We can experience God in our deepest relationships because we are all created in God’s image. After reconciling with his long estranged brother, Jacob tells Esau that “to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10). I’ve also felt glimmers of God in moments of prayer, studying sacred texts, standing before nature, striving for social justice, in the midst of writing, and in great music. The encounter is fleeting — and startling. God sneaks up on us, as it were. The key is being open. “Where is God?” a Hassidic Rebbe asked. “Wherever you let God in.”
We experience the “infinitely incomprehensible holy mystery of God” in myriad ways: in loving relationships, in mindfulness and gratitude, in beholding beauty, in prayer and silence, in the quotidian demands of our lives, in ritual and liturgy, in moments of amazement, in communion with all living creatures, in study and contemplation, in acts of justice and peace, and in forgiving and being forgiven. The Divine Presence permeates our world, if only we have ears to hear and eyes to see. There exists, says Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara, a “whole spirituality focused on the elemental things of life, in friendships, in the little joys of everyday”; these manifest the “dailiness of salvation.”*
The relationship between God and people is an intimate one. People are the vicegerent of God (2: 30) and represent His image on earth. The Qur’anic concept that God is closer to a human being than his/her jugular vein means to search God within oneself, not outside. The Qur’an refers to a primordial covenant of mutual relationship between God and humanity at the very creation of human being (7:172). Every person is imbued with moral failings as well as with consciousness of God from the start of his/her life (91:7, 8). The human heart is the center of attention in Islam. If the heart is clean and pure and filled with good deeds, a Muslim is conscious of the presence of God and experiences His presence within him/herself. A darker heart filled with bad deeds prevents a believer from such experience. The five pillars in Islam prepare a Muslim to cleanse his/her heart to experience God’s presence.
We can learn a lot about how Judaism speaks of and to God by considering the names God goes by in the Bible and our liturgy.* Here are a few examples just from the Haggadah:
Adonai , (Kyrios in the Greek translation of the Bible) generally translated as “Lord,” the way we pronounce YHWH, the “ineffable” four letter name of God”*
Elohim , usually translated as “God,” but literally, “Gods”
HaMakom , “the Place”
HaRachaman , “the Merciful One”
Ga’al Yisrael , “Redeemer of Israel”
Ha Kadosh Barukh Hu , “The Holy One of Blessing,” a favorite of rabbinic literature
Shekhinah , God’s immanence in the world, literally, “dwelling,” or “resting.”
Why so many names? “A thing cannot be grasped until its name is known.”* Imagine God and humanity calling to one another across a chasm. “Who are You?” we call. God responds with a name. We call again. Another name. God’s different names point to the mutual yearning of God and humanity to be in dialogue, to be in relationship. Alas, we can only come so close. At the burning bush Moses asks to know God’s name: “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14). Ultimately, our ability to know God remains limited. We can only grasp facets. Each of God’s names reflects one of those infinite facets. Adonai evokes God’s merciful qualities, while Elohim leans toward divine judgment. These attributes come together when we pray to Adonai Eloheinu, “Lord, our God,” or Avinu Malkeinu, “our Father, our King.”
The key is that Jews live with God — and so address God — as a partner in an ongoing relationship, not as a distant creator who set the world in motion and then retired from its affairs. Judaism understands this relationship as a “covenant,” an agreement to which both parties owe responsibilities. Thus in prayer, we often appeal to “our God and the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,” the patriarchs with whom God first established that covenantal relationship.* It’s almost as if when mentioning these figures, we are urging God to remember divine side of the covenantal bargain.
And when Jews do feel that God has reneged on the covenant, we are not above calling God to task. We find examples of this in the Bible and Talmud, which advise that boldness, even against Heaven, is effective especially in Hassidic stories.* Following the Day of Atonement, a tailor told a rabbi of his argument with God. “God, You want me to atone, but I’ve only committed only a few minor sins. But You God, have taken babies away from their mothers and mothers away from their babies. Let’s call it even, I’ll forgive you and you forgive me.” Said the rabbi, “You let God off easy. You might have forced him to redeem all of Israel!”*
Prayer is called “service of the heart,” and before beginning the Eighteen Benedictions — recited thrice daily and called Ha T’filah, “The Prayer” — we call on God to help us pray: “Open my lips, Adonai. Let my mouth declare Your praise” (Psalms 51:17). Much has been written about how to approach God through prayer. But a comment of Gerer Rebbe (Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) reminds us not to compartmentalize prayer, but to see it as an outgrowth of our ongoing service to God.
“Really, there is no advice regarding prayer. The more you serve God in all you do, the better you will be able to open your mouth in prayer. That is why it is called the “service of the heart;” it depends on the longing of the heart—all day long, in all one’s deeds.”*
Addressing God does not always involve words. Calling to God may start with words but may end in silence, tears or trembling wonder.
Christians speak about God in two fundamental ways: in images, poetic speech and concepts that at best grope their way to the Infinite; and in mystical terms that remind us that God exists beyond every affirmation and every negation.* In technical terms, the first mode of speaking of God is an affirmative or kataphatic way, which is a recognition that God may be found in all things. The second mode is a negative or apophatic way — an acknowledgment that the Divine is known only through unknowing and negation. In general, Christians in the West have stressed the affirmative mode, while the negative mode is more characteristic of Eastern Christianity, especially the Orthodox traditions.
Trinitarian language is speech reflecting Christians’ interpretation of their experience of God. The language of “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit,” metaphors all found in the New Testament, mirrors the early community’s threefold encounter with the One God who is Holy Mystery. “When people responded to Jesus, they responded to God. When people encountered Jesus, they experienced the direct claim of God upon them.”* God’s presence and power continued to be experienced through the Spirit even when Jesus was no longer physically present among them.
Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century German mystic, speaks of the Trinity in poetic terms, addressing God as “Sophia,” Wisdom:
You of the whirling wings,
energy of God:
You quicken the world in your clasp.
One wing soars in heaven
One wing sweeps the earth
and the third flies all around us.
Praise to Sophia!
Let all the earth praise her!*
Whatever speech we use about God, Elizabeth Johnson writes, “there is reflected a livingness in God; a beyond, a with and a within to the world and its history; a sense of God as from whom, by whom and in whom all things exist, thrive, struggle toward freedom, and are gathered in.”*
God in the Qur’an is al-Ghaib (hidden, unseen) and the Qur’an calls upon people to accept Him as hidden and then search to find Him. God is everywhere, even closer to people than their jugular vein. God tells people to call upon Him and He will answer their call. The Qur’an says: “When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close [to them]: I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me: That they may walk in the right way” (2:186).
It is human desire to see God, but God cannot be seen in this worldly life. God is not like his creation and should not be compared to His creation. The Qur’an describes God’s presence in these words: “No human vision can encompass Him, whereas He encompasses all human vision: for He alone is unfathomable, all-aware” (6:103). The Qur’an tells Muslims that when they are asked about God to describe Him, they would say: “there is nothing whatever like unto Him” (42:11). However, Muslims believe that they will have a glimpse of God in the heaven. The Qur’an refers to it: “Some faces will on that Day be bright with happiness, looking up to their Sustainer” (75:22, 23).
There are two known approaches to experience God in this life: the way of Shari`ah and the Sufi Tariqa. The way of Shari`ah seeks the pleasure of God through emphasis on obeying the commands of the law with regular worship, fasting, charity, pilgrimage and other rituals of Islam. The other is a mystical-ascetic approach to Islam that seeks to find divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. Here the emphasis is more on self-control and self-discipline through Dhikr (chanting) and meditational experiences. Here is what Rabi`a al-Basri, a known Sufia and Muslim mystic female in the early period of Islam, says about her love for God:
O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
After the Israelites miraculously crossed the Red Sea and escaped from Pharaoh’s pursuing army, they did something that leaps out of the Bible as altogether new — they sing to God.* Moses leads the people in The Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18). Then his sister Miriam, “the prophetess,” “took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels” (Exodus 15: 20). In the most poignant moments — at times of joy, gratitude, awe or sadness — words are not enough. The soul cries out for music to requite a full heart, to open a path to God.
Music opens a path to the divine because it evokes God’s hand in creation, revelation and redemption.* When God created the various elements of the world, God called each of them good. But when creation had been finished, “God saw all that He had made and found it very good” (Genesis 2:31). The parts were good; the whole, very good. Music celebrates the integrity of the parts, but blends them into a transcendent whole. Music also embodies revelation. Music is an invisible voice that calls forth deeply private emotions and elicits the conviction that the composer must have known those very feelings. That sense of being completely known — that is the sense of standing before God. Finally, music embodies the world redeemed. Discord resolves to harmony, fragmentation to unity. Our songs unveil the vision of the hidden world we seek. From the power of our joined voices we draw strength to build it.
As the soul cries out for music to find and express itself, it does the same with respect to all the other arts. After crossing the Red Sea, Miriam and the Israelite women don’t just sing, they dance — another first in the Bible. They step forth from Egypt, the narrow space, into open the spaces of freedom and unrestrained movement. As one writer on dance in Judaism observed, “Dance breaks down the apparent dichotomy between body and soul. The body, no longer an obstacle to the soul, becomes its chariot.”*
As for the visual arts, let’s think for a moment about the Tabernacle the Israelites built in the desert. Its splendor mirrored its holiness. Here’s a list of some of the materials employed: “gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood . . . (Exodus 36:5-7). Although God specified the design of the Tabernacle, the implementation was left to the Israelites’ most talented artists. God provides the inspiration, but human artistry brings the work to fruition. Ancient sources note the many parallels between God’s creation of the world and the Israelites’ building of the tabernacle.* In the first God acts alone; in the second — the model for all subsequent works of creation — God and humanity are partners.
The artist in charge of building the Tabernacle was Bezalel, whom God endowed “with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft” (Exodus 35:31). Founded in 1906, Bezalel Academy of Art and Design is Israel’s national school of art.
In a world of incessant noise and relentless activity, music and the arts invite us into another realm. They are embodied theology;
Music is not simply the language of the soul but also of the body; it is, “life’s language embodied.”* To sing is “to pray twice,” in the adage of St. Augustine; John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, termed hymnody “a body of practical divinity.” Worship without music is virtually inconceivable. The “ordinary” parts of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) in the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions have given rise to incredibly rich and diverse musical renditions, from the simplicity of the plainsong of Gregorian chant to the more elaborate renditions of polyphony and orchestral settings to the more dissonant harmonies of the modern age. The Requiem Mass, offered in memory of the dead, has inspired many composers, including Mozart, Fauré, Verdi, Britten, and Webber. Various renditions of a “Jazz Mass” are available, as is the recent “Welcome Table: A Mass of Spirituals” composed by two Union Theological Seminary students Kim Harris and Roger Holland in 2010.
The visual arts also provide an opening into the transcendent. Walk into a magnificent cathedral, such as the Gothic-Romanesque St. John the Divine (Episcopal) in New York City or the more modern Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles or Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon, both Catholic. There is a long tradition of illuminating editions of the Bible—think of the miniature illuminations in the ninth-century Book of Kells or of the contemporary illuminations in the St. John’s Bible, hand-lettered in calligraphy ( www.saintjohnsbible.org ). Throughout the world and throughout the centuries, Christians have created sculptures, mosaics and paintings to bear witness to their faith—and artists beyond Christianity have drawn upon the myths, symbols, figures and events of the Christian life as the subject of their work.
Literary works give expression to Christian convictions, whether in the George Bernanos’ novel Diary of a Country Priest—“All is grace”—or in Flannery O’Connor’s conviction that “The action of grace changes a character…. Therefore in a story all you can do with grace is to show that it is changing the character…. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not willing to support it…”* The non-fiction of Kathleen Norris reveals serious wrestling with God questions; novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon narrates her experience of reflecting on the gospels in her Reading Jesus. From the canticles of Luke’s Gospel to the contemporary poetry of Czesław Miłoscz and Denise Levertov, poets over the ages have given voice to the ineffable; among many others: Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, John Donne, George Herbert, Thomas Merton, and Anna Kamieńska. I end with Kamieńska’s poem, “A Path in the Woods”:
I don’t trust the truth of memories
because what leaves us
There’s only one current of this sacred river
but I still want to remain faithful
to my first astonishments
to recognize as wisdom the child’s wonder
and to carry in myself until the end a path
in the woods of my childhood
dappled with patches of sunlight
to search for it everywhere
in museums in the shade of churches
this path on which I ran unaware
a six-year old
toward my primary mysterious aloneness.*
Most scholars agree it is permissible to sing without instruments and where the content is not prohibited. Besides the recitation of the Qur’an with Tajweed, which is very inspirational, poetry praising God or the Prophets including Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon all of them) is allowed in mosques. Other sorts of singing – during weddings, celebrating religious or other feasts, welcoming a traveler or other occasions of joy – are allowed in community gatherings outside of mosques. They may be accompanied with light musical instruments, according to some scholars. `A’isha reported from the Prophet: “Abu Bakr came to my house while two small Ansari girls were singing beside me the stories of the Ansar concerning the Day of Buath. And they were not singers. Abu Bakr protested, “Musical instruments of Satan in the house of Allah’s Apostle!” It happened on the Eid day and Allah’s Apostle said, “O Abu Bakr! There is an Eid for every nation and this is our Eid.”*
While religiously it is still debated whether music is sinful and prohibited in Islam, it is played in almost all Muslim countries. However, practicing Muslims agree that music leading to sinful acts such as drug abuse, illicit sex, violence, etc, is certainly forbidden in Islam.
The reason for this debate over music is to keep the focus on chanting of the Qur’an, the voice of the heart, the pure and the amazing voice uplifting human spirits and connecting them to the abode of eternity where all pain ceases and peace prevails. This is why the Qur’an is called Kalam Allah (a discourse with God through the Words of God).
Islam to Muslims is not only a religion but also a way of life. From its very beginning it developed a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language of Towhidi (Oneness of God), a paradigm that is reflected in art and architecture in the Muslim world. But the development of Muslim art did not come in a vacuum. It certainly benefited from earlier models of art and styles. Even the earlier religious monuments in Islamic art like the Dome of the Rock are mixtures of Greco-Roman, Byzantine and Sasanian elements of art and architecture.
Muslims gradually developed a unique style of Islamic art and architecture. They developed painting, calligraphy, vegetal patterns, geometric patterns, ceramics and many others types of arts in the medieval period of Islam. The calligraphy and decoration of the mosques with Qur’anic verses, the woodwork, carpets, mosque lamps decorated with religious symbols are some important developments in Muslim arts, speaking of God and His Omnipresence.
Depiction of living figures, especially of humans, is avoided religiously for fear of idolatry. This is a major reason behind Muslim protests over depictions of God, Muhammad or even other Prophets (peace be upon them).
State support has also played a key role in the development of Islamic art, especially in the construction of mosques and religious building even to recent times. The Saudi Government’s announcement of millions of dollars of aid to build a huge mosque along with a university campus in Kabul, Afghanistan, will be monumental project of Islamic architecture. It may be even better and more decorative than the Saudi-funded Faisal Mosque and its campus at Islamabad, Pakistan.