Reflecting on Paris: Tawheed, Saints & Images

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So I’m no Islamic scholar, (and jetlag got me up around 5am), but I wanted to write about a religious topic of importance to me: Tawheed.

The single greatest thing in Islam, according to me, is the core concept of tawheed. Tawheed is the idea of absolute monotheism: there is no god but God, there is nothing worthy of worship except God, there is no power or control except that of God, that there is no truth except God(‘s truth). It stems from the first half of the shahadah that says: لا اله الا الله, often translated as “There is no god but God” which can be replaced by any of God’s 99 names rendering it something like “there is no god but The Truth.” Without delving into a discussion of the essence or names of God (which I am not capable of), I think it is safe to just point out that in the Islamic view of God, there is NOTHING we can perceive that is equal to God in any way: God is above all of creation, there is nothing in creation that is like God in essence, God’s knowledge and power is greater than all of creation, the extent of God’s attributes are greater than anything we can perceive. (When I first learned this, I felt I had become an atheist! Where was God then? If not in creation, then how can we interact with God?) Instead, we know of the attributes of God, like that of mercy, in our lives because it originates with God’s ULTIMATE Mercy… (Check out all of Book 50 Chapter 4 for the hadiths on God’s mercy!)

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We are God’s creation (our regular and irregular heartbeats and breaths making dhikr) or we interact with God’s creation (the blessings of food, water, community, shelter, etc), we see God’s “miracles” whether they are the laws of physics, biology, etc or the breaking of those laws, we see evidences or traces of God… ayat, and we have the privilege of appealing to God directly through prayer. It is not the creation we worship, but the source of everything. This to me is the essence of tawheed. (Surat An-Nahl (16) and Surat Ar-Rahman (55) have really moving reminders of creation that help me remember God!)

Shirk: Just as interesting to me as the concept of tawheed is what constitutes a violation of it (which is another science unto itself). The label for this in Islam is shirkanything one associates with God (person, object) and anything puts between oneself and God as an object of worship (also usually a person or an object). “Major shirk” is usually classified as something that one explicitly worships as God other than God or if one believes that something other than God can ultimately control your fate, etc. “Minor shirk” is usually something like ‘pride,’ like for example when you engage in very public, loud worship not for the sake of God, but for the sake of people’s admiration (also discouraged in the Bible). I have heard scholars even classify loving someone more than God as shirk!

“Shirk on any level breaks the human spirit like no worldly tragedy could. By making the soul love, revere, or submit to something as it should only God, you are contorting the soul into a position that it, by its very nature, was never meant to be in. To see the reality of this truth, one only has to look at what happens to a person when they lose their object of worship.” –Yasmin Mogahed

This directly related to my fascination with Sufism. One of my academic interests is saints in Islam, often called awliya (~friends) of God, which have historically been a complex topic. The Sufis, as targets of (orthodox and Salafi) criticism, are deemed as threats to tawheed because of “grave and saint worship” in which the affection of students for their teachers appears to cross the bounds of Islam: excessive admiration leading to the worshipping of people! (I plan on learning more about tawwasul, or intercession with God of the saints on behalf of their students, and writing about it here inshaAllah!) To Muslims who insist on the absolute purity of tawheed, elevating humans who are not Prophets or Messengers is a slippery slope towards deification and shirk. (Side note: In my classes on Hinduism, western scholars have used the exact same progression to describe the development on the Hindu pantheon: local holy men and women were elevated past humanity to divinity and eventually collected into an inter-regional “pantheon.” One look at any hagiography from any tradition does not make that hard to believe!)

This to me is the essential challenge of tawheed: It is in our human nature to want to see and touch things (not to mention hear, taste and smell), but the element of faith in God goes beyond on physical senses in a way that is generally uncomfortable. Yet, the Islamic idea of fitra is just as strong as our desire for physical confirmation. Despite our reliance on physical senses, there is still a deep longing for knowledge and experience of God. The challenge is that we cannot cling to what points us to God, we must rely on God alone.

The words of the Companion of the Prophet, Abu Bakr (may God be pleased with him) are incredibly striking in this regard:

“O People! If anyone among you worshipped Muhammad, let him know that Muhammad is dead. But those who worshipped Allah, let them know that He lives and will never die. Let all of us recall the words of the Qur’an. It says: ‘Muhammad is only a Messenger of Allah, there have been Messengers before him. What then, will you turn back from Islam if he dies or is killed?'”

While I fully disagree with the idea of worshipping people (or anything besides God), the aggressive and anachronistic view of Orthodoxy (which I MUST write about sometime soon inshaAllah!) prefers to forcefully edit out people who they believe deviate too far from the established norm. I think it’s really important to see what 1) these people thought themselves, 2) what they preached, taught & wrote about those around them, and 3) what those after them did and promoted. Certain awliya who inspired people to Islam are accused of injecting “innovations” into Islam, a much often heard word bidda’hthe enemy of orthodoxy, but I am passionate about learning what people meant in their own context as much as I am passionate about seeing the consequences and future interpretations of their ideas, which is why I study Sufi saints.

Saints: As it relates to tawheed, my interest in Sufi “saints” also stemmed from the fact that I am always inspired by people who have deep connections with God and point to the worship of God, whatever religious tradition they are from. Thankfully, I have been able to make deep connections with people from various faiths, whether it be my dear Orthodox Jewish friend from SoCal or the Hindu mother of the home-stay from my study abroad in India, which reminds me of a story…

While it was difficult being Muslim in India, I was still able to discuss spirituality with my BJP Hindu home-stay family. During the first week I was there as an undercover Muslim, there was a bombing at the Supreme Court. The father of the home-stay family sat me down to tell me “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim,” only to later find out that I’m Muslim.

The mother was a peaceful Pahari Krishna devotee, who took pleasure in viewing God’s “form” in Krishna, a beloved child to Yashoda, a dear friend to Arjuna and a passionate lover to Radha. She especially loved to tell me about the meaning behind spirituality–it was about treating people well, showing respect and compassion to others. She is one of the most loving people I have ever met. She told me about her deep respect for other religions (different ways of approaching God): she felt comfortable in a Hindu mandir, a mosque or a Sikh gurudwara. Aunty-ji and I even went to go visit a gurudwara about an hour away from their house one day, as she would always go every Tuesday.

Uncle-ji, on the other hand, was a vibrant Panjabi and member of the Arya Samaj movement, a decidedly nirguni form of Hinduism that rejects the notion that God takes any physical form (not totally unlike Islam). In one of my discussions with Aunty-ji, Uncle-ji chimed in to ask what is the point in worshipping a murti, or statue, made out of stone? The stone can do nothing for you, it is not alive and it can do nothing for you.

It was not until I realized this point explicitly, both from Uncle-ji, from the Quran, from my other friends, etc that I began to really see the beauty of tawheed–not just from Islamic sources, but also from practical experience of the world.

In cathedrals

The reason I bring all of this up is that on my trip to Paris, I decided to go see some cathedrals and I was reminded so deeply of tawheed and the challenge of tawheed I mentioned earlier.

I absolutely adore spaces of worship and it deeply pains me when as a foreigner or a woman I am not able to visit these spaces (Muslims are SO incredibly guilty of this it makes my blood boil! See Hind Makki’s AWESOME project “Side Entrance”). I love places of worship because the entire point (usually) is dedicated to a spiritual experience and worship of God. Whether it be a plain little side room without windows that is the allocated “interfaith prayer space” in an office building to a grand cathedral taking up a block or more of a city with the greatest art money could buy, I love them all.

Cathedrals are also fascinating places to me because they are not merely a church, but they have many chapels. Notre Dame has many side chapels dedicated to various saints by various patrons over time. It is like a museum that shows a history of piety, both of local saints who have inspired others and the rich patrons who dedicate the chapels. Not to mention that these cathedrals are still living spaces of worship! With confessional booths and a list of services in various languages, the religiosity lives on, uninterrupted. Notre Dame de Paris, for example was started in 1163CE and finished in 1345CE. It took nearly 200 years just to build the structure, and imagine what that building has metaphorically “witnessed” since then! That kind of heritage is not something that should be taken lightly… and imagine the even more ancient stones in Greece or India or Egypt, for example! What is the point of history if not to learn?

Back to tawheed & saints… As I mentioned my interest in Sufi saints, I decided to visit the cathedrals and reflect on the tradition of saints in Christianity. I will admit early on that I don’t know that much about sainthood in Christianity, but I know that it refers to holy people in different places over time who have been inspirational for their close relationship with God, their good deeds, etc. In global religious such as Christianity and Islam, it only makes sense that the localization of religion is absolutely necessary.

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Saints, as far as I know, are the catalysts for localization. They are local people who walked the walk, inspired God-consciousness in their own cultural and historical context and served as important models for future generations. Saints often wrote poetry and gave sermons in local languages, they adopted local stories and turned them into religious parables, they even adopted local holidays, clothing, food, etc. It is a fine line between unorthodox “innovation” and local adaptation that is necessary for the local survival of a global religion. In India, for example, a religious scholar from Mecca speaking only Arabic would not be useful. If this necessity is not obvious, why not reflect on the fact that even the Prophets were sent by God speaking the languages of the people!

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We know that Christianity did not die after Jesus (pbuh) and Islam did not die after Muhammad (pbuh). The legacy was carried on by pious individuals who retroactively are deemed “saints.” Of course this spiritual legacy (not to even mention political!) is the point of disputation among Muslims, whether Sunni, Shi’i, Salafi, Sufi, or any other “S” groups. 😛

It only makes sense that each society needs pious individuals to lead and teach them in spirituality (just as we need leaders in all fields). But my question comes down to an issue of who is relatable? Is it solely based on commonalities of language, culture, ethnicity? Good deeds and charisma?

Modern relevance: This is not entirely unrelated to the issue of race (especially as it has come up recently with Fox News correspondents declaring that Jesus and Santa were white). If they weren’t, would this make them less relevant to White Americans? As a convert to Islam, I have tried to follow the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) even though I am not Arab, I am not from the 7th century, and I am not a man. Is his Sunnah still relevant to me even though we do not have many things in common? Is our common humanity enough? These are fascinating tensions: time, place, gender, ethnicity, etc that continue to foster arguments on all sides.

It worries me when we can only relate to people who are “exactly” like us, yet it is an incredibly important point. The people would not have believed the Prophet (pbuh) if he had not been from them as the Quran points out. This xenophobia, in my opinion, is one thing that Islam at its core is trying to erase–to see past exteriors and even to see past differences on the inside as well (ideology, etc) to get to the root of a common humanity (which is not wholly unlike secular systems). The dedication to a global “ummah” is something that I am honestly very proud of. Those who push for a uniform Muslim community that has no differences are incredibly misinformed, in my opinion, for I believe Islam is not wholly prescriptive.

“Mary” the mother of Jesus (Hijab inspiration?

Images: This is in part why I have come to understand the wisdom of the prohibition of images in Islam. Like I mentioned before, I see the importance of relating to people who are “like us.” We want to feel that religious leaders are part of our heritage, that they are human after all “just like us.” After all, it’s  reassuring to feel like part of a group, I kind of look like Mary (pbuh) in hijab now, no?

One thing that struck me deeply when I was in South India was to see images of “white” Jesus in churches with attendants who are mostly very dark-skinned people. These churches had been founded by European missionaries who naturally had brought their iconography with them, which is not surprising. Did Jesus (pbuh) look like a South Indian man? Probably not. But was he extremely fair with blue eyes and red hair? Probably not. I don’t know what the credible descriptions of Jesus are, but I have a feeling he didn’t look like either depiction.

Besides the idea of Jesus not being the Son of God in Islam, even the depiction of Prophets is problematic for the very same reason, in my opinion, of limiting their messages to people who merely look like them. There is something seductive about images that invites shallow external comparison. Leaving aside the large and complicated issues of racism and colonialism that I don’t fully understand, I can still see the religious basis for reaching beyond commonality in favor of greater ideals.

Both in the context of images and saints, I think this is part of the “Salafi” argument that I find extremely valid. The tension here that I see is between the local and the universal, which I find fascinating… The universal risks the individual’s ability to relate to something too abstract, the local risks the individual’s ability to relate to the greater whole. If only we could see the forest and the trees at the same time, but alas, even our beautifully complicated eyes (subhanAllah!) can only focus on one field at a time.

[My brain is fried… I had a few other points I wanted to add, perhaps I’ll edit this later inshaAllah]

On the plane

For my last reflection on tawheed, I wanted to mention my recent fear of flying. I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve become an incredibly nervous flier. Whether it has to do with the fact that I’m conspicuously Muslim and worried about harassment in airports, my “InshaAllah syndrome” (when I take the phrase InshaAllah very literally and worry that I could die at any moment) or a misplaced notion that “if I’m not in control, I don’t trust anyone else who is” (probably stemming from others driving my car, even though I’m clearly NOT qualified to fly an airplane!), or a combination of these I’m not sure. I start plane rides with a lot of dhikr and ayatul-Kursi.

I listened to Surat An-Nahl, a recent favorite of mine and I was reflecting on my dependence on technology. I was hoping that the pilots, the instruments and the plane wouldn’t spontaneously fail (I’m such a worrier, I know!) and then I realized I could just focus on God instead…

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My favorite sources on Tawheed:
The Quran, obviously
-Bilal Philips’ “The Fundamentals of Tawheed”

~If there is anything right in this post it is from God, if there is anything wrong it is my sincere mistake.~

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