Have a look at many illuminated copies of the Qur’an, and you will notice something extraordinary.
All the way around the edges, you see tiny pointed arrows. Arrows to the right of the page. Arrows to the top of the page. Arrows to the left of the page. Arrows to the bottom of the page.
Here is another example.
Sometimes the arrows are of a larger, more dramatic variety.
At times, there is even a Shamsa, a sun-like figure radiating in every direction.
What are we seeing? And what do these arrows, these illuminated radiations mean?
It comes back to a powerful verse of the Qur’an:
We shall show them our signs (ayat)
on the furthest horizons
and within their own souls
until it is clear to them
that God is Real
that God is the Truth.
This powerful verse of the Qur’an, a favorite of both medieval mystics and contemporary Muslim reformers, ultimately talks about where we are to look for the signs of God (the ayat). What if creation is not merely a “thing” created, but a gateway to the Divine, a threshold, a portal? What if we were to see all that exists as a divine Manifestation (tajalli)? What if we are to see all in existence as the Breath of the All-Compassionate (Nafas al-Rahman)?
The Qur’anic verse talks about these places where the border between this realm of ours and the Divine realm becomes thin, permeable, all but disappearing. The first is the scripture itself, by extension literature, recitation, and poetry. Remember that the word Aya, and its plural Ayat, means both “sign” and the very verses of the Qur’an. So yes, we are to seek God in the Divine word, in the Divine speech, both in the book written down and in the recited and chanted format.
Then, we look at all that stands between us and the furthest horizons. That is the realm of nature. What if we were to realize that nature is sacred, that everything sings, and that everything in nature is itself a Divine Manifestation?
This is part of the wisdom and insight of our tradition, the recognition that in reality, nothing is “inanimate.” In-animate literally means lacking animus, lacking a soul. One is reminded of the wisdom of Mawlana Rumi, who used to kiss every glass of water before drinking from it. When he was asked about why he did so, he simply stated that the glass also has a “jaan”, a soul, a lifeforce. Nothing is soul-less. Everything is en-souled, alive through al-Hayy, the Divine Source of Life.
This is where the arrows off the pages of the illuminated pages come in. We start at the Center, as we always must. The center is where the scripture is. The center is where the calligraph of the Qur’an as text is. We begin with the text, and the arrows gently guide our eyes off the page. If the arrow leads us up, what is beyond the page? Nature. To the right of the page? Nature. To the left, and towards the bottom? Again nature. And nature too is where God is to be experienced and witnessed.
Along with the Tao Te Ching, the Qur’an is one of the scriptures that most calls us to reflect and meditate on natural phenomenon. Again and again, we are called to ponder the sun, the moon, the dawn, the night, the cattle, spiders, bees, and the wind. In a real sense, natural phenomenon are not mere “things” but openings towards God.
In fact, medieval Muslim sages also had these notions of nature being a theophany. Some mystics spoke of there being two Qur’ans: the written down, scriptural Qur’an (Qur’an-e tadwini), and the even grander cosmic Qur’an of nature (Qur’an-e takwini). It was this latter existential Qur’an that we also had to learn to read, as it were, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, breeze by breeze, leaf by leaf, stream by stream, hummingbird by hummingbird, butterfly by butterfly, dolphin by dolphin, moss by moss, redwood tree by redwood tree.
We often talk about “going into nature” to get a sense of grandeur and majesty. Truly in our tradition, we do not go into nature. We ourselves are nature. And as the old alchemists used to say, “nature rejoices in nature.” So when we are sitting by a brook, or climbing a mountain, walking in the desert, or putting our feet in a stream, the nature in us rejoices in the nature around. We are in a state of harmony, the aya within us in harmony with the aya all around.
It is after re-training the eyes to see nature as theophany, and the remembrance that we ourselves are part of nature, we are nature, that the pendulum swing of the arrows pointing us off the page of the Qur’an returns. This is in some ways the final step, returning us not the page, but to our own selves. As the Qur’an says,
“Do they not contemplate their own selves?” [Qur’an 30: 8]
This is the final mystery of the arrows pointing off the pages of the Qur’an. We begin with the Qur’an, move from the written-down-Qur’an to the cosmic-Qur’an, and then come back to our own selves. It’s when we combine the three that God is real, God is made real, the al-Haqq. This is part of the mystery of wisdom of the arrows on the pages of the Qur’an, guiding us off the page, to swim in the delights of nature, and come back to a self transformed and illuminated, all pointing towards God as Real.
[This piece is the first of a four-part series on the mysteries of the Qur’an for the holy month of Ramadan.]
Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. He leads online courses on Islam through Illuminated Courses, and offers spiritually oriented tours to Turkey
and Morocco through Illuminated Tours. His most recent book is Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition (Yale University Press). He has elaborated on the themes of this piece in his online course, Heart of the Qur’an, which is open to everyone.
For more information check out https://www.illuminatedcourses.com/
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