know that they are understood. The sense of loneliness which haunts many people, just below the threshold of everyday life, cries out for love, friendship, companionship and is not easily satisfied; cries out, in truth, for the divine Presence. In our personal relationships in this world we seek to be understood, at least by the people we love and by our friends; but also, perhaps, by our enemies for, if only we could explain ourselves to them, they would not be our enemies. Even if we are embarrassed to admit it, we do look for the ideal lover, the ideal friend, even the reconciled enemy.

What a relief, then, to discover that – in the only way it really matters – we are totally understood because we are totally known. What a relief also to be aware that there is one Person in whose presence we no longer have to pretend or deceive or protect ourselves. One of the Names given to God in the Quran is "The Friend"; the Sufis – the "mystics" of Islam – have gone further and dared to call Him "The Beloved". Whether we are Muslims or Christians we know – or should know! – that our God is no tyrant, and that He who made us as we are is in the best position to know us and to forgive us. The Quran insists constantly upon the divine Mercy; His Mercy, it tells us, "embraces all things" – and He can hardly wait to forgive us for our sins and our stupidities. But He has to wait, if only for a moment, to give us time to understand, in other words to "repent" and to acknowledge, in the light of the truth, that we have fallen short of what could reasonably be expected of us. "Repentance" does not imply self-indulgent and self-pitying guilt; it means turning back to God when we had turned away from Him and admitting the simple truth of our

situation. As we turn – at the very moment at which we turn – He turns to us, and the barriers which we had wilfully erected between Him and us are dissolved. He was always there, waiting; it is we who had made ourselves absent from Him. We have come back where we always belonged. We are known, understood, seen and forgiven.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Seeing and Being Seen (2)

by Gai Eaton

I talked last week about the Muslim's conviction – based upon what the Quran teaches – that we are seen by God at every

moment of our lives and that even our most secret thoughts are exposed to Him, which is one way of saying that we live constantly

in the divine Presence. It could even be said that awareness of this

Presence is at the very heart of the Islamic way of life. "When My servants question thee concerning Me", says the Quran, which is – for us – the Word of God revealed through Muhammad, "then indeed I am close. I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he cries unto Me. So let them hear My call, and let them trust in Me".

There are certain sayings of the Prophet, quite separate from the Quranic revelation, in which God spoke directly through his mouth. Let me quote to you one of the most important of these inspired sayings: "I am with (my servant) when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in company, I make mention of him in a better company than that; and if he draws near to Me a hand's span, I draw near to him an arm's length; and

if he draws near to Me an arm's length, I draw near to him a

fathom's length; and if he comes to Me walking, I go to him speedily".

A whole book could be written – in fact books have been written!

– by way of commentary on that saying, but let us consider just

one point. "I am with (my servant) when he makes mention of Me". But isn't He always with us? Yes, of course He is. But are we aware of the fact? Probably not, most of the time. That is why we behave

the way we do. We are busy, everyday life occupies our attention to the exclusion of everything else. We forget; and the Quran refers again and again to man's forgetfulness. But isn't there something rather foolish and incompetent about people who keep forgetting where they are and in Whose Presence they stand, each day and every day? Well, perhaps if we acknowledge our own foolishness and incompetence, we may already have taken a step towards God. The next step is to do something about it, and that is to "mention" Him, whether "in ourselves" or "in company".

That might not seem to amount to very much, but – in Islam – it is the key both to faith and to practice. The Arabic word dhikr has two meanings: "mention" and "remembrance", and God tells us in the Quran: "Remember Me, and I will remember thee!". What we are doing when we "mention" His Name is reminding ourselves of His Presence, waking up from the dream in which we live so much of the time and recollecting where we are. This, you see, is simply a matter of realism. If I am in London but, for some stupid reason, I think that I am in Paris, then I'm likely to get everything wrong and make a fool of myself. And if, as Islam teaches, everything that we do and everything that we think is seen and known by God, then to forget this is to forget where we are.

But this raises another point, with which I hope to deal in my next talk. If we don't know where we are, then it's very likely that we don't know who we are. And what could be worse than that? There is a verse of the Quran which says: "They forget God, therefore He has caused them to forget themselves". To understand ourselves means to know ourselves in relation to reality; it is to see ourselves as we are in the light of the truth. If we have forgotten what the truth is and if we therefore live in a

fantasy world, we cannot even begin to know who we are. Self- knowledge depends upon knowledge of the Presence of God.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Seeing and Being Seen (3)

by Gai Eaton

Last week I quoted to you a verse from the Quran which tells us that, if we forget God, He makes us forget ourselves. Another way of putting this, also derived from the Quran, is to say that He leaves us to wander this world like blind men. The Book speaks of those who have "hearts wherewith they understand not, and eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not", and it compares such people to "cattle".

But let us consider, for the moment, one particular kind of blindness: the inability to see or know or understand ourselves. There is a line from a poem by the Scots poet, Robbie Burns which has probably been quoted more often than any other line of poetry. I can't do a Scots accent, but it goes like this: "Would the good Lord the giftie gie' us to see ourselves as others see us". Perhaps that should be taken with a grain of salt. If we could really see ourselves as others see us, we would be in the position of someone standing in front of a whole row of distorting mirrors, each showing a different image; we might become so confused that we would be paralysed. But supposing we change the poet's words and say: "Would the good Lord the giftie gie' us to see ourselves as He sees us"? That is quite a different matter.

What is it that makes us so unwilling to look at ourselves calmly and objectively? Fear, I suppose, and defensiveness. If we were to admit our weaknesses to ourselves we would – so we think – be weakened in the face of the world and less able to cope with the dangers and the problems that surround us; and, if we don't build up our own "image", no one else is going to do it for us. Of what

use is a deflated balloon, even if there is a fierce-looking face painted on it? We must blow the balloon up and present that face to the world.

But there's a problem here. The more we try to live a lie, the more vulnerable we become. We're afraid of being caught out by other people; above all, we're afraid of being caught out by ourselves. A lie always needs to be supported by further lies, and then by still more lies, until we find that we have constructed a house of cards that may be blown down at any moment. What happens then? A nervous breakdown, perhaps, or what the psychiatrists call an "identity crisis". Self-deception has its dangers, to say the least.

But, to be able to do without self-deception, we have to feel secure, and, speaking as a Muslim, I believe, that this sense of security can come about in only one way. That is from the knowledge that, even here and now in this turbulent world, we are living in the presence of God, who see us objectively, and yet with mercy and loving-kindness. In that all-seeing Presence there is no longer any point in lying or in pretending to be other than we are. This, surely, is what we call "serenity"; to be oneself, to recognise oneself, in the calm certainty that He sees us as we are and accepts us as we are.

If we are aware of living in that Presence, then we are aware of living face-to-face with the truth: a bright, clear light that encompasses everything. In that light we are free, not only to see ourselves, without false pride or false guilt, but also to look around us, no longer hampered by tunnel-vision, and see things as they really are. And what they are, in the Presence of God, is something quite different to what they appear to be when we consider them only in terms of self-interest – in the way cattle see

them. They have become symbols of what exists above and beyond them; and that is what I want to discuss next week.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Seeing and Being Seen (4)

by Gai Eaton

"Seeing and being seen" was what I had thought of calling this series of "Reflections". So far I've talked mainly about "being seen", being aware that we live in the Presence of God. But in every aspect of religious life there's a kind of reciprocity between God and man; there are two sides to every coin. There's a connection between "seeing" and "being seen", as is clearly suggested by this verse of the Quran: "We" – and this is God speaking through revelation – "We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it is evident to them that this is the truth. Are they not, then, satisfied with their Lord in that He is the Witness over all things?"

The fact that things point beyond themselves – but for which they would be dead ends – is a recurrent theme of the Quran. "Truly", the Book tells us, "in the heavens and the earth are signs for those who believe; and in your own creation and in the animals He scatters in the earth, are signs for people whose faith is sure; and in the alternation of night and day and in the provision that God sends down from the heavens, quickening the earth after her death, and in the ordering of the winds, are signs for people of understanding". Even the colours of this colourful world have something to tell us; they have, says the Quran, "a message for people who are aware". And then again:- "God does not disdain to coin the similitude even of a gnat, or of something still "

Well, that is a fairly comprehensive list: the wind, the


rain, the animals – even a gnat – the plants, light and darkness; you and me. In other words everything – every single thing, great or small – points towards its Creator and says to us: "Don't look just at me, look at Him who made me!"

One of the greatest philosophers of Islam, al-Ghazali, said that everything we see here, and that includes ourselves, has two faces; a face of its own and a face of God – or we could say, a "sign" of God.

He adds that, so far as its own face is concerned, it is nothing; in relation to the "face of God" it is being – it's real. Modern science can tell us a lot about the "nothingness" of things, but their meaning is beyond its range; and that is what really concerns us. But how do we discover meaning? First through Revelation; secondly through "seeing eyes". Revelation – and I'm thinking particularly of the Quran – reminds us of what we so easily forget. It says: "See! God is"; and then it explains all that follows from that overwhelming fact. But what about "seeing eyes"? You and I can't tell ourselves: "At midday, on the dot, I'll start to see the signs of God in everything around me". That kind of vision is a gift, but we can at least do something to fit ourselves to receive this gift, which brings me back to what I said earlier about living in the divine Presence. It is actually in our power to remind ourselves again and again of this simple fact of life.

The Prophet was asked once what was the best cure for forgetfulness – or for what the Quran calls "rust on the heart" – and he said it was to think frequently of death and to remember God constantly. You see, if we forget how soon we shall have to die, and if we overlook the fact that everything around us is perishing before our eyes, then we're living in a fantasy world. It is only when we wake up to the truth that the perishable, once it is recognised as such, points towards the Imperishable, and things lost in time point towards the Timeless, that our vision pierces through surface appearances. I spoke earlier of the "tunnel vision" of people who

forget these truths. Our religion convinces us that there is light at the end of the tunnel; and that is all that really matters.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Seeing and Being Seen (5)

by Gai Eaton

I reminded you last week that everything around us is perishable, here one moment and gone the next, and that we ourselves are short-lived creatures. When the end comes, says the Quran, "you will think that you tarried for no more than an hour". According to another verse, God will ask us: "How long did you live on earth, counting in years?". We will answer, in confusion: "We lived for a day or a part thereof – ask those who can count!", because we ourselves will have lost all sense of time. Then our Creator will ask:

"Did you think that We created you for no purpose and that you would never come back to Us?"

That question seems to me to indicate a paradox. If we live for such a short time, then does anything matter? Do we matter? After all, the Quran tells us at one point that life is made up mainly of trivialities, and the Hereafter "is better and more lasting". Let us take a simple, everyday comparison. Suppose you find yourself spending a few days in a strange place: you could, of course, say, "I'm here such a short time, it doesn't matter what happens". But then again, you might say the opposite, you might say: "I'll be gone so soon, every moment I spend here is precious". And if you knew that the rest of your life depended on what you did in those few days, I think I can guess what you'd say. The Quran emphasises life's brevity, but it speaks also of "a life long enough for those who are prepared to take thought to do so"; to take thought, to reflect, to see and to understand. That is the point. We are given the time we need.

For Muslims, the Quran is God's final revelation, His last word. This is why it conveys such a sense of urgency. Don't waste time – it seems to tell us – you have none to spare! And a Muslim philosopher wrote: "Neither eat nor drink nor sleep without presence of heart and a seeing eye". In other words, remember where you are and observe God's "signs" scattered all around you. There are a thousand different ways in which this could be illustrated. I could take examples of heroism and self-sacrifice, or talk of saints whose utter devotion to God dazzles us. But sometimes it's the small things that demonstrate most vividly what it means to be constantly aware. So let me take a very humble example of "presence of heart and a seeing eye".

A few years ago travellers in North Africa often stopped to stare at rather a strange sight. They would see a man bend down, pick something up from the road, put it for a moment to his forehead and then place it safely on the nearest wall. What was it that this man treated with such respect? Usually a crust of bread, dropped by a passer-by; nothing more than that, but then our nourishment comes from God. Or it might have been a scrap of paper with writing on it, possibly the name of God. That too deserved better than to be trodden underfoot.

What a small gesture, and yet – what a momentous acknowledgement! An acknowledgement of the fact that the sacred surrounds us and that we can never be too busy to recognise it. And what is this recognition of the sacred if not a practical sign of awareness that we live, every moment, in the presence of God, amongst things which come from Him and belong to Him – though we are allowed to borrow them, - things which bear His signature upon them.

I mentioned earlier that, according to the Quran, "God disdains not to coin the similitude even of a gnat"; so why not a crust of bread, a scrap of paper? If He is indeed present with us, wherever we may be – and the Quran tells us that this is so – then everything is in his Presence. For those who have "hearts that understand and eyes that see", things shine and glitter with a light that is not their own. It is said that the Prophet used to pray: "Lord, increase me in marvelling!"; and those who see do, indeed, marvel – and increase throughout their lives in marvelling.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)


by Gai Eaton












(broadcast by the BBC between 1978 and 1996).

These precious talks on Islam, ninety in all, and each one a jewel of less than 700 words, were written and delivered by Gai Eaton for the Reflections and Words of Faith series of short Friday broadcasts by the BBC between 1978 and 1996.

They provide a beautifully clear and accessible introduction to the central tenets, principles and practices at the heart of Islam. As such, they are not only a unique guide for non-Muslims, but also an inspiring reminder to Muslims of the essence of the faith.

As yet unpublished, the Book Foundation is privileged to be able to serialise these talks in printed form as a monthly offering.

Beauty (1)

by Gai Eaton

I returned the other day from a holiday in France, staying for a while with friends in the South. They have bought an old farmhouse, right up in the mountains, and rebuilt it with space for a dozen or more people. Both husband and wife are trained psychologists, and they hold courses for townspeople who've lost all sense of purpose in their lives. They try to help people who are not exactly sick, but who are empty, and I'm sure they do help them. But I'm equally sure that the astonishing beauty of the landscape in which that farmhouse is set also contributes to the healing process, for healing is related to wholeness and, in such a place as that, you begin to feel "whole", at home in the world (because it's so beautiful) and at home in yourself.

Speaking as a Muslim, this is just what I would expect. The very word "Islam" comes from a word meaning "peace". The most basic principle of the religion is Unity:- first the unity of God, who is One without equal, without associate, then the unity of His creation in which every element, however tiny, has its place and its function, and finally the unity achieved in every man and woman once they know who they are and where they are going, at peace with their Lord, at peace in the world, at peace with themselves.

That peace is closely bound up with the awareness of beauty. In one of his most famous sayings, the Prophet Muhammad told his people: Allahu jamilun yuhibbu'l-jamal – "God is beautiful and He loves beauty!". Now that is not a statement about feelings or impressions. It is a statement about the nature of Reality. And

that, in turn, suggests something very important. It suggests that ugliness – and, Yes!, there's plenty of that in the world in which we live – is not on an equal footing with beauty. It's not one of a pair, like hot and cold, black and white; it represents the spoiling of beauty, the unmaking of what had been well made, the denial of God or His seeming absence. You might compare it to a hole in

the pattern, a stain on the fabric, and it belongs to that class of things which, so the Quran tells us, last for but a short time and are then wiped away, while beauty endures. To know this is to possess

a sense of the sacred and so to be aware of the radiance that

illuminates unspoilt nature from within and which may be found also in the things we make, when these are well and lovingly made. The tragedy of modern man, in the midst of his riches and his technological achievements, is that he has lost this sense of the sacred and lives in a world drained of light.

No wonder the people who come to my friends' farmhouse need help. They live in cities from which beauty has been banished as an irrelevance, as though it were a luxury which we can do without, and this is an environment in which it is difficult to believe


God since it has been constructed in forgetfulness of Him; and –


Islam – to forget God is the greatest sin, or the root of all other

sins. Those who have told us, over the past century, that "God is dead" should have had the honesty to complete the sentence:- "God is dead, therefore man is dead!" When nothing in our surroundings reminds us of Him, then He does – in a sense – die in our hearts, and all that makes life worth living dies with Him.

But those visitors to the farmhouse are fortunate. Not everyone has such opportunities, to say the least. Of what use is it to suggest to the majority of city dwellers that they should turn to the empty spaces of virgin nature, where the sacred is nakedly apparent and where souls are healed? Their lives are restricted to

the narrow streets in which no one has the time to say "Good day!" and in which the roar of traffic drowns the human voice. Is there no escape for them, no possibility of healing? God willing, I hope to take up this point next week.

(Broadcast by the BBC in August 1987 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Beauty (2)

by Gai Eaton

I talked last week about the healing powers of unspoilt nature and

I talked about beauty – the seal of authenticity that God has

placed on His creation – but I had to admit that a vast number of people in the world today are isolated from nature by an ugly man-made environment from which they cannot escape. Thus is that entirely true? Is anyone totally cut off from the good things that God has given us? Surely not! But, while those who are lucky enough to live in the midst of beauty need make no effort to enjoy what they have been given, the rest of us have to get down to work and teach ourselves to appreciate the gifts that come our way. No one need make an effort to see God's presence in mountains, rivers and forests, but to find joy in a single flower or to feel respect for a crust of bread is a different matter. It requires what is called – in Islam – the unceasing "remembrance of God", and it requires an understanding of the simple fact that everything created praises its Creator and reminds us of Him.

"Do you not see", asks the Quran, "that everything in the heavens and all that is in the earth adores God, as do the sun and the moon and the stars, and the hills and the trees and the beasts, and many of mankind ?"

The tale is told of a Muslim Sufi Master who sent his youngest disciple to gather flowers for the house. The young man was gone a long time, and he finally returned with one miserable bloom in his hand. The Master raised an eyebrow – perhaps both eyebrows

– and asked for an explanation. "When I went to pick the flowers",

said the disciple, "I found them all singing the praises of their Lord and Creator, and I dared not interrupt them; but then I saw that one had finished her song. This is the one that I have brought you".

Until fairly recently, when the habits of modern life began to get a real grip on the area, travelers in North Africa used often to be struck by rather a puzzling sight. They would observe a man walking down the street – going about his business – stop suddenly, bend down, pick up a discarded crust of bread and, after touching it to his forehead, place it safely on the nearest wall.

What does that story tell us, and what is the significance of this act of respect and gratitude for the nourishment God gives us – even for a dry crust? Both the story and the action demonstrate, in the first place, a true sense of the sacred and an awareness that this sense of the sacred embraces all that God has made, all that He has given for our sustenance or for our delight. Everything we see when we open our eyes, everything we grasp when we hold out our hands comes from Him and – when rightly used – reminds us of Him. Muhammad used to pray: Oh my Lord, increase me in marvelling!

But we also have to understand that everything in existence has certain rights, and our own rights do not extend to misusing these things, squandering them, exploiting them. I can imagine someone saying: "This is really too much! Women's rights, animal rights, even plant rights, and now you talk about the rights of sticks and stones! Where will it end?" It has no end – that's the only possible answer. We didn't make the world. You cannot, the Quran tells us, even create a fly. And the Quran assures us also

that the whole universe is like a vast picture-book filled with the "signs" of God, if only we have eyes to see and the sense to understand. In other words, nothing is merely what it seems. Appearances – as people so often tell us – are deceptive and, if we float only on the surface of the world around us, then we are indeed deceived. There is always more to it than that, and then more and more, until you have plumbed the depths and found – behind the seventy thousand veils of light and darkness, the face of God.

(Broadcast by the BBC in August 1987 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Beauty (3)

by Gai Eaton

I said last week that, from the Muslim point of view, even the little things which surround us or of which we make use in our daily lives can serve to remind us of God and therefore deserve to be treated with respect. These things form part of the material world, and how often have you been told – how often have I been told – that we are "too materialistic" in this modern age? If that means simply that we are too greedy for material possessions, then it's a fair criticism; but I'm going to suggest to you that – in one very important sense – we are not materialistic enough. You and I – unless we are either mystics or scientists – see the material world as a solid, inert lump. We seldom bother to look beneath the surface. For the Muslim mystic however it is a tapestry into which the "signs" of God are woven. But how does the contemporary physicist see it? He too is obliged to probe beneath the surface and, the deeper he penetrates, the greater the mystery which faces him. This solid table in front of me is, he says, a space in which minute quanta of energy move at incredible speeds:

particles, he calls them but then he corrects himself and says that they are waves which sometimes behave like particles – or particles which sometimes behave like waves. It is all very confusing, and so it should be, for it reminds us that nothing is as it seems and that mystery surrounds our little enclosure of "common sense".

Is this unsettling? If it is, then I am sure we need to be "unsettled". Earlier in this series of "reflections" I spoke of those people who have lost all sense of purpose, who live in a grey, monotonous world and who need contact with the splendours of virgin nature if they are to be healed. But what we have to understand – and

perhaps what they need to understand – is that their "grey" world is an illusion. The fault is not in their surroundings but in themselves. "It is not the eyes that grow blind," says the Quran in this context, "but the hearts within the breasts that grow blind".

There is a story which crops up in several different traditions; I first came across it in Hinduism, but then I discovered it again in a Muslim book. It goes like this:- A man living at a certain address in Baghdad (let's say "Baghdad" for convenience, but it could be any city) has a vivid dream in which he learns that a vast treasure is hidden under the floor of a certain house in Cairo. He sets out to seek this treasure, and it's a hard journey; he gets mugged on the way, he nearly drowns and he comes close to starvation, but in the end he arrives at the address in Cairo. The owner of the house says: "You've just caught me – I was about to set out for Baghdad, for I dreamed the other night that a great treasure was hidden under the floor of a certain house there". I think you can guess whose house that is! The traveler returns home – no doubt getting mugged again on the way – and, sure enough, the treasure is under his own living-room. Did he make a wasted journey? The moral of the story is that we sometimes have to venture out and travel far in order to find the treasure which was always ours.

We have all that we need – you and I and anyone else you care to name. That's one of the basic principles of the spiritual life. But we need help, a great deal of help, to discover what we already possess. That help comes, obviously, from God provided we ask for it eagerly and in all sincerity. But, as Muslim, Jew and Christian will agree, He uses many instruments, and in fact – in His hands – anyone or anything can become an instrument of guidance: men and women, the beauties of nature, true works of art, the little things we handle each day – even sticks and stones. But we have to do our part. We have to ask!

(Broadcast by the BBC in August 1987 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Beauty (4)

By Gai Eaton

In this series of short reflections I’ve been talking about beauty – its healing properties – and about the praise which rises from every created thing towards its Creator. "Have you not seen", asks the Quran, "that God is He whom all in the heavens and the earth praise, and the birds in their flight? He indeed knows the worship and the praise of each, and God is aware of all that they do". And the pious Muslim, when things go badly for him, says: "al- hamdu lillahi 'ala kulli hal"; "Praise be to God under all circumstances"; not just on the bright day, but on the dark one too.

But what is really meant by this much abused word, "praise"? It may have different meanings for different people, but – for the Muslim, anyway – it suggests that what is given by God is transmuted on earth into praise of the Giver, just as the falling rain is transmuted into a vapour which returns to the clouds. Men and women praise consciously when they are aware of the source of their existence; sticks and stones praise by their very existence, for existence is itself a miracle. According to the Quran, God "says unto a thing 'Be!', and it is"; and however humble its situation here, among the people of the earth or among the stones of the earth, it is the direct product of God's command and therefore participates, in some way, in the mystery of His being. This – precisely – is why it can serve as a "reminder", inviting us to focus our attention, not upon what has been made, but upon its Maker. "He scatters His mercy", says the Quran, just as the rain is scattered over the dry land, and we – you and I – take and use as much of this as we may be capable of absorbing. Listen to the Quran once again: "God sends down rain from the sky so that the valleys

flow according to their measure, and the flood bears away

thus does God indicate the true and the false. As

for the foam, it passes away as scum upon the banks, while – as for that which is of use to mankind – it remains in the earth".

swelling foam

But, in talking of beauty and praise, the healing powers of nature and the meaning hidden in sticks and stones, have I left out something important? What about the "do's" and "Don'ts" of religion? They have, ultimately, one purpose, and that is to establish harmony, balance, order within the individual personality as also in society; the same harmony, balance and order visible in creation as a whole, maintaining the birds in their flight, turning the growing plant towards the life-giving sun, and bringing the fruit to ripeness on the tree. In the disordered personality and in the disordered society, the "Do's" and "Don'ts" may have to be imposed, but those are conditions under which the equilibrium inherent in creation has already been disturbed as happens when people forget who they are and where they are going.

There is another word for equilibrium in the human domain, and that is "sanity", bearing in mind its derivation from the Latin sanus, which means neither more nor less than "healthy". Health is what those unhappy townspeople (whom I mentioned in the first talk of this series) are seeking when they take refuge with my friends in the French mountains. Perhaps that is what we all seek, at the level of the spirit as also at the bodily level? And "health", understood in its deepest sense, relates to the most fundamental principle of the religion of Islam. This is Tawhid: unity, unification, wholeness, the inter-connectedness of every single thing from the highest to the lowest; the Oneness of God reflected in the oneness of being.

When we are aware of this unity, then we are at home wherever we may find ourselves; when we forget it, we are isolated even in the warmest embrace. It is then that we need help, and help in offered through the thousand-and-one things we see and touch. But we have to reach out, we have to ask. The answer comes with the asking.

(Broadcast by the BBC in August 1987 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Islam, Nature and the Environment

by Gai Eaton

Talks #10-12: Islam, Nature and the Environment from Short Talks on Islam (broadcast by the BBC between 1978 and 1996).

These precious talks on Islam, ninety in all, and each one a jewel of less than 700 words, were written and delivered by Gai Eaton for the Reflections and Words of Faith series of short Friday broadcasts by the BBC between 1978 and 1996.

They provide a beautifully clear and accessible introduction to the central tenets, principles and practices at the heart of Islam. As such, they are not only a unique guide for non-Muslims, but also an inspiring reminder to Muslims of the essence of the faith.

As yet unpublished, the Book Foundation is privileged to be able to serialise these talks in printed form as a monthly offering.

Islam, Nature and the Environment (1)

The Whole Earth as a Mosque

by Gai Eaton

One of the oddest things about the people who reject what they call "organised religion" in favour of strange cults is that they so readily replace the profound with the superficial. The great religions have a breadth and a depth which could never be explored, even in a lifetime, whereas the cults, when their surface glamour is scraped away, are empty and narrow. But it is inevitable that the believers in the great Faiths find in them more than they can absorb – dare one say more than they can use? – and often neglect aspects of their religion which do not seem immediately relevant to their lives. This, I believe, has been the case with a majority of Muslims who have tended to

ignore what the Quran has to say about our environment and regarding our obligations towards the animal creation.

The Quran speaks of the Day when the earth will "yield up her burdens". She will then "tell her tales". "On that Day", we read, "mankind will issue separately, to be shown their deeds. Whosever has done an atom's weight of good will see it then, and whosoever has done an atom's weight of ill will see it".

It might be said that we leave our fingerprints on everything that we touch, and they remain in place long after we have gone on our way. But this is only one side of the relationship we have with everything around us, a relationship of reciprocity. We are not insulated from our surroundings. We are, so to speak, porous and soak up elements from what ever we see, hear or touch. When

we treat the natural world only as an object to be exploited and conquered, we are damaging ourselves. Environmentalists predict that our abuse of the earth will have disastrous consequences for humanity as a whole, but that may be the least of our worries. The consequences are on many different levels; the higher the level, the more deadly they are likely to be. "Work not confusion in the earth after the fair ordering thereof", says the Quran.

The Muslim is assured that the whole earth is a mosque for him.

The walled buildings to which he is summoned to prayer are simply

a convenience. The fields, the forest and the desert are equally

fitting as places of prayer and therefore demand the same respect that is accorded to a conventional mosque. To show respect for everything that God has created is a part of faith, for everything bears the imprint of His hand. The man or woman who stands, bows and prostrates in the midst of nature is a member of


universal congregation, joining in a universal prayer. "All that is


the heavens and the earth glorifies God", says the Quran.

The beauties of the earth are, the Quran tells us, a "reminder to mankind", a reminder to those who are disposed to remember their origin and their end. For such as these, the natural world sparkles with light. It is not some chance agglomeration of atoms, unrelated to our innermost being. It gives, if we are receptive to the gift, and it receives if we, in our turn, offer it the care which is its right. The objective world around us and our human subjectivity might be compared to two circles which intersect rather than float, separate and divided, independently of each other. This is implicit in the Islamic principle of Tawhid, the Oneness of God and the unbroken unity of all that He has created. It is implicit also in the word "cosmos" (as opposed to "universe", a neutral term that implies nothing. The "cosmos" is, by definition, an ordered and

harmonious whole, in which the parts are inter-dependent. "No man is an island", as the poet Donne said, and the human creature - totally dependent on God, but dependent also upon the environment - is for ever in the bonds of need and the net of love.

(Broadcast by the BBC in December 1996 in the Words of Faith series)

Islam, Nature and the Environment (2)

Rediscovering the Signs of God in Nature

by Gai Eaton

Last week I drew attention to the importance which the Quran attaches to the environment, the natural world, as a "reminder" which helps us to keep God always present in our awareness. Nothing in our surroundings is quite what it seems, or rather nothing is only what it seems, and, for the Muslim, it is a part of faith to look upon all things with "seeing eyes". But to perceive, even dimly, these inescapable "signs of God" requires a child's eye preserved into maturity. The Prophet is reported to have prayed: "Lord, increase me in marvelling!" This is how a child sees the world, fresh from the Hand of God and full of wonders but, with the passage of the years, the vision fades. Yet, in the words of the Quran, "It is not the eyes that grow blind but the hearts within the breasts that grow blind". Imbued with faith, the heart may still regain its sight, its insight.

The loss of harmony between man and his environment is but an aspect of the loss of harmony between man and his Creator. Those who turn their backs on their Creator and forget Him can no longer feel at home in creation. "God's Viceregent on earth", as the Quran describes the man who truly fulfils his human function, is then no longer the custodian of nature and has become a stranger in the world, a stranger who cannot recognise the landmarks or conform to the customs of this place.

Today, whether we are Muslims or Christians – or of any other Faith – we seem to have lost the key to the language of "signs", God's language. That is dangerous, particularly for the Muslim for whom

the Quran must eventually become a partially closed book if its constant references to the natural world as a tissue of "signs" no longer coincide with his experience or touch his heart. Since everything has to be spelled out nowadays, there are many who will ask – "But what do these signs mean?" If they could be expressed in words they would be redundant. They touch us at a deeper level than articulate speech.

The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: "God is beautiful and He loves beauty". To speak of the natural world is to speak of beauty, whether we are receptive to it or not. And what is this beauty if not an act of adoration? "Do you not see", asks the Quran, "that everything in the heavens and all that is in the earth pays adoration to God, as do the sun and the moon and the stars, the hills and the trees and the beasts?" It is only too easy to see this as a "poetic" statement, not to be taken quite literally. On the contrary, for the believing Muslim this is – or should be – an undeniable fact. When the Quran speaks, as it does on so many occasions, of this universal and perpetual adoration, it is doing neither more nor less than telling us what happens, the down-to- earth reality of the situation. Our subjective awareness – or lack of awareness – cannot alter the facts.

We did not make this world, we do not own it. You cannot, the Quran reminds us, create even a fly. This vast picture-book, filled with the "signs of God", is what it is. Appearances are, as we are so often told, deceptive and, if we float only on the surface of our world, we are indeed deceived. There is always more to it than that, then more and still more until you have plumbed the depths and found beyond all the veils – those "seventy thousand veils of light and darkness", according to one of the Prophet's sayings – the Face of God, the glory that lies hidden behind the things we

take for granted. Look, we are commanded, and then look again, until you can see.

(Broadcast by the BBC in December 1996 in the Words of Faith series)

Islam, Nature and the Environment (3)

Honouring the Animal Creation

by Gai Eaton

I mentioned in my first talk of this series that many Muslims seem to have ignored the implications of what the Quran tells us about the natural world and about the importance of the animal creation. Not only the Quran. The recorded sayings of the Prophet, the hadith literature, refer again and again to these aspects of the Faith.

The good Muslim's life is lived in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad's example, and it is in the ahadith that we find the most uncompromising references to animal welfare. They have grave implications for all who fall short in their care for the animals in their charge. Not only are there the famous stories of the woman condemned to hell for shutting up a cat till it died of hunger and of the prostitute forgiven all her sins because she gave water to a dog that was dying of thirst, but there are a number of small incidents in the record which emphasise the same principle. When the Prophet saw a donkey that had been branded on its face, he cried out: "God curse the one who branded it!" A man who was about to slaughter a goat for food was severely reproached for letting the animal see him sharpening his knife. A prophet of earlier times, so we are told, was scolded by God Himself for burning an ant's nest because an ant had stung him – "You have destroyed a community that glorified Me!" and there is, according to another saying, a reward in Paradise for whoever shows kindness to a creature with "a living heart".

The Quran tells us: "Your Lord inspired the bee, saying: Choose dwellings in the hills and in the trees and in what is built; then eat all manner of fruit and follow humbly the ways of your Lord made smooth". In other words, follow your Shari'ah. Islam teaches that, just as mankind has been given a Shari'ah, a path of righteousness to be followed by all who believe in God and are obedient to Him, so each of the non-human species has a path laid down for it. And each of these "communities", as the Quran describes them, has a particular relationship with its Lord. But the Lord is One. Ours as well as theirs. There is, however, an important difference here. The animals cannot diverge from their path. They cannot "sin". Whereas mankind has been given the freedom to choose between following the right way – the "straight path", as it is called – or wandering off into a trackless wilderness.

Since we of the human community so readily trip and stumble on our way, constantly tempted to go astray, we have in the animal creation an example of perfect obedience to the divine Rule. If we depart too far from the path laid down for us we do not become, as some would have it, "like animals"; we fall below their level. Free choice is our privilege, a very dangerous privilege if we abuse it.

Were it not for the divine Mercy, scattered like rain throughout creation, we would indeed be in a bad way, but what matters most is that we should keep in mind what might be called the Prime Directive of Islam: the constant "remembrance of God". Yet we are by nature forgetful. The world presses upon us and makes its demands. We are busy, all too busy. We are in haste, though the Prophet said once that haste comes from Satan, slowness (and patience) from God. So we are given reminders. The Quran describes itself, precisely, as "a reminder to mankind". The "signs" which abound in the natural world are similarly described, and

here we have the animals – wild and domesticated – saying to us, in effect, "Remember!" There is one complaint we cannot make, one excuse we cannot offer: we can never say – "We forgot to remember God, and no one reminded us!" But if we do remember and follow the path "made smooth for us", then we are in step with the animals, the plants and the earth itself.

(Broadcast by the BBC in December 1996 in the Words of Faith series)