by Gai Eaton

Talks #6-9: Beauty from Short Talks on Islam by Gai Eaton (broadcast by the BBC between 1978 and 1996).

These precious talks on Islam, ninety in all, and each one a jewel of less than 700 words, were written and delivered by Gai Eaton for the Reflections and Words of Faith series of short Friday broadcasts by the BBC between 1978 and 1996.

They provide a beautifully clear and accessible introduction to the central tenets, principles and practices at the heart of Islam. As such, they are not only a unique guide for non-Muslims, but also an inspiring reminder to Muslims of the essence of the faith.

As yet unpublished, the Book Foundation is privileged to be able to serialise these talks in printed form as a monthly offering.

Beauty (1)
by Gai Eaton

I returned the other day from a holiday in France, staying for a while with friends in the South. They have bought an old farmhouse, right up in the mountains, and rebuilt it with space for a dozen or more people. Both husband and wife are trained psychologists, and they hold courses for townspeople who've lost all sense of purpose in their lives. They try to help people who are not exactly sick, but who are empty, and I'm sure they do help them. But I'm equally sure that the astonishing beauty of the landscape in which that farmhouse is set also contributes to the healing process, for healing is related to wholeness and, in such a place as that, you begin to feel "whole", at home in the world (because it's so beautiful) and at home in yourself.

Speaking as a Muslim, this is just what I would expect. The very word "Islam" comes from a word meaning "peace". The most basic principle of the religion is Unity:- first the unity of God, who is One without equal, without associate, then the unity of His creation in which every element, however tiny, has its place and its function, and finally the unity achieved in every man and woman once they know who they are and where they are going, at peace with their Lord, at peace in the world, at peace with themselves.

That peace is closely bound up with the awareness of beauty. In one of his most famous sayings, the Prophet Muhammad told his people: Allahu jamilun yuhibbu'l-jamal – "God is beautiful and He loves beauty!". Now that is not a statement about feelings or impressions. It is a statement about the nature of Reality. And that, in turn, suggests something very important. It suggests that ugliness – and, Yes!, there's plenty of that in the world in which we live – is not on an equal footing with beauty. It's not one of a pair, like hot and cold, black and white; it represents the spoiling of beauty, the unmaking of what had been well made, the denial of God or His seeming absence. You might compare it to a hole in the pattern, a stain on the fabric, and it belongs to that class of things which, so the Quran tells us, last for but a short time and are then wiped away, while beauty endures. To know this is to possess a sense of the sacred and so to be aware of the radiance that illuminates unspoilt nature from within and which may be found also in the things we make, when these are well and lovingly made. The tragedy of modern man, in the midst of his riches and his technological achievements, is that he has lost this sense of the sacred and lives in a world drained of light.

No wonder the people who come to my friends' farmhouse need help. They live in cities from which beauty has been banished as an irrelevance, as though it were a luxury which we can do without, and this is an environment in which it is difficult to believe in God since it has been constructed in forgetfulness of Him; and – in Islam – to forget God is the greatest sin, or the root of all other sins. Those who have told us, over the past century, that "God is dead" should have had the honesty to complete the sentence:- "God is dead, therefore man is dead!" When nothing in our surroundings reminds us of Him, then He does – in a sense – die in our hearts, and all that makes life worth living dies with Him.

But those visitors to the farmhouse are fortunate. Not everyone has such opportunities, to say the least. Of what use is it to suggest to the majority of city dwellers that they should turn to the empty spaces of virgin nature, where the sacred is nakedly apparent and where souls are healed? Their lives are restricted to the narrow streets in which no one has the time to say "Good day!" and in which the roar of traffic drowns the human voice. Is there no escape for them, no possibility of healing? God willing, I hope to take up this point next week.

(Broadcast by the BBC in August 1987 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Beauty (2)
by Gai Eaton

I talked last week about the healing powers of unspoilt nature and I talked about beauty – the seal of authenticity that God has placed on His creation – but I had to admit that a vast number of people in the world today are isolated from nature by an ugly man-made environment from which they cannot escape. Thus is that entirely true? Is anyone totally cut off from the good things that God has given us? Surely not! But, while those who are lucky enough to live in the midst of beauty need make no effort to enjoy what they have been given, the rest of us have to get down to work and teach ourselves to appreciate the gifts that come our way. No one need make an effort to see God's presence in mountains, rivers and forests, but to find joy in a single flower or to feel respect for a crust of bread is a different matter. It requires what is called – in Islam – the unceasing "remembrance of God", and it requires an understanding of the simple fact that everything created praises its Creator and reminds us of Him.

"Do you not see", asks the Quran, "that everything in the heavens and all that is in the earth adores God, as do the sun and the moon and the stars, and the hills and the trees and the beasts, and many of mankind...?"

The tale is told of a Muslim Sufi Master who sent his youngest disciple to gather flowers for the house. The young man was gone a long time, and he finally returned with one miserable bloom in his hand. The Master raised an eyebrow – perhaps both eyebrows – and asked for an explanation. "When I went to pick the flowers", said the disciple, "I found them all singing the praises of their Lord and Creator, and I dared not interrupt them; but then I saw that one had finished her song. This is the one that I have brought you".

Until fairly recently, when the habits of modern life began to get a real grip on the area, travelers in North Africa used often to be struck by rather a puzzling sight. They would observe a man walking down the street – going about his business – stop suddenly, bend down, pick up a discarded crust of bread and, after touching it to his forehead, place it safely on the nearest wall.

What does that story tell us, and what is the significance of this act of respect and gratitude for the nourishment God gives us – even for a dry crust? Both the story and the action demonstrate, in the first place, a true sense of the sacred and an awareness that this sense of the sacred embraces all that God has made, all that He has given for our sustenance or for our delight. Everything we see when we open our eyes, everything we grasp when we hold out our hands comes from Him and – when rightly used – reminds us of Him. Muhammad used to pray: Oh my Lord, increase me in marveling!

But we also have to understand that everything in existence has certain rights, and our own rights do not extend to misusing these things, squandering them, exploiting them. I can imagine someone saying: "This is really too much! Women's rights, animal rights, even plant rights, and now you talk about the rights of sticks and stones! Where will it end?" It has no end – that's the only possible answer. We didn't make the world. You cannot, the Quran tells us, even create a fly. And the Quran assures us also that the whole universe is like a vast picture-book filled with the "signs" of God, if only we have eyes to see and the sense to understand. In other words, nothing is merely what it seems. Appearances – as people so often tell us – are deceptive and, if we float only on the surface of the world around us, then we are indeed deceived. There is always more to it than that, and then more and more, until you have plumbed the depths and found – behind the seventy thousand veils of light and darkness, the face of God.

(Broadcast by the BBC in August 1987 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Beauty (3)
by Gai Eaton

I said last week that, from the Muslim point of view, even the little things which surround us or of which we make use in our daily lives can serve to remind us of God and therefore deserve to be treated with respect. These things form part of the material world, and how often have you been told – how often have I been told – that we are "too materialistic" in this modern age? If that means simply that we are too greedy for material possessions, then it's a fair criticism; but I'm going to suggest to you that – in one very important sense – we are not materialistic enough. You and I – unless we are either mystics or scientists – see the material world as a solid, inert lump. We seldom bother to look beneath the surface. For the Muslim mystic however it is a tapestry into which the "signs" of God are woven. But how does the contemporary physicist see it? He too is obliged to probe beneath the surface and, the deeper he penetrates, the greater the mystery which faces him. This solid table in front of me is, he says, a space in which minute quanta of energy move at incredible speeds: particles, he calls them but then he corrects himself and says that they are waves which sometimes behave like particles – or particles which sometimes behave like waves. It is all very confusing, and so it should be, for it reminds us that nothing is as it seems and that mystery surrounds our little enclosure of "common sense".

Is this unsettling? If it is, then I am sure we need to be "unsettled". Earlier in this series of "reflections" I spoke of those people who have lost all sense of purpose, who live in a grey, monotonous world and who need contact with the splendours of virgin nature if they are to be healed. But what we have to understand – and perhaps what they need to understand – is that their "grey" world is an illusion. The fault is not in their surroundings but in themselves. "It is not the eyes that grow blind," says the Quran in this context, "but the hearts within the breasts that grow blind".

There is a story which crops up in several different traditions; I first came across it in Hinduism, but then I discovered it again in a Muslim book. It goes like this:- A man living at a certain address in Baghdad (let's say "Baghdad" for convenience, but it could be any city) has a vivid dream in which he learns that a vast treasure is hidden under the floor of a certain house in Cairo. He sets out to seek this treasure, and it's a hard journey; he gets mugged on the way, he nearly drowns and he comes close to starvation, but in the end he arrives at the address in Cairo. The owner of the house says: "You've just caught me – I was about to set out for Baghdad, for I dreamed the other night that a great treasure was hidden under the floor of a certain house there". I think you can guess whose house that is! The traveler returns home – no doubt getting mugged again on the way – and, sure enough, the treasure is under his own living-room. Did he make a wasted journey? The moral of the story is that we sometimes have to venture out and travel far in order to find the treasure which was always ours.

We have all that we need – you and I and anyone else you care to name. That's one of the basic principles of the spiritual life. But we need help, a great deal of help, to discover what we already possess. That help comes, obviously, from God provided we ask for it eagerly and in all sincerity. But, as Muslim, Jew and Christian will agree, He uses many instruments, and in fact – in His hands – anyone or anything can become an instrument of guidance: men and women, the beauties of nature, true works of art, the little things we handle each day – even sticks and stones. But we have to do our part. We have to ask!

(Broadcast by the BBC in August 1987 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

Beauty (4)
By Gai Eaton

In this series of short reflections I’ve been talking about beauty – its healing properties – and about the praise which rises from every created thing towards its Creator. "Have you not seen", asks the Quran, "that God is He whom all in the heavens and the earth praise, and the birds in their flight? He indeed knows the worship and the praise of each, and God is aware of all that they do". And the pious Muslim, when things go badly for him, says: "al-hamdu lillahi 'ala kulli hal"; "Praise be to God under all circumstances"; not just on the bright day, but on the dark one too.

But what is really meant by this much abused word, "praise"? It may have different meanings for different people, but – for the Muslim, anyway – it suggests that what is given by God is transmuted on earth into praise of the Giver, just as the falling rain is transmuted into a vapour which returns to the clouds. Men and women praise consciously when they are aware of the source of their existence; sticks and stones praise by their very existence, for existence is itself a miracle. According to the Quran, God "says unto a thing 'Be!', and it is"; and however humble its situation here, among the people of the earth or among the stones of the earth, it is the direct product of God's command and therefore participates, in some way, in the mystery of His being. This – precisely – is why it can serve as a "reminder", inviting us to focus our attention, not upon what has been made, but upon its Maker. "He scatters His mercy", says the Quran, just as the rain is scattered over the dry land, and we – you and I – take and use as much of this as we may be capable of absorbing. Listen to the Quran once again: "God sends down rain from the sky so that the valleys flow according to their measure, and the flood bears away swelling foam ... thus does God indicate the true and the false. As for the foam, it passes away as scum upon the banks, while – as for that which is of use to mankind – it remains in the earth".

But, in talking of beauty and praise, the healing powers of nature and the meaning hidden in sticks and stones, have I left out something important? What about the "do's" and "Don'ts" of religion? They have, ultimately, one purpose, and that is to establish harmony, balance, order within the individual personality as also in society; the same harmony, balance and order visible in creation as a whole, maintaining the birds in their flight, turning the growing plant towards the life-giving sun, and bringing the fruit to ripeness on the tree. In the disordered personality and in the disordered society, the "Do's" and "Don'ts" may have to be imposed, but those are conditions under which the equilibrium inherent in creation has already been disturbed as happens when people forget who they are and where they are going.

There is another word for equilibrium in the human domain, and that is "sanity", bearing in mind its derivation from the Latin sanus, which means neither more nor less than "healthy". Health is what those unhappy townspeople (whom I mentioned in the first talk of this series) are seeking when they take refuge with my friends in the French mountains. Perhaps that is what we all seek, at the level of the spirit as also at the bodily level? And "health", understood in its deepest sense, relates to the most fundamental principle of the religion of Islam. This is Tawhid: unity, unification, wholeness, the inter-connectedness of every single thing from the highest to the lowest; the Oneness of God reflected in the oneness of being.

When we are aware of this unity, then we are at home wherever we may find ourselves; when we forget it, we are isolated even in the warmest embrace. It is then that we need help, and help in offered through the thousand-and-one things we see and touch. But we have to reach out, we have to ask. The answer comes with the asking.

(Broadcast by the BBC in August 1987 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

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