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Seeing and Being Seen

by Gai Eaton

Talks #1-5: Seeing and Being Seen from Short Talks on Islam (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As yet unpublished, the Book Foundation is privileged to be able to serialise these talks in printed form as a monthly offering, starting with five talks delivered in October 1986.


Seeing and Being Seen (1)
by Gai Eaton

The Prophet made use of three terms to define our religion: first, islam, meaning submission to God and to His law; then iman, meaning faith in God and in what He has revealed to us, and finally ihsan, which is usually translated as “excellence”, in other words “submission” and “faith” brought to their highest point, perfected. And he defined ihsan in this way: It is to worship God as though you saw Him; for, though you see Him not, yet He sees you”.

The Quran – the sacred Scripture of Islam – speaks again and again of God as al-Basir, the All-Seeing, and also as al-Khabir, He who is totally aware of everything. “Not a leaf falls but He knows it”, says the Quran; and “He knows the secret thoughts and what is even more hidden”.

So He sees us at every moment, and He sees into the most secret recesses of our being. Now here, I think, we are on dangerous ground. I have known people brought up in a Christian environment who have turned against religion precisely because they were taught, as children, that God is some sort of super-Spy. They were told that a fearsome Old Man in the Sky sees everything that they do; he was just waiting to catch them out when they were naughty, and he would punish them even for those shameful secret thoughts which they hardly dared acknowledge to themselves. No wonder they rebelled against this. Most of us have an impulse to duck when we come into a building and notice a security camera pointing in our direction. Surely we have a right to a bit of privacy?

This is not – I believe – the way Muslims understand God’s all-seeing presence. They find it reassuring, comforting. They are glad not to be alone in an alien universe. They want to be understood, and they know that they are understood. The sense of loneliness which haunts many people, just below the threshold of everyday life, cries out for love, friendship, companionship and is not easily satisfied; cries out, in truth, for the divine Presence. In our personal relationships in this world we seek to be understood, at least by the people we love and by our friends; but also, perhaps, by our enemies for, if only we could explain ourselves to them, they would not be our enemies. Even if we are embarrassed to admit it, we do look for the ideal lover, the ideal friend, even the reconciled enemy.

What a relief, then, to discover that – in the only way it really matters – we are totally understood because we are totally known. What a relief also to be aware that there is one Person in whose presence we no longer have to pretend or deceive or protect ourselves. One of the Names given to God in the Quran is “The Friend”; the Sufis – the “mystics” of Islam – have gone further and dared to call Him “The Beloved”. Whether we are Muslims or Christians we know – or should know! – that our God is no tyrant, and that He who made us as we are is in the best position to know us and to forgive us. The Quran insists constantly upon the divine Mercy; His Mercy, it tells us, “embraces all things” – and He can hardly wait to forgive us for our sins and our stupidities. But He has to wait, if only for a moment, to give us time to understand, in other words to “repent” and to acknowledge, in the light of the truth, that we have fallen short of what could reasonably be expected of us. “Repentance” does not imply self-indulgent and self-pitying guilt; it means turning back to God when we had turned away from Him and admitting the simple truth of our situation. As we turn – at the very moment at which we turn – He turns to us, and the barriers which we had wilfully erected between Him and us are dissolved. He was always there, waiting; it is we who had made ourselves absent from Him. We have come back where we always belonged. We are known, understood, seen and forgiven.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)


Seeing and Being Seen (2)
by Gai Eaton

I talked last week about the Muslim’s conviction – based upon what the Quran teaches – that we are seen by God at every moment of our lives and that even our most secret thoughts are exposed to Him, which is one way of saying that we live constantly in the divine Presence. It could even be said that awareness of this Presence is at the very heart of the Islamic way of life. “When My servants question thee concerning Me”, says the Quran, which is – for us – the Word of God revealed through Muhammad, “then indeed I am close. I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he cries unto Me. So let them hear My call, and let them trust in Me”.

There are certain sayings of the Prophet, quite separate from the Quranic revelation, in which God spoke directly through his mouth. Let me quote to you one of the most important of these inspired sayings: “I am with (my servant) when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in company, I make mention of him in a better company than that; and if he draws near to Me a hand’s span, I draw near to him an arm’s length; and if he draws near to Me an arm’s length, I draw near to him a fathom’s length; and if he comes to Me walking, I go to him speedily”.

A whole book could be written – in fact books have been written! – by way of commentary on that saying, but let us consider just one point. “I am with (my servant) when he makes mention of Me”. But isn’t He always with us? Yes, of course He is. But are we aware of the fact? Probably not, most of the time. That is why we behave the way we do. We are busy, everyday life occupies our attention to the exclusion of everything else. We forget; and the Quran refers again and again to man’s forgetfulness. But isn’t there something rather foolish and incompetent about people who keep forgetting where they are and in Whose Presence they stand, each day and every day? Well, perhaps if we acknowledge our own foolishness and incompetence, we may already have taken a step towards God. The next step is to do something about it, and that is to “mention” Him, whether “in ourselves” or “in company”.

That might not seem to amount to very much, but – in Islam – it is the key both to faith and to practice. The Arabic word dhikr has two meanings: “mention” and “remembrance”, and God tells us in the Quran: “Remember Me, and I will remember thee!”. What we are doing when we “mention” His Name is reminding ourselves of His Presence, waking up from the dream in which we live so much of the time and recollecting where we are. This, you see, is simply a matter of realism. If I am in London but, for some stupid reason, I think that I am in Paris, then I’m likely to get everything wrong and make a fool of myself. And if, as Islam teaches, everything that we do and everything that we think is seen and known by God, then to forget this is to forget where we are.

But this raises another point, with which I hope to deal in my next talk. If we don’t know where we are, then it’s very likely that we don’t know who we are. And what could be worse than that? There is a verse of the Quran which says: “They forget God, therefore He has caused them to forget themselves”. To understand ourselves means to know ourselves in relation to reality; it is to see ourselves as we are in the light of the truth. If we have forgotten what the truth is and if we therefore live in a fantasy world, we cannot even begin to know who we are. Self-knowledge depends upon knowledge of the Presence of God.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)


Seeing and Being Seen (3)
by Gai Eaton

Last week I quoted to you a verse from the Quran which tells us that, if we forget God, He makes us forget ourselves. Another way of putting this, also derived from the Quran, is to say that He leaves us to wander this world like blind men. The Book speaks of those who have “hearts wherewith they understand not, and eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not”, and it compares such people to “cattle”.

But let us consider, for the moment, one particular kind of blindness: the inability to see or know or understand ourselves. There is a line from a poem by the Scots poet, Robbie Burns which has probably been quoted more often than any other line of poetry. I can’t do a Scots accent, but it goes like this: “Would the good Lord the giftie gie’ us to see ourselves as others see us”. Perhaps that should be taken with a grain of salt. If we could really see ourselves as others see us, we would be in the position of someone standing in front of a whole row of distorting mirrors, each showing a different image; we might become so confused that we would be paralysed. But supposing we change the poet’s words and say: “Would the good Lord the giftie gie’ us to see ourselves as He sees us”? That is quite a different matter.

What is it that makes us so unwilling to look at ourselves calmly and objectively? Fear, I suppose, and defensiveness. If we were to admit our weaknesses to ourselves we would – so we think – be weakened in the face of the world and less able to cope with the dangers and the problems that surround us; and, if we don’t build up our own “image”, no one else is going to do it for us. Of what use is a deflated balloon, even if there is a fierce-looking face painted on it? We must blow the balloon up and present that face to the world.

But there’s a problem here. The more we try to live a lie, the more vulnerable we become. We’re afraid of being caught out by other people; above all, we’re afraid of being caught out by ourselves. A lie always needs to be supported by further lies, and then by still more lies, until we find that we have constructed a house of cards that may be blown down at any moment. What happens then? A nervous breakdown, perhaps, or what the psychiatrists call an “identity crisis”. Self-deception has its dangers, to say the least.

But, to be able to do without self-deception, we have to feel secure, and, speaking as a Muslim, I believe, that this sense of security can come about in only one way. That is from the knowledge that, even here and now in this turbulent world, we are living in the presence of God, who see us objectively, and yet with mercy and loving-kindness. In that all-seeing Presence there is no longer any point in lying or in pretending to be other than we are. This, surely, is what we call “serenity”; to be oneself, to recognise oneself, in the calm certainty that He sees us as we are and accepts us as we are.

If we are aware of living in that Presence, then we are aware of living face-to-face with the truth: a bright, clear light that encompasses everything. In that light we are free, not only to see ourselves, without false pride or false guilt, but also to look around us, no longer hampered by tunnel-vision, and see things as they really are. And what they are, in the Presence of God, is something quite different to what they appear to be when we consider them only in terms of self-interest – in the way cattle see them. They have become symbols of what exists above and beyond them; and that is what I want to discuss next week.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)


Seeing and Being Seen (4)
by Gai Eaton

“Seeing and being seen” was what I had thought of calling this series of “Reflections”. So far I’ve talked mainly about “being seen”, being aware that we live in the Presence of God. But in every aspect of religious life there’s a kind of reciprocity between God and man; there are two sides to every coin. There’s a connection between “seeing” and “being seen”, as is clearly suggested by this verse of the Quran: “We” – and this is God speaking through revelation – “We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it is evident to them that this is the truth. Are they not, then, satisfied with their Lord in that He is the Witness over all things?”

The fact that things point beyond themselves – but for which they would be dead ends – is a recurrent theme of the Quran. “Truly”, the Book tells us, “in the heavens and the earth are signs for those who believe; and in your own creation and in the animals He scatters in the earth, are signs for people whose faith is sure; and in the alternation of night and day and in the provision that God sends down from the heavens, quickening the earth after her death, and in the ordering of the winds, are signs for people of understanding”. Even the colours of this colourful world have something to tell us; they have, says the Quran, “a message for people who are aware”. And then again:- “God does not disdain to coin the similitude even of a gnat, or of something still smaller…..” Well, that is a fairly comprehensive list: the wind, the rain, the animals – even a gnat – the plants, light and darkness; you and me. In other words everything – every single thing, great or small – points towards its Creator and says to us: “Don’t look just at me, look at Him who made me!”

One of the greatest philosophers of Islam, al-Ghazali, said that everything we see here, and that includes ourselves, has two faces; a face of its own and a face of God – or we could say, a “sign” of God.

He adds that, so far as its own face is concerned, it is nothing; in relation to the “face of God” it is being – it’s real. Modern science can tell us a lot about the “nothingness” of things, but their meaning is beyond its range; and that is what really concerns us. But how do we discover meaning? First through Revelation; secondly through “seeing eyes”. Revelation – and I’m thinking particularly of the Quran – reminds us of what we so easily forget. It says: “See! God is”; and then it explains all that follows from that overwhelming fact. But what about “seeing eyes”? You and I can’t tell ourselves: “At midday, on the dot, I’ll start to see the signs of God in everything around me”. That kind of vision is a gift, but we can at least do something to fit ourselves to receive this gift, which brings me back to what I said earlier about living in the divine Presence. It is actually in our power to remind ourselves again and again of this simple fact of life.

The Prophet was asked once what was the best cure for forgetfulness – or for what the Quran calls “rust on the heart” – and he said it was to think frequently of death and to remember God constantly. You see, if we forget how soon we shall have to die, and if we overlook the fact that everything around us is perishing before our eyes, then we’re living in a fantasy world. It is only when we wake up to the truth that the perishable, once it is recognised as such, points towards the Imperishable, and things lost in time point towards the Timeless, that our vision pierces through surface appearances. I spoke earlier of the “tunnel vision” of people who forget these truths. Our religion convinces us that there is light at the end of the tunnel; and that is all that really matters.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)


Seeing and Being Seen (5)
by Gai Eaton

I reminded you last week that everything around us is perishable, here one moment and gone the next, and that we ourselves are short-lived creatures. When the end comes, says the Quran, “you will think that you tarried for no more than an hour”. According to another verse, God will ask us: “How long did you live on earth, counting in years?”. We will answer, in confusion: “We lived for a day or a part thereof – ask those who can count!”, because we ourselves will have lost all sense of time. Then our Creator will ask: “Did you think that We created you for no purpose and that you would never come back to Us?”

That question seems to me to indicate a paradox. If we live for such a short time, then does anything matter? Do we matter? After all, the Quran tells us at one point that life is made up mainly of trivialities, and the Hereafter “is better and more lasting”. Let us take a simple, everyday comparison. Suppose you find yourself spending a few days in a strange place: you could, of course, say, “I’m here such a short time, it doesn’t matter what happens”. But then again, you might say the opposite, you might say: “I’ll be gone so soon, every moment I spend here is precious”. And if you knew that the rest of your life depended on what you did in those few days, I think I can guess what you’d say. The Quran emphasises life’s brevity, but it speaks also of “a life long enough for those who are prepared to take thought to do so”; to take thought, to reflect, to see and to understand. That is the point. We are given the time we need.

For Muslims, the Quran is God’s final revelation, His last word. This is why it conveys such a sense of urgency. Don’t waste time – it seems to tell us – you have none to spare! And a Muslim philosopher wrote: “Neither eat nor drink nor sleep without presence of heart and a seeing eye”. In other words, remember where you are and observe God’s “signs” scattered all around you. There are a thousand different ways in which this could be illustrated. I could take examples of heroism and self-sacrifice, or talk of saints whose utter devotion to God dazzles us. But sometimes it’s the small things that demonstrate most vividly what it means to be constantly aware. So let me take a very humble example of “presence of heart and a seeing eye”.

A few years ago travellers in North Africa often stopped to stare at rather a strange sight. They would see a man bend down, pick something up from the road, put it for a moment to his forehead and then place it safely on the nearest wall. What was it that this man treated with such respect? Usually a crust of bread, dropped by a passer-by; nothing more than that, but then our nourishment comes from God. Or it might have been a scrap of paper with writing on it, possibly the name of God. That too deserved better than to be trodden underfoot.

What a small gesture, and yet – what a momentous acknowledgement! An acknowledgement of the fact that the sacred surrounds us and that we can never be too busy to recognise it. And what is this recognition of the sacred if not a practical sign of awareness that we live, every moment, in the presence of God, amongst things which come from Him and belong to Him – though we are allowed to borrow them, - things which bear His signature upon them.

I mentioned earlier that, according to the Quran, “God disdains not to coin the similitude even of a gnat”; so why not a crust of bread, a scrap of paper? If He is indeed present with us, wherever we may be – and the Quran tells us that this is so – then everything is in his Presence. For those who have “hearts that understand and eyes that see”, things shine and glitter with a light that is not their own. It is said that the Prophet used to pray: “Lord, increase me in marvelling!”; and those who see do, indeed, marvel – and increase through out their lives in marvelling.

(Broadcast by the BBC in October 1986 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)


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