"I was standing on the highest mountain of them all,
and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world.
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw;
for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit,
and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being."
- Black Elk, The Sacred Hoop of My People
"One of the possible roots of the word 'religion' is religare: to bind, to connect. [Virginia] Woolf felt her way along the path of the permanent quest to which she was committed by binding and connecting the fragments she found within her and around her, fashioning and refashioning new combinations in art and in life ... Binding and connecting and creating new wholes that impel both thought love."
- Stephanie Paulsell, Religion Around Virginia Woolf
"If the world is torn to pieces, I want to see what story I can find in fragmentation."
- Terry Tempest Williams, Erosion: Essays of Undoing
I was born in the Middle East, to an Iraqi-Shi'i father and Sunni-Egyptian mother, to a family who fulfilled their religious obligations as believing Muslims but did so with a secular sensibility, adjoining to their Muslim identity the companionship of Christian friends and indulgence in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, poetry of Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri and songs of Umm Kulthum and Nazim al-Ghazali.
It was only after migrating to the United States in 1997 that I became aware, retrospectively, of the fluid overlap between the Secular and Religious in my upbringing. The recitation of the Qur'an, for example, filled the ambiance of Egyptian television not only as ordained ritual, but also as an experience of tarab (musical ecstasy). This is embodied in the picture below where the Egyptian Diva and singer Umm Kulthum (d. 1973) can be seen meeting Mustafa Ismail (d. 1978), a celebrated Qur'an reciter.
My doctoral research in Islamic mysticism, specifically the writings of the Andalusian mystic Muhyiddin Ibn al-'Arabi (d. 1240), further brought this marriage between - what would now be considered - the sacred and profane into relief. When I read Talal Asad's Formations of the Secular, I not only agreed with him that the Secular is a "successor to religion," but also felt that it is inseparable from religion. These two auras were and are still responding to their reflections in the mirror of the other. They define each other through their contours.
And yet, I was not completely satisfied with this conclusion. My anxiety arose from indelible connections in my heart and mind whilst reading Ibn al-'Arabi's treatises on Sufi metaphysics, between his mystical theosophy and the contemporary crises facing the American Muslim community. Undoubtedly, these imaginal relationships arose through the mediation of my childhood in the Middle East, where a religious figure like Mustafa Ismail and a singer like Umm Kulthum, can be gathered under the auspicious fellowship of music.
My original pursuit of a PhD in Islamic studies was motivated by a desire to have my narrative validated by a religious community that obsessively consecrates religious licenses and degrees. It is the religious scholars who studied at seminaries overseas for decades, and those who followed in their footsteps even for one year, who are ultimately granted the communal permission to 'spread Islamic knowledge'. Fortunately, over the years of my graduate studies, my motivation to be accepted by this larger community has transitioned to a more meaningful niche which I have carved for myself within the embrace of spiritual artists and creative souls.
It should not be surprising that art and creativity should return to my life as an intersection between the sacred and profane, the religious and secular. Just as tarab had hosted Mustafa Ismail and Umm Kulthum in a meeting, the larger realm of art and the creative process fulfills the same role now, for me and many others, between the religious identity of American Muslims, including the entire gamut of hermeneutical lenses through which they interpret their faith, and the larger American society, in all its cultural diversity, from Las Vegas and Hollywood to John Denver and Bob Dylan.
I slowly realized that no degree or religious license could undo the dissonance and disparity in perception which I sensed, as a first-generation Arab Muslim immigrant in America, while interacting with large segments of the American Muslim community. Of course, this was a gradual realization accumulating over a decade of engaging various Islamic institutions and groups. Nevertheless, I came to the conclusion that it is not enough for me to learn specific religious texts with authentic chains of transmission. Rather, I had to understand why I lacked the desire altogether to learn many texts in Islamic dialectical theology and jurisprudence, yet at the same was sincerely invested in Ibn al-'Arabi's metaphysics and the spiritual dimensions of the creative process.
Ibn al-'Arabi illuminated my path by distinguishing between two understandings of God, two oceans that could theoretically meet in the heart of a perfected prophet or saint, but otherwise fluctuate between human beings, according to their dispositions. Tashbih (immanence) and tanzih (transcendence), Ibn al-'Arabi tells us, are contradictory yet both necessary aspects of envisioning God's interaction with the world. He is at once permeating the universe with spirit and life and yet entirely independent from this creation.
I realized that tanzih (transcendence), the proverbial negative theology, had monopolized the conversation surrounding God in the Muslim community, largely because the catechisms which constitute the curricula of Islamic seminaries in the West all but espouse this vision of God, emphasizing how He is different from His creation, not similar. This theology could not allow me to commune with God while listening to Umm Kulthum and experiencing tarab and definitely not while trying to appreciate the tarab in Mustafa Ismail's recitation of the Qur'an. Naturally, such an approach made it even more difficult, if not impossible, to sacralize a visit to the museum, drinking coffee from Starbucks or watching the newest Star Wars movie in theater.
Simply, tanzih alone, by its very nature and purpose, does not allow us to perceive our life, both in its grandeur and banality, as meaningful. On the contrary, it seeks to obliterate our entire being in the awesome incomparability of Divinity. It is tashbih that helps in transforming the profane details of our existence in this world into sacred epiphanies, or to actually perceive them as already sanctified. More than witnessing objects, events or people as theophanies, tashbih unfurls upon us the perplexing journey of deciphering the presence of God in the connections and relationships we have, religious and otherwise.
I have been particularly captivated these past few years by the artistic productions of a community and how it relates to the memory of their land and history. Black Elk (d. 1950), a Holy Man from the Lakota Native American tribe, unveils for us in the quote at the beginning the immanent theology animating the spirituality of this continent, long before the European migration and ensuing massacre of the Native Americans and trans-Atlantic slave trade, both tragedies of which gave birth to art and music that transcend the boundaries of entertainment and constitute an identity and history. The vision of the Sacred Hoop also is a timeless coming together of theophanies into unmitigated oneness, the marriage between immanence and transcendence. In this way, Black Elk was a perfect saint.
And yet, at the level of the world, the Native American spirituality envisions a God who surpasses a singular Name, completely permeating the forms of this world with reality, spirit and life. Perhaps, it is this heritage which fills the contours of this land's memory. The tashbih in Black Elk's words alludes to an aura which envelops America through the ages, one where an appreciation of God, Truth and Oneness through the forms, both the grand and banal, is the path that harmonizes most with what the land breathes, speaks and listens for in the conversations of its custodians.
In her exquisite work, Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippet quotes the monk Godfrey Diekmann who told her that "Christianity needs a renewed incarnational theology - a back-to-basics understanding of the implications of belief in a God who threw himself whole into the light and darkness of life with us ... all of creation has a certain dignity, a certain reality as the image of God's greatness and beauty and strength. But we have failed to see things. We have failed to hear things." And so do American Muslims also need a renewed immanence theology, one that hearkens and pays homage to the original memory of America, sung into being by the Native Americans.
And we see this eminence of immanence reverberating throughout the cultural life of the New World until the present day. Even in Europe, a literary figure like Virginia Woolf, an espoused agnostic, had devoted her life and writings to exploring the tarab of life. In her brilliant study of Woolf, Stephanie Paulsell highlights how the former often stated explicitly that "there is no god."
There is a part of me that cannot help but hear Ibn al-'Arabi concur that Woolf is still a believer, since 'there is no god' is actually a part of the Islamic declaration of faith: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God." Might that part not be the immanence of God's permeation of the world beyond any name or distinction, even that of a personal deity? Ibn al-'Arabi himself alludes to this aspect of divinity when he praises God in a litany by saying: "Oh my Lord, You whose hiddenness is naught but utter manifestation!"
Following in the footsteps of Black Elk and other Native American holy men in their reverential love for nature, Terry Williams takes the readers in Erosion: Essays of Undoing through a hauntingly beautiful kaleidoscope of the American wildlands, the same ones that were sacralized by Native Americans and later ravaged by our society's thirst for luxury at the expense of life. Like the Native American chieftains, and many mystics from other traditions, Williams had established communion with various custodians of the wildlands from the animal kingdom. She reiterates through her unabashed writing that the memory of Black Elk's timeless sacred hoop had possessed Emerson and Thoreau before her, overwhelms her now and will do so for many in the future.
Our authors and mystics show us that immanence-theology is an inherent disposition in humanity generally and a pivotal memory in America specifically. The place of art and creativity in this narrative, as Paulsell shows beautifully, resides at the heart of all things. If God is the creator, al-khaliq in Arabic, then he is also the creative artist, al-khallaq. He permeates his creative work, creation, with the indelible marks of his theophanies. In turn, the human undertaking of art and creativity is the ultimate act of divine mimesis and highest form of flattery directed towards him. He knows himself through us, or as Ibn al-'Arabi says: "We are his sustenance, and he is ours."