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]
During the first half of the twentieth century, many books were written which warned about the dangers of giving the state control over new and powerful technologies. The nightmare visions of society these books conjured up have left an indelible mark upon our collective consciousness and subsequent social and historical development.
George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World, are regarded by many to be the two most influential works in this genre. The two novels describe a dystopia in which an all-powerful state controls and manipulates the behaviour and actions of its people in order to preserve its own power and stability and to keep the masses servile and under control. Orwell’s 1984 is, no doubt, the better known of the two. Words like “Orwellian” and “Big Brother” have even entered our lexicon as synonyms for abusive or totalitarian societies and all-controlling, surveillance states – such is the impact the book has had, both culturally and politically. That said, the two depictions of dystopia, the Orwellian and Huxleyan, are quite distinct and their warnings very different.
Orwell’s dystopia warned about a repressive surveillance society where every thought and conversation was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley’s warned about society held captive to gross consumption and seduced by sensual gratification, political theatre and trivial amusement. So whilst society is kept entertained, political power would grow unchecked as people embraced their own oppression.
Orwell, as Neil Postman says in Amusing Ourselves to Death, warns of a world in which books were banned. Huxley, Postman noted, warns of a world where no one wants to read books because of being distracted by trivial pursuits and mindless pleasures.
Orwell warns about those who would deprive us of information. Huxley warns about those who would feed us too much information, so that truth becomes lost in a sea of triviality and minds made passive with mediocrity.
Orwell warns of a society where ideas are brutaly controlled and truths manipulated. Huxley warns of a society where a population, preoccupied with trivial gossip or news, no longer cared about truth.
Orwell warns we would all be watched by Big Brother. Huxley warns that we would all be watching Big Brother.
Orwell warned we would be controlled by inflicting pain. Huxley warns we would be controlled by inflicting pleasure.
Orwell warned we would be frightened into submission. Huxley warned we would be seduced into submission.
Passionate discussions still abound as to whether we are closer to being an Orwellian society or a Huxleyan one? Whether the state is growing increasingly Orwellian, and society ever more Huxleyan? Whether we are now in the grip of a Huxleyan dystopia which will eventually morph into an Orwellian one? And while we should continue to be vigilant against state tyranny and totalitarianism, their presence or approach tend to be quite conspicuous. But, as Huxley remarks in Brave New World Revisited, we may be ever alert to oppose a coercive regime, but must not fail ‘to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction.’
The Qur’an speaks against the tyranny of the rich and the powerful in many passages. Yet because of the subtlety of its deception, the Qur’an places greater emphasis on the distraction and subjugation brought about by over-indulging in worldly comforts: The life of this world is nothing but play and distraction. But the Hereafter is better for those who fear God. Have you no sense? [6:32] So although both kinds of subjugation are nasty – the Orwellian type and the Huxleyan – it would seem to be a case of: ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.’
It was, I think, the summer of 1979 that I visited the local library to borrow Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Around about five years earlier, over the course of a few months in morning assemblies, the head teacher of my primary school, a silver haired Mr. Smith, read to us all Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
I was expecting to be enthralled by The Lord of the Rings as I was with The Hobbit; but I was pretty well disenchanted. The first chapter about Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday was filled with too many details for my liking. So I promptly returned the epic back to the local library; disappointed with the book and, I think, with myself.
About a month later, I borrowed the book again. And though I read a few more pages than previously, I still couldn’t manage to complete the first chapter. Again, the book went back to the library!
Three months later, in the winter of the same year, I took it out for a third time. But this time I had resolved to get pass Chapter One, no matter how gruelling it would be. By the third day, I had not only done that, but I had completed the second chapter too; and I was hooked! The next few weeks, sitting by the electric fire in the sitting room, I completed the entire book. I fell in love with the myths; the characters; the languages; the worlds … the detail. I was fast becoming a true Tolkienite!
Over the next decade or so, I would read other works in the Tolkien canon; the canon of middle-earth: The Silmarion, Unfinished Tales, Bilbo’s Last Song and then in 2007, The Children of Hurin. Middle-earth still enthrals me to this day.
In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings comes The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen. It tells the enchanting, yet bittersweet tale of how Aragorn first met Arwen in Rivendell, and fell in love with her; of how, after a long parting, they met each other again under the trees of Calas Galadhon in the forests of Lothlorien; how they betrothed themselves to each other on the fair hill of Cerin Amroth where ‘they looked east to the Shadow and west to the Twilight, and they plighted their troth and were glad’; and of how at Midsummer, in the year of Sauron’s fall, Aragorn and Arwen were wedded in Gondor; and finally how, after ‘six-score years in great glory and bliss’, Aragorn fell into death’s deep sleep; and how, a short time later, a grief-stricken Arwen, finding death – ‘the gift of the One to Men’ – hard to bear, bade farewell to all whom she loved and left at winter’s end for a now deserted Lothlorien, laying herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth: ‘and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men who come after.’
Aragorn’s love for Arwen sends him on a long and perilous path to protect Frodo and the Ring. Arwen’s love for Aragorn, however, demands of her even more. For to marry him, she must forsake an immortal life with her father and her elven-folk, and endure the pain of separation from them. In choosing Aragorn and his fate, Arwen makes her own death inevitable.
When the time comes for Aragorn to ‘move beyond the circles of this world’, Arwen is beset with grief and begs that he stay a while longer. ‘But let us not be overthrown at the final test,’ Aragorn counsels her. His last words to her, before he gives up his life, speak of hope, of happiness, and anticipation of an even better life in a world remade: ‘In sorrow we must go, but not in grief. Behold, we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!’
Belief in an Afterlife – a realm after death – is central to the faith of Islam. The Qur’an states: Every soul shall taste death. And We test you with evil and with good as a trial. And to Us you shall be returned. [21:35] Death, then, is not the end of life. Once man has died, he will be raised-up; once resurrected, he will be held to account for the time he spent on earth; and once he has been judged, he will be recompensed and treated according to the way he conducted himself in his earthly life. Just as the fictional Aragorn trusts that the purposes of the One in regards to Men, after death, are good ones, and that if he and Arwen bind themselves in obedience to that trust they would be reunited with one another in unendless bliss; then such is the case with the believers when they bind themselves in obedience to the will and purpose of God.
In what follows, Najm al-Din Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi (d.742H/1341CE) – a Hanbali jurist, pietist and preacher – discusses the remembrance of death and the Afterlife. In one hadith, we encounter this somber decree: ‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures – i.e. death.’ [Tirmidhi, no.2308] Indeed, remembrance of death, recounting the final judgement and other sobering details of Islam’s eschatology, underscores the devotional life of the believers, helping them to recall their ultimate purpose and final return.
This is what he says in the popular Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin – his abridgement of Ibn al-Jawzi’s Minhaj al-Qasidin; which, in turn, was a redaction of Imam al-Ghazali’s masterpiece, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din:
‘Know that the heart of the man who is engrossed in this world and is overcome by its deceptions will certainly be neglectful of the remembrance of death; and thus will fail to recall it. If he does recollect it, he finds it odious and recoils from it. Now, men may either be engrossed [in this world], or penitent beginners, or arrived gnostics.
The person engrossed does not remember death, or, if he does, it is with regret for his worldly affairs, and he busies himself with disparaging death. Remembrance of death does nothing for such a man except increase him in distance from God.
The penitent man remembers death frequently, so that fear and apprehension might thereby proceed from his heart, thus making his repentance complete. It may be that he fears death lest it seize him before his repentance is complete, or before he musters sufficient provisions for the journey. He is excused in his aversion to death, and is not included in the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘Whosoever loathes meeting God, God loathes meeting with him.’ [Bukhari, no.6026; Muslim, no.2683] For he only fears meeting God because of his deficiencies and remissness. He is like a man who is made late for a meeting with his beloved because of busying himself with preparation for the encounter in a way which meets with the beloved’s approval: he is not deemed to be reluctant about the meeting itself. The telling mark of such a man is his constant preparation for this affair and his lack of any other concern. Were he to be otherwise, he would be like the man engrossed in the world.
As for the gnostic, he remembers death constantly, because for him it is the tryst with his Beloved: and a lover never forgets the appointed time for meeting the one that he loves. Usually such a man considers death slow in coming and is happy [when it does] that he may have done with the abode of sinners and be borne away into the presence of the Lord of the Worlds – as one of them stated as death approached: “A dear friend has come at a time of need. Whoever repents [at such a moment] shall not succeed.”
Thus, the penitent man may be excused for his aversion he feels for death, as this one is excused for his desire for death and longing for it. Higher [in degree] than either of them is he who entrusts his affair to God, Exalted is He, no longer preferring death or life for himself. Instead, the dearest thing to him is that which is more beloved in the sight of his Lord. So by virtue of profound love and loyalty, this man has arrived at the station of absolute surrender and contentment; which is the highest goal and utmost limit.
But whatever the situation, in the recollection of death there is reward and merit. For even the man engrossed in the world benefits from recollecting death and acquiring an aversion for this world. Since remembering it spoils and mars its pleasures.’1
1. Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 1999), 409-10. My translation of the section is heavily indebted to T.J. Winter (trans.), The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995), 7-9.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘There is wisdom in poetry.’ [Bukhari, no.6145] He also said: ‘Poetry has the same status as prose – good poetry is like good prose, bad poetry is like bad prose.’ [Al-Daraqutni, no.495] That being said, the Sunnah cautions against over indulging in poetry, as per the following hadith: ‘It is better for one of you to fill their stomach with pus than to fill it with poetry.’ [Bukhari, no.6155]
Good poetry is, in a sense, timeless and immortal. This is not only because it is read by generation after generation of readers, but also because poems – unlike novels, essays or articles – tend to be felt, experienced, absorbed; and not merely read for the sake of reading or finishing. It has been said that a poem can deliver to the sensitive reader an ‘immortal wound’ that one may never quite get over.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem, simply entitled If, ranks amongst the most popular pieces of poetry in Britain and enjoys widespread recognition. Written in 1895, and published first in 1910, the poem speaks of virtue, stoicism and personal integrity, and contains profound mottos and maxims for life.
Muslims, as with peoples of other faiths, will be quick to point out how these maxims and ideals closely contour their own religious teachings. In fact, the Victorian ethics If evokes has much in common with the conservative ethos that tempers Islam’s moral code: its moderation and modesty; its stoicism; its insistence upon a certain sense of reserve; and its insistence on common sense and pragmatism.
Much has been written about Kipling’s attitude towards imperialism, or the apparent racism found in his prose and poetry: was Kipling merely critiquing racist attitudes or exhibiting them himself? That aside, no such controversy exists about the didactic If. In our times, it is regarded as a popular classic of English literature; lines from it even appear over the player’s entrance to Wimbledon’s center court – a telling reminder of its abiding inspiration.
As traditional canons of beauty give way to a culture of shallowness, mediocrity and crass consumption, the poem distills the loftier human virtues. It presupposes that true manhood (or womanhood) is rooted, not in material advancement, but in moral behaviour and ethical living. So, with these few introductory passages, there is little else left to be said save: read, enjoy, be inspired, and suffer the immortal wound that is If.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you But make allowance for their doubting too, If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master, If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breath a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; If all men count with you, but none too much, If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!