Walking in Nature: A Call to the Heart
by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
And God has made the earth a wide expanse for you, so that you might walk thereon on spacious paths. ~ Qur'an 71:19-20.
A dear friend, itching to exchange urban life for a spell in the country, reminded me recently of the blessed Prophet Muhammad's regular journeys up Mount Nur to the cave of Hira and how this trek was an integral part of his preparation for the weighty task that was to be bestowed upon him.
In contrast to this, I have always been struck by what has seemed to me to be a reluctance by many, if not all, my Muslim friends to explore the natural world. By this I do not necessarily mean arduous trekking through vast natural wildernesses or scaling the highest mountain peaks but simply the joy of walking amidst virgin nature and contemplating its beauty and majesty.
Half-jokingly, half-earnestly, I once suggested setting up a Muslim Walking Club for more adventurous Muslim ramblers and hikers to explore the glorious national parks and footpaths that Britain offers all its citizens. As an experienced walker, averaging fifteen miles a day through terrain that might also require some relatively strenuous hill walking, I was keen to share this pastime with some fellow-Muslims. A Muslim friend, amused by this eccentric idea, advised me that I would not attract many members: "Muslims, or at least the ones I know," he said, "do not walk very far!"
I was discouraged. To this day, I believe I have only two honorary Muslim members of what is, I have to say, an obscure private club. One of them earned his honorary membership tramping two miles through the streets of London with me as I searched for a restaurant. He had little choice. He was hungry, it was time for dinner, and he did not know London. Another earned his wings venturing one mile with me into Dartmoor. It was a bleak day, and he had the apprehensive look of a man who half-expected the Hound of the Baskervilles to charge at him ravenously out of the mist, or to sink without trace into a treacherous piece of boggy ground.
The love of nature is an integral part of the British psyche, and a beneficent vision of nature permeates so much of our national cultural heritage, from its great literature and landscape painting to the idyllic beauty of its gardens and its legendary kindness to animals. The inspiration of the English landscape is inescapable too in the work of our greatest composers of music. As Edward Elgar lay dying, he whistled feebly to a friend a phrase from his Cello Concerto, and said, acknowledging the link between his music and the landscape he had known so intimately from his earliest years: "If ever you're walking on the Malvern Hills, and hear that, don't be frightened, it's only me."
All my life I have walked in nature, from my footloose childhood spent scrambling over the rocks on the spacious beaches in the seaside town where I was born, to an adolescent absorption in the verses of the great nature poets which first inspired me to follow in Wordsworth's footsteps through the hills and vales of the Lake District, and ultimately coming home in later life to an Islam embedded in that vision of the Qur'an which honours the "displayed book" of nature and calls us to open our hearts in the rapt contemplation of its blessed signs.
The Qur'an, perhaps more than any other Holy Scripture, tells us again and again that the natural world is brimming over with luminous signs which offer a continual reminder to all those who, by turning to God with their hearts, are given the insight to see in those signs the living Presence of God in the created world.
Do they not look at the sky above them – how We have built it and made it beautiful and free of all faults? And the earth – We have spread it wide, and set upon it mountains firm, and caused it to bring forth plants of all beauteous kinds, thus offering an insight and a reminder unto every human being who willingly turns unto God. (50:6-11)
Leonardo da Vinci echoes this affirmation of a creation free of faults: "Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature, because in her inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous."
In the light of the Qur'an, I read again the famous lines of Wordsworth written above Tintern Abbey, marvelling at their essential convergence with the theophany of nature expressed in so many verses of the Qur'an:
".... And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."
There are always people, who, distrusting their own intuition, feel the need to intellectualise, to make dogmatic distinctions. This is, if you like, the lowest level of the faculty of discernment, 'aql, whose root meaning is to "withhold" or "bind" and therefore to separate one meaning from another through the power of definition. Such people may say that nature poets like Wordsworth are often associated with pantheism, the identification of God with the created universe, and therefore the worship of nature in itself instead of the worship of God alone as the Creator of all that exists.
True, as Muslims, we do not worship the signs, but the Supreme Being, Truth or Reality (Al-Haqq) which becomes evident to the inner eye within our hearts (albab) through contemplation of the signs.
But I do not read Wordsworth in this way, demeaning his insights so as to make a churlish point about the superiority of Islam and the Qur'anic vision of nature. Who am I to dare to suggest that Wordsworth is a mushrik, one who associates the transcendent uniqueness of God with the visible signs of nature? On the contrary, he speaks of the presence of the "sublime" sense of a "spirit" that "rolls through all things", not only in the visible signs of nature but also in the mind of all beings. The higher level of 'aql is the intelligent perception centred in the heart which discerns the deeper truth, and seeks not to separate but to unite, realising, as the Qur'an tells us, that Wherever you turn, there is the face of God. Mahmoud Shabistari, mystic poet of Iran, wrote: "Know that the whole world is a mirror; in each atom are found a hundred blazing suns. If you split the centre of a single drop of water, a hundred pure oceans spring forth. If you examine each particle of dust, a thousand Adams can be seen."
When I walk in nature, I sense too the spirit which rolls through all things, and am uplifted by its sublimity. The "spacious path" I try to follow does not set Islam against other formulations or alienate me from others, straining always to declare the superiority of Islam, but seeks to walk with others on that path hand in hand and share the joy of common insights which arise spontaneously from the primordial nature (fitra) which is the birthright of all human beings. The words we use to describe these insights may vary, but what is it that we worship: the Truth or the words? The meaning or the marks on the page? For me that path I want to share with others encompasses my Englishness, and the distinctiveness of the finest elements of that culture with which I grew up and have never abandoned.
"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin", wrote William Shakespeare. In other words, amidst nature our own essential nature is awakened and we understand effortlessly that we are all one human family. The famous diarist Anne Frank expresses the same thought in a different way: "The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be."
There is a need at this time to emphasize the beauty of the Presence of God in what He has revealed to us. The correct balance needs to be restored between the worship of the incomparable and unknowable Uniqueness of God (Utterly remote is God in His limitless glory, from anything to which men may ascribe a share in His divinity! - Qur'an 59:23) and the loving awareness and knowledge of God's merciful Presence (He is closer to you than your jugular vein - Qur'an 50:16). The over-emphasis on tanzih, the majestic, incomparable, remote and transcendent aspect of God, can remove us from tashbih, the intimate and immanent aspect of God's presence in the diversity of the created world. It can incline us disproportionately to justice, severity and singularity at the expense of beauty, mercy and diversity. In its most extreme form, such imbalance gives rise to oppressive religious bigotry, intolerance, and rigid legalistic severity. After all, His Mercy precedes His Wrath, so it could even be upheld that the balance is itself loaded in the direction of tashbih.
In my previous article in this magazine (Listen to the Feminine) I appealed for the restoration of the sense of tashbih in another way, through the honouring of the feminine principle, for the exquisite balance between tanzih and tashbih may also said to be embodied in the complementary existence of the two sexes which represents the underlying elemental polarity in the whole of creation. As the Qur'an says, Everything have We created in pairs (51:49) and We have created you all out of a male and a female. (49:13). Each is created to incline towards the other. (30:21)
Albert Einstein expresses well the challenge for us all: "A human being is a part of a whole, called by us a universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
And how much of that have we embraced in thought, word and deed today?