Hunger Games & Harmful Hopes
Poetry, it is said, is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful meanings.’ The following poem is no exception. For the poem speaks of a love beyond earthly love; of a deep yearning for what may soothe our sorrows. Though not at all religious, believers may uncover in the poem powerful symbols of religious sentiment: seekeing, yearning and a love sublimer than any earthly love – the heart’s hunger for God.
In his 1822 poem, One Word is Too Often Profaned, the English Romanitc poet, Percy Shelley, wrote:
I can give not what men call love;
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heaven’s reject not:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion of something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?
Poetry like this often presents us with powerful imagery that can help us to reflect upon the theme of “Meaning”. For ‘In some poetry,’ the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, ‘there is wisdom.’
Shelley sees in the moth’s desire for the star a poignant symbol of the heart yearning for something which is profound, compelling, sustains hope and soothes us from our immediate sphere of sorrow. Now for reasons we don’t fully understand, moths have a tendency, an innate, inborn nature, to be attracted to light. Starlight and moonlight attracts moths; so do candlelight and floodlights. But there is something of a problem for moths. A candlelight at night will attract moths, but they end up being consumed in its flame. Floodlights on a football pitch attracts moths, but will vaporise them on first contact. The innate longing of a moth for light, if it is the wrong source of light, can lead to its own destruction.
There is a parallel here with the human situation. Man, too, has a deep hunger for what will truly satisfy him – and that longing Islam tells us is for God. In the Qur’an, one of God’s Beautiful Names is al-Kafi – “The Sufficer”, “He who satisfies all needs”. It follows, then, that when we turn our backs on the Sufficer, we shall continue to remain unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
Another of God’s Names is al-Nur – “The Light”, for God is the light of the heavens and the earth, says the Qur’an [24:35]. Muslims hold that creation is a theophany (tajalli), a manifestation, of the Divine Names. Hence if God were not light, there’d be no light anywhere in creation: neither physical nor spiritual.
As human beings, we have an innate hunger for God’s light – for God – and in the absence of that light there is only an unfulfilled restlessness within us. Like the moth attracted to harmful sources of light, we too can misdirect our hopes and longings to things that may harm us, as they fail to deliver what we had expected. The objects of our desires have a marked tendency to frustrate us in that everything we hoped would bring meaning into our lives ends up disappointing us. A most obvious point in case is our current monoculture with its many quick-fixes and promises of fulfilment.
In fact, such yearning for God may even be subverted or perverted, in that one could end-up making a ‘god’ out of created beings or forces. For whenever the love, longing, devotion, loyalty and submission that is due to God, is focused on other than Him, or others along with Him, then this is idolatry – shirk. For as Islam sees things, whoever loves something, desires it, values it, and centres their hopes; fears; love and loyalty around it, submitting to it independently of God, then this, for them, is a deity, a god, an object of sacrilegious worship. Some there are who make a god of wealth, others make gods of women, still others make a god of their own whims and desires. Asks the Qur’an: Have you seen him who takes his whims for his god? [25:43]
Of course we have!
MashaAllah so very beautiful and a much needed reminder. Thank you.
Indeed Allah may test us with that which we love more than Him, for hearts were created for Him, to love Him more than anything else. And a test in life is simply His way of reminding us of that sublime truth and reality.
Mashallah! Thank you for that reminder JG.
Yes indeed, as human beings, we have an innate hunger for God’s light – for
“Allah is the Guardian of those who believe, He brings them out of every darkness into light”.(2:257)
Thank you for your illuminating post!
Thank you for taking the time to comment.
Salaamun ‘Alaykum wa-Rahmatullaah,
I appreciate the direction you’re trying to take this, but I find the use of the idea of theophany (divine manifestations) as troubling. I would feel more comfortable if you could elucidate why you chose such terminology and the evidence to back up its usage as such. My apologies, I mean no disrespect, but the credal implication could be enormous. Allaahu Ta’aalaa A’lam!
As-salamu alaykum br Saeed. It’s been a while since we last corresponded. Your queries are always received with great joy.
Ok. Theophany (Ar. tajalli). As you know, it has the meaning of some sort of “manifestation of the Divine”. Now since we don’t believe that Allah inheres or indwells in His creation (which is a blasphemous belief), what does theophany in this context mean?
What it means is that the whole of creation is God’s handiwork; He created it. As such, it will reflect something of His nature and His qualities (sifat). That God is Merciful is why mercy is found in creation (as per the sahih hadiths). That Allah is beautiful is why beauty can be seen in creation. That Allah is Majestic is why rigour and awe can be seen in some of His creation. And that is why reflecting on His creation should lead a person to knowing something about the qualities and nature of its Maker and Creator.
It is in this context that the remark was made.
An interesting take on the image of the moth and the flame. Traditionally in Islamic poetry this image is usually used to refer to the innate yearning (fitra) of the believer for Allah, and the destruction of the moth to be symbolic of the believer losing all self yearning except for what Allah yearns for (“I become the eye with which he sees…”), or to choose a term from a different school of terminology, “fana'”. I suppose that’s the beauty in poetry is its ability to be multi-faceted and looked at in different perspectives according to the reader and his or her environment.
As-salamu alaykum britishmisk. Perhaps we aren’t talking about two different perspectives at all. The title of the post involved “hunger” for God, and then went on to speak about “yearning” and “longing” for God and an “innate” (read fitrah) hunger for God.
I chose not to use terms like “losing” oneself, “forgetting” oneself, or annihilation (fana), as I did in the last post (Beacons along the Path), since my focus was upon how – in our quest to assuage our hunger – we could end up dedicating our hearts to wrong things: to be lost and annihilated, if you wish, in other than Allah!
And Allah knows best.
Ah yes on rereading the post I can see. It looks as though I focused towards the end of the post and forgot about the beginning!
I think this is why so many atheists just talk about ‘god’- they want to keep on finding excuses to reject all knowledge or evidence He may exist- their hearts remain void and unsatisfied.
That there are enough “signs” woven into creation for man to not really have an excuse to not believe in God, is the understanding of Muslim theology, in general. One of the Arab poets of old said:
O wonder1 How can the Deity be rejected;
Or by the deniers be denied,
While in every thing there is a sign;
By which His Oneness stands testified.
Reminded me of one of my favourite aphorisms;
“Moth: I gave you my life.
Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.”
― Hazrat Inayat Khan
Jazakallahu khayran for sharing.