© Abdal Hakim Murad (April 1999)
Twentieth-century Western art is not a subject for which we Muslims have much time. The alert among us are conscious that it neatly represents the decline of the Western Christian worldview and its replacement first with the titanic fantasies of the Renaissance, those absurd nude figures urging us to consider the human creature as sufficient unto himself; and then, when two world wars convinced the Western elite that the human creature left to his own devices was unlikely to create his own paradise on earth, the grotesqueries of the modern period. Today, one of the best-known of British artists is Damien Hurst, famous for exhibiting a sheep floating in formaldehyde. Hardly less famous are Gilbert and George, two middle-aged homosexuals in grey Marks and Spencers suits, who paint vast canvases using their own body fluids. The winner of the 1998 Turner Prize, the most prestigious gong in the British art world, was painted with the excrement of an elephant. Perhaps this is why we Muslims find modern Western art particularly disagreeable and resistant to our contemplation: if art is the crystallisation of a civilisation, then to amble along the corridors of the Tate Gallery is to be confronted with a disturbing realisation. Christianity, when it was taken seriously by the cultural elite, produced significant works, which Muslims can recognise as beautiful, despite the inherent dangers of its love of the graven image. Christianity was sapped by the so-called enlightenment; and now that the enlightenment itself has run its course, the Western soul, as articulated by its most intelligent and most respected artistic representatives, has shifted its concerns to the human entrails. From the spirit, to the mind, to the body - and now to its waste products: a depressing trajectory, and one from which we avert our gaze. But it is immensely instructive, nonetheless, to visit art galleries just to observe the consistency of the decline. It serves as a reminder not only that we dislike the modern world, but also that we don’t like disliking it. We would rather feel that there existed some authentic connection between our worldview and that of the Western elite: but such a link appears no longer to exist. It is not that we are extreme. It is not we who destroyed the bridge. We are simply holding to the norms generally recognised by our species for 99% of its history. It is the West that is extreme, that has grown strange, that seems to have gone mad.
And yet amidst this hideous visual cacophony, occasional insights can be observed; and these can be of an almost revelatory intensity. Almost all 20th century Western artists have been well aware of their cultural situation, as wreckers of a religious view of the world, and as the depictors of its chaotic, formless, ugly successor. A few, however, have recognised the persuasiveness of the alternatives. And a very few, those who have escaped the besetting racism and Islamophobia of European culture, have acknowledged the beauty and depth of Islam.
One such artist was the Russian, Kasimir Malevich. Malevich lived and worked around the time of the Russian Revolution, a time of the concatenation of the thousands of rival movements, religious, mystical, atheistic, or aesthetic, which collided in the early 1920s, only for the satanic force of Josef Stalin to emerge from the ruins. It was, for a few brief and heady seasons, a time when the dead weight of the country’s inherited hierarchies, both religious and royal, seemed to have been removed to make way for a vision that was not only more just, but also more spiritually sighted.
One manifestation of this was the demand by the young artists of the Left that the authorities abolish all representational forms of painting. Figurative art, they rightly pointed out, is inherently oppressive. It privileges youth over age; wealth over poverty. In its religious modes it attributes gender and race to the divine. Hence the revolutionary slogan:
A White Army officer
when you catch him
you beat him
and what about Raphael
it’s time to make
museum walls a target
let the mouths of big guns
shoot the old rags of the past!
The Bolsheviks themselves were horrified by this. For them, representational art provided the foundation for all mass propaganda. And in due time, Stalin and his successors patronised and enforced the crude style of Socialist Realism, images of muscular peasant men and women gazing up at the new socialist dawn. The titanism and human-worship of the Renaissance had been restored; only the desire for greater freedom was removed.
But in the white-hot heat of the moment, when the old was crashing down with the Winter Palace and the Kazan Cathedral, and the new, in the form of Soviet gigantism had not yet had its triumph, a crack in European culture appeared that for a brief but remarkable instant admitted the light of Islam.
Most of Russia, of course, is built on the ruins of Muslim civilisations. More than any other European people, not excepting the Serbs, the Russians have seen themselves as holy warriors against Islam. In the early 16th century, almost all of what is today Ukraine was Muslim, ruled by the Kasimov emirs with their splendid capital to the south of Moscow. The Crimea, one of the most densely populated and prosperous regions on earth, was a Muslim state in alliance with the Ottoman caliphate. The steppeland between the Black and Caspian Seas had been Muslim for centuries, growing rich on the silk and carpet trade between Iran and Europe. To the east of Moscow, Muslim cities adorned the banks of the Volga river, culminating in their capital Kazan, a city perhaps twenty times the size of Moscow itself. In 1555 Ivan the Terrible, taking advantage of divisions between these European Muslim empires, invaded and sacked Kazan. The great White Mosque of Kul Sherif, with its eight minarets, was torn down, and its rubble used to build St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Although the Kazan khans had always permitted the practice of Christianity, the Russian conquerors prohibited Islam, and forcibly baptised the remaining population. The Cossacks were let loose on the Muslim countryside, young men from the frozen north who captured and enslaved Muslim women, breeding from them a new type of crusading zealot. So strong was the sense of confrontation with the more civilised world of Islam that until the eighteenth century it was common for drums in the Russian army to be made from the skins of captured Muslims.
This legacy of hatred is the bedrock of Russian culture. Before Ivan the Terrible, about half of the land-mass of Europe was Muslim. And the Russian tsars saw themselves as the ethnic cleansers under whose hammer blows the surviving Muslims would bow their knees at the cross.
The Russian Revolution, and the years immediately preceding and following it, challenged every assumption of the traditional Russian mind; including the most fundamental assumption of all: the unworthiness of Islam. Intellectuals and poets begin to respect Muslim culture. Architects, bored and disgusted by the flamboyant rococo splendour of St Petersburg, turned their eyes to the architecture of Muslim Bukhara and Samarkand. Here, they thought, was a harmony of man and nature, a celebration of beauty that was not titanic, but contemplative. The blue tiles of the Friday Mosque and the Shah-i Zindeh tombs of Samarqand seemed not to raise up a fist of defiance to the skies, as did the art of Europe; but to call down something of the peace of heaven onto the earth. Russian architects such as Melnikov incorporated Uzbek themes into their houses. A spectacular example is Melnikov’s design for the Soviet pavilion at the 1925 International Exposition in Paris, which borrows from the design of Central Asian Islamic tomb towers. Through works such as these, Western architects such as Le Corbusier introduced Islamic themes into their own design.
In the visual arts, this influence is also marked. There were other, often quite demented movements in the air also, of course: Acmeism, Cubism, Constructivism, and the rest. But among some artists, those with an eye still on the spiritual, the attractions of the Islamic sense of beauty proved too radiant to resist. As one architect, Andrei Burov noted of his generation: ‘There was a strong Mohammedan influence; and orthodox Mohammedanism at that.’
At this point, Kasimir Malevich steps in. Malevich was a contemplative and a mystic, who found European representational painting to be little more than a crude and loathsome conjuring with flabby pink limbs against heroic landscapes.
Malevich’s greatest work is a painting called Black Square. This is a square, painted completely in black, against a white border. He called it his ‘absolute symbol of modernity’, a modernity which he hoped would be pure and spiritual, as opposed to the congealed decadence of 19th-century Western materialism.
He chose the image of a Black Square because it is the total inversion of the Western tradition of recording the writhing diversity of the manifest world. He wrote, later, that when painting it he felt ‘black nights within’, and ‘a timidity bordering on fear’, but when he neared completion he experienced a ‘blissful sensation of being drawn into a desert where nothing is real but feeling, and feeling became the substance of my life.’
What on earth could this mean? The modern British writer Bruce Chatwin, who knew Islam well, commented as follows:
‘This is not the language of a good Marxist, but of Meister Eckhart - or, for that matter, of Mohammed. Malevich’s Black Square, his ‘absolute symbol of modernity’, is the equivalent
in painting of the black-draped Ka‘ba at Mecca, the shrine in a valley of sterile soil where
all men are equal before God.’
Here we have the key to understanding Malevich’s achievement. In this painting, which for Muslims must be the most significant work of 20th century art, a cultured Russian finally breaks through the carapace of solidified reality, and intuits the nature of truth. Simplicity is beauty. And it is depth, instilling awe, and an authentic rather than sentimental emotion.
Malevich, in a moment of cultural turmoil, and of intense, blazing realisation, had stumbled upon the principle of pure beauty. Only the Real is real; manifestation and its diversities are chimera. The line between the two is razor-sharp: Qul ja’ al-Haqq wa-zahaqa’l-batil, inna’l-batila kana zahuqa. ‘Say: Reality has come, and falsehood has vanished; falsehood was ever evanescent.’ This was, after all, the aya recited by the Prophet (s) as he rode around the Ka‘ba, pointing with his stick to each of the 360 idols in turn, upon which they fell over into the dust.
Malevich died, and Socialist Realism ruled triumphant. But for a second in Europe’s history, the truth had been glimpsed.
At the centre of the Islamic religion lies the Ka‘ba. Uniting the aspects of the divine beauty and the divine majesty, it is ‘a place of resort and safety for human beings’. It lies in a city protected by the prayer of Ibrahim al-Khalil, alayhi’l-salam: ‘My Lord, make this land a sanctuary.’
The Ka‘ba has many meanings. One of these pertains to the Black Stone, which is the point at which the pilgrims come closest to its mystery.
‘Ali ibn Abi Talib narrated that when God took the Covenant, He recorded it in writing
and fed it to the Black Stone, and this is the meaning of the saying of those who touch
the Black Stone during the circumambulation of the Ancient House: ‘O God! This is
believing in You, fulfilling our pledge to You, and declaring the truth of Your record.’’
The Ka‘ba therefore, while it is nothing of itself - a cube of stones and mortar - represents and reminds its pilgrims of the primordial moment of our kind. Allah speaks of a time before the creation of the world:
‘when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their reins, their seed,
and made them testify of themselves, He said: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said, ‘Yea!
We testify!’ That was lest you should say on the Day of Arising: ‘Of this we were
When we visit the House, we are therefore invited to remember the Great Covenant: that forgotten moment when we committed ourselves to our Maker, acknowleding Him as the source of our being. The Black Stone itself is, according to a hadith which Imam Tirmidhi declares to be sound, ‘yaqutatun min yawaqit al-janna’ - a gemstone from Paradise itself.
The Ka‘ba functions, in the imagination of those who visit it on Hajj, or turn towards it in Salat, as the centre and point of origin of all diverse things on earth. It is oriented towards the four cardinal points of the compass. Its blackness recalls the blackness of the night sky, of the heavens, and hence the pure presence of the Creator. Allah tells us that there are signs for us in the heavens and the earth; and recent astronomy affirms that the spiral galaxies are revolving around black holes. A powerful symbol, written into the magnificence of space, of the spiritual vortex which beckons us to spiral into the unknown, where quantum mechanics fail, where time and space are no more.
The yearning for the Ka‘ba which sincere Muslims feel whenever they think of it is therefore not, in fact, a yearning for the building. In itself it is no less part of the created order than anything else in creation. The yearning is, instead, a fragment, a breath of the nostalgia for our point of origin, for that glorious time out of time when we were in our Maker’s presence.
That yearning is the central emotion of Islam. It is of the heart: the heart knows the Ka‘ba’s splendour; the mind cannot understand it: it is, after all, only a cube 12 metres high. Hence Jalal al-Din Rumi says:
‘The intellect declares: The six directions are limits, and there is no way out.
Love says: There is a way, and I have travelled it many times.’
And later he says:
‘By the time the intellect has found a camel for the hajj, love has circled the Ka‘ba.’
This fundamental emotion of the Islamic religion, which is in fact part of the fitra - the primordial human nature, the state of grace into which we were born - is love, mahabba, a painful desire to return to the beloved.
Wa’lladhina amanu ashaddu hubban li’Llah. ‘Those who have faith’, as the Qur'an insists, ‘have the greatest love for God’. (2:165) To know one’s origin is to love it.
This nostalgic yearning to return, to circle back to the point of origin, for which the Ka‘ba is no more than the earthly symbol and reminder, is the most common theme in the splendid and subtle poetic tradition of Islam. Here, for instance, is a poem by the 13th century Turkish poet and lover of Allah, Yunus Emre:
‘We need to serve a King who never may be driven from His throne
To rest within a place which we may ever feel to be our own.
A bird we need to be, to fly, to reach the very rim of things,
To drink that cordial whose joy we never may disown.
We need to be a diving bird, to plunge into the waters’ flow;
We need a gemstone to recover such as jewellers cannot know.
To enter in a garden, there to dwell in contentment’s shade;
To pass the summer as a rose - a rose whose petals never fade.
Mankind must lover be, must ever search to find the true Beloved;
Must burn within the flame of Love - nor burn in any other flame.’
Islam is hence the religion of the Alastu bi-rabbikum: ‘Am I not your Lord?’. We follow the Great Covenant, unlike adherents of previous religions who follow lesser, local, ethnic covenants. The Ka‘ba represents our way of centring ourselves directly on the divine presence, the origin of all manifestation.
We need to ponder the divine wisdom in this. Islam appeared in a time and place where there was no civilisation. If a Quraishite Arab had travelled five hundred miles north, south, east or west, he would have found a developed culture. But Arabia was a pocket of primordial simplicity. And Allah subhanahu wa-ta‘ala chose this vacuum for His final message, the one that would end all previous covenants with Him, and gather the nations of the earth to the restored Great Covenant itself.
One deep wisdom to be gained from this is the fact of Islam’s simplicity. Our doctrine could not be more straightforward. The most pure, exalted, uncompromising monotheism: the clearest idea of God there has ever been. A system of worship that requires no paraphernalia: no crosses, confessionals, priests or pews. Just the human creature, and its Lord. The Hajj and Umra also take us back to an ancient time, as we wear the simplest of garments, and perform primordial rites that reconnect us with the symbolic centre, around the purest building there has ever been. The fast of Ramadan is also timeless: bringing us into contact and continuity with one of the oldest of all religious devotions. In fact, some ulema say that fasting is the oldest religious commandment of all: for in the Garden, the grandfather and grandmother of humanity were under only one instruction: to refrain from eating from a particular tree.
By stepping inside the protecting circle of Islam, the human creature is thus reconnected to the ancient simplicity and dignity of the human condition. Islam allows us to reclaim our status as khalifas: Allah’s deputies on earth.
But this is not limited to the pattern of worship alone. To worship according to one vision of man, and to live according to another, will inevitably provoke conflict in the soul. Some religions today allow their followers to live a fully mainstream, 20th century lifestyle outside the place of worship. But Islam knows that this is absurd. The focussing on the divine presence during Salat relativises and transforms our vision of everything else. When we turn away from the Ka‘ba again, we say, to right and left, al-Salaamu alaykum. The reconnection with the exquisite and ancient sacred centre brings a new attitude to the rest of our lives. ‘The salat bars us from corruption and ugly behaviour.’ That is, if it is done well, with hudur - presence of mind and spirit - then the rest of our behaviour will be refined. Poor manners, crude language, lack of compassion for others, are all sure signs that we are offering salat incorrectly.
This means that Islam does not distinguish between our lives of worship, and anything else in our lifestyle. And it means that the starting point for putting our communities right, is the establishment of the prayer, which redirects us to the point on which we are all united. Not only through public observance in the mosque. It is possible to go through the motions of the prayer, and pay no attention; and this is almost worthless. The hadith says, ‘The worshipper in salat is credited only with that of which he was conscious.’ And al-Hasan al-Basri said: ‘Every prayer in which the heart is not attentive is nearer to punishment than it is to reward.’
A besetting problem we face, which symbolises all our other spiritual problems, is that of the mechanical prayer: we proclaim Allahu akbar, but immediately show that we don’t know what Allahu akbar means. We turn on a kind of autopilot, awakening from a vague somnolence some minutes later with the salaam.
This is no good. Moving the body, and letting the tongue dance cleverly around the palate, are of no help to us. The very word salat signifies connection. There is little point in having a lamp if we don’t switch on the electricity: and the electricity comes through khushu‘ - attentive humility, an awareness of the majesty and nearness of our Lord, and all the divine beauty and rigour of which the Holy Ka‘ba is the emblem.
The act of salat brings us home: to the earth. The name of Adam, alayhissalaam, is said to be derived from adim - earth, dust. And Allah says that ‘He created him of dust.’ By pressing the forehead to the ground we recall our created and fleeting lives. ‘From it did We create you, to it do We return you, and from it shall We bring you out one more time.’ Three encounters with the earth - and we can escape none of them.
‘The slave is closest to his Lord while he prostrates.’ This is a hadith. We are truly Allah’s khulafa - His deputies and representatives on this earth - when our foreheads, the symbol of Pharaonic pride and defiance, are pressed firmly down; when the heart is higher than the head.
No umma on the planet has a more intimate relationship with Allah’s creation than do we Muslims. We know it as a universe of signs, which revelation teaches us to read.
‘Truly in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the succession of night
and day are signs for people of inner understanding. Those who make dhikr,
who recall, Allah standing, and sitting, and upon their sides, and think about the
way in which the heavens and the earth have been made.’ (3:190, 191)
Salat is a form of dhikr. Allah commands sayyidina Musa alayhisalam, ‘And establish the Prayer for My dhikr’, My remembrance. (20:14) And remembrance of Allah is the recollection of that original source and direction of humanity, at the Great Covenant, and the Assembly of Am I Not your Lord - the bezm-i alast. Hence our physical turning to the Ka‘ba, which is pure beauty, represents and recalls our acknowledgement of our primordial home, and our affirmation, again, of our loyalty to that promise which we all have made.
Hence the beauty, and the dignity, and the timeless poise of the Salat. By the salat, we affirm the glory of our Lord, through tasbih and bowing and prostrating. By the salat we affirm the pledge which we have made to Him. And by the salat we acknowledge that we do this only because sayyidina Muhammad, sallallahu alayhi wa-sallam, taught us how to pray. The prayer thus becomes the culmination of the sunna. It is the pillar of religion - whoever tears it down, has demolished the religion. Without it our recollection of our primordial source and origin has no meaning, and no sign.
The prayer, of course, was gifted to humanity on the Night of the Mi‘raj. This was the culminating event of Rasulullah’s prophetic story: his greatest glory, as he rose into the very presence of his Lord in order to behold His greatest signs.
In the divine presence, the Prophet (s.w.s.) was offered a choice. He was brought wine, and he was brought milk. As he chooses the milk, Gabriel, upon him be peace, says, Hudiyta li’l-fitra - ‘you have been guided to the fitra’ - the primordial, pure, natural disposition of man.
This extraordinary event deserves careful consideration. At the summit of his prophetic career, and hence at the summit of humanity’s history of relating to Allah, a lesson is given about the fitra; and we are shown that this is part of, and indeed the essence of, the Sunna.
The choice between wine and milk is the choice between corruption and purity. Milk is described in the Qur’an as khalisan - pure. Wine, by the very process which produces it, is at one remove from nature. It is a natural fluid, but in a state of corruption. It is interesting that in the modern world, consumers are very reluctant to eat food that has rotted, but are only too happy to consume fluids that are rotted and corrupt. And the process of fermentation is nothing other than a process of rotting. Bottles of wine rarely advertise a sell-by date.
So: hudiyta li’l-fitra. The prophetic figure of the Mi‘raj is told by the angel that the fitra is one of his traits. And this, by extension, becomes the nature of his sunna, in which we must all try to partake.
The picture is a little clearer now. Rasulullah (s.w.s.) is born in Makka, a city of ancient desert simplicity. He migrates to Madina, a city of ancient agricultural, peasant simplicity. The rites of his religion, culminating in the salat, breathe something of that purity and ancient humanity. They are not of our time: they make the habits of our time seem puny and undignified.
The modern world is in a panic about its departure from nature. The seas, air and rivers are rendered impure by industries which are the expression of human greed and the hatred of simplicity. Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, AIDS and male infertility are spiralling hints of the collapse of the species. The Rio conference urged a reduction in emissions, and hence of certain forms of production, but failed to explain how the forgotten virtue of zuhd might be made attractive again to people whose religion has lost its appeal, and who hence worship their pleasures and themselves. Ordinary people indicate their unease by buying organic produce, using aloe-vera shampoo, and shunning the synthetic wherever they can. And yet this is a return to form, not to content. It is idle to recommend a ‘natural lifestyle’ if one adopts it only as a style rather than as a significant affirmation of a cosmos that has a source and a destiny, and has been created to support humanity in its life of worship and affirmation of the Real. As Muslims, we affirm a natural lifestyle: and this is no mere pose. The retrieval of the Great Covenant demands that we live in accordance with the created norm of our kind. Shah WaliAllah observes that God has appointed a shari‘a for every species. And every species, when not oppressed by modern man, remains faithful to that shari‘a. But humanity is capable of forgetting, and of violating the message of his genes, his hormones, his gender, and his innate yearning for his source. This dysfunctionality is the essence of kufr, the process by which we hide our true natures from ourselves.
The road to the reclamation of our natural norm is open only in the form of the Sunna. Only the Muslims worship as did the founder of their religion. Prophetic Madina was a primordial city; and by following the pattern of life exampled by its luminous inhabitants we can genuinely retrieve our essence. The sunna is hence a lifeboat which allows us to move safely through the toxic sea of modernity, while sustaining ourselves from provisions which were laid down in an age before such pollution occurred.
Let us remind ourselves of the lifestyle of the Prophet (s). We live in a time of ‘lifestyle choices’; but for us, in fact, there is only one appealing ‘lifestyle choice’. Modernity holds up to us a range of ideal types to imitate: we can be like Peter Tatchell, or Monica Lewinsky, or Alan Clarke, or Michael Jackson. There is a long menu of alternatives. But when set beside the radiant humanity of Rasulullah (s.w.s.), there is no contest at all. For the Prophet is humanity itself, in its Adamic perfection. In him, and in his style of life, the highest possibilities of our condition are realised and revealed. And this is beauty itself: the word jamil, beautiful, which is one of his names, refers also to virtue. Ihsan, the Prophetic state of harmony with God, means the engendering of husn, or beauty.
Here is a condensed recollection, a kind of verbal icon, of that Prophetic beauty. It is paraphrased from a passage by Imam al-Ghazali, in Book 19 of his Revival of the Religious Sciences, Ihya Ulum al-Din.
‘The Messenger of God (s) was the mildest of men, but also the bravest and most just of men. He was the most restrained of people; never touching the hand of a woman over whom he did not have rights, or who was not his mahram. He was the most generous of men, so that never did a gold or silver coin spend the night in his house. If something remained at the end of the day, because he had not found someone to give it to, and night descended, he would go out, and not return home until he had given it to someone in need. From what Allah gave him [...] he would take only the simplest and easiest foods: dates and barley, giving anything else away in the path of Allah.
Never did he refuse a gift for which he was asked. He used to mend his own sandals, and patch his own clothes, and serve his family, and help them to cut meat. He was the shyest of men, so that his gaze would never remain long in the face of anyone else. He would accept the invitation of a freeman or a slave, and accept a gift, even if it were no more than a gulp of milk, or the thigh of a rabbit, and offer something in return. He never consumed anything given in sadaqa. He was not too proud to reply to a slave-girl, or a pauper in rags. He would become angered for his Lord, never for himself; he would cause truth and justice to prevail even if this led to discomfort to himself or to his companions.
‘He used to bind a stone around his waist out of hunger. He would eat what was brought, and would not refuse any permissible food. If there was dates without bread, he would eat, if there was roast meat, he would eat; if there was rough barley bread, he would eat it; if there was honey or something sweet, he would eat it; if there was only yogurt without even bread, he would be quite satisfied with that.
‘He was not sated, even with barley-bread, for three consecutive days, until the day he met his Lord, not because of poverty, or avarice, but because he always preferred others over himself.
‘He would attend weddings, and visit the sick, and attend funerals, and would often walk among his enemies without a guard. He was the most humble of men, and the most serene, without arrogance. He was the most eloquent of men, without ever speaking for too long. He was the most cheerful of men. He was afraid of nothing in the dunya. He would wear a rough Yemeni cloak, or a woolen tunic; whatever was lawful and was to hand, that he would wear.
He would ride whatever was to hand: sometimes a horse, sometimes a camel, sometimes a mule, sometimes a donkey. And at times he would walk barefoot, without an upper garment or a turban or a cap. He would visit the sick even if they were in the furthest part of Madina. He loved perfumes, and disliked foul smells.
‘He maintained affectionate and loyal ties with his relatives, but without preferring them to anyone who was superior to them. He never snubbed anyone. He accepted the excuse of anyone who made an excuse. He would joke, but would never say anything that was not true. He would laugh, but not uproarously. He would watch permissible games and sports, and would not criticise them. He ran races with his wives. Voices would be raised around him, and he would be patient. He kept a sheep, from which he would draw milk for his family. He would walk among the fields of his companions. He never despised any pauper for his poverty or illness; neither did he hold any king in awe simply because he was a king. He would call rich and poor to Allah, without distinction.
‘In him, Allah combined all noble traits of character; although he neither read nor wrote, having grown up in a land of ignorance and deserts in poverty, as a shepherd, and as an orphan with neither father nor mother. But Allah Himself taught him all the excellent qualities of character, and praiseworthy ways, and the stories of the early and the later prophets, and the way to salvation and triumph in the Akhira, and to joy and detachment in the dunya, and how to hold fast to duty, and to avoid the unnecessary. May Allah give us success in obeying him, and in following his sunna. Amin ya rabb al-alamin.‘
This moving portrait by Imam al-Ghazali depicts our role model, and simultaneously our ideal of humanity lived in the form of absolute beauty. His was a life lived in fullness. There was no aspect of human perfection that he did not know and manifest. And his perfection also indicates the nature of specifically masculine perfection. He was a great warrior; a sound hadith narrated by Imam al-Darimi tells us, on the authority of Ali, that
‘On the day of Badr I was present, and we sought refuge in the Prophet (s.w.s.),
who was the closest of us all to the enemy. On that day he was the most powerful
of all the combatants who fought.’
One of the Companions described him riding his horse, wearing a red turban and holding his sword, and said later that never in his life had he seen a sight more beautiful.
In 23 years he became undisputed ruler of Arabia. Through his genius and charisma, and the attractive force of his personality, he united the Arabian tribes for the first time in their history. He took his people from the depths of idolatry into the purest form of monotheism. He gave them a law for the first time. He laid down, in his mosque in Madina, a system of worship, self-restraint and spiritual fruitfulness that provided the inspiration and the precedent for countless generations of later worshippers and saints. In affirming the Ka‘ba, he affirmed beauty; so that all else that he did was beautiful.
And in all this, he attributed his success only to Allah. He was, as Imam al-Ghazali records, the most humble of men. He was forbearing, polite, courteous, and mild. He paid no attention to people’s outward form, but assessed and responded to their spirits. He forgave constantly. He was indulgent with the simple Bedouin of Central Arabia, the roughest people on earth. When one of them. who wanted money, pulled his cloak so violently that it left a mark, he merely smiled, and ordered that the man be given what he wanted.
All of this came about through his detachment. The veil of self and distraction was gone: he saw by the Truth. He knew his own prophetic status, but was not made proud by this. He said: ‘I am the first around whom the earth shall split open at the Resurrection - and I do not boast’. He knew his worth, but because he knew his Lord, he was not proud.
His sunna entailed living in the world, not running away from it. After the overwhelming experience of revelation on Mount Hira, facing the Ka‘ba, he went down again into Meccan society. He had his solitary times with his Lord, in the long watches of the night, forms of tahajjud so long and exacting that he forbade his companions to imitate him. He fasted in rigourous ways that he would not allow to others. He was detached, and yet in his world, and, in the end, commanding his world. He was truly the khalifa: the one who has no ego, and hence speaks, and acts, and rules, by and for Allah alone.
Living the sunna therefore means emulating his inner as well as his outer perfection. The sunna has to come easily and naturally to us, as the normal lifestyle of our species. ‘Not one of you has iman’, he insisted, ‘until his desire, his personal preference, his hawa, is in accordance with what I have brought.’
Today, among our Muslim communities, there are many who have not learnt this lesson. There are some misguided fools who imagine that one can achieve spiritual excellence without adhering to the Sunna. This notion, that there can be ihsan without islam, is a falsehood, repudiated by all the Muslims and the Sufis, since the beginning of Islam. For instance, Imam Jalal al-Din Rumi says:
‘I am the servant of the Qur’an, for as long as I have a soul.
I am the dust on the road of Muhammad, the Chosen One.
If someone interprets my words in any other way,
That person I deplore, and I deplore his words.’
Conversely, we can make no claim to be following the outward sunna, unless we have some share in emulating his inner perfection also. There are many Muslims whose body language and manners betray their ignorance of this insight. To pray, fast, eat halal, and observe the other aspects of the outward sunna, will produce only a lopsided, partial type of Muslim, unless we have been working on our inward lives. We need to watch the nafs, the ego, like a cat watching a mousehole. We need to grind it down, so that we become like light.
The Sahaba converted millions of men and women, most of them devout Christians, Buddhists, Jews and Zoroastrians, even without speaking to them. The Qur’an was not translated, and few of them learnt the local languages. But the sheer radiance of their presence, and the natural beauty of the sunna, with its graciousness, dignity and poise, won over the hearts of those who saw them.
Today it is possible to meet Muslims who follow the outward aspects of the Sunna, and yet do not cause hearts to incline towards them; but to be repelled. ‘Had you been rough and hard of heart, they would have scattered from around you.’ (3:159) We seem to have edited that verse out of the Holy Qur’an. If some of our activists, with their flak jackets, their Doc Marten boots, and their aggressive demeanour, could be taken back to the seventh century, it is unlikely that the Christians, Buddhists and others would have found them very impressive. They, and the Sahaba themselves, would have regarded them as religious failures, driven by anger and a sense of marginalisation into a religious form marked by aggressiveness, not the hilm, the gracious clemency which was the hallmark of the Prophet (s.w.s.), and without which he could never have won so many hearts.
The conclusion, then, is very simple. Islam is very simple. It is the religion which reunites us to nature and to God. It celebrates rather than represses human nature. It discloses the splendour of our Adamic potential.
Those of us who have lived far from nature, and far from beauty, and far from the saints, often have anger, and darkness, and confusion in our hearts. But this is not the Sunna. The sunna is about detachment, about the confidence that however seemingly black the situation of the world, however great the oppression, no leaf falls without the will of Allah. Ultimately, all is well. The cosmos, and history, are in good hands.
That was the confidence of Rasulullah (s.w.s.). It has to be our confidence as well. There is too much depression among us, which leads either to demoralisation and immorality, or to panic, and meaningless, ugly forms of extremism, which have nothing to do with the serenity and beauty to which the Ka‘ba summons us. But Islam commands wisdom, and balance. It is the middle way. And for us, whatever our situation, it is always available, and can always be put into practice. We are the fortunate umma in today’s world. Fortunate, because unlike Westerners, we are still centred on beauty. In other words, we still know what we are, and what we are called to be.