Sidra Ali, MDiv ’19, offered these reflections at the Wednesday Noon Service hosted by the HDS Muslims on May 1, 2019, in preparation for Ramadan.
As a failed linguistic anthropologist, and a weary amateur academic, there is a particular allure to learning the etymological roots of words. Or, more specifically, Quranic words.
With Ramadan upon us, and with my recent confession as a Ramadan Muslim, I’ve been meditating on two words: Ummah and Rahma. Or, roughly translated, community and mercy.
Ramadan commemorates the descent of the Qur’an to the world as a shower of stars upon Muhammad’s heart. The process of revelation serves as a process of purification for the soul—one that allows the soul to become ummi. Quranically, ummi in the singular refers to the Prophet Muhammad. In the plural, however, it refers to the community—the ummah.
How do we take these concepts of purification through revelation and embody them in ourselves? Moreover, how do we embody this as a community? As an ummah?
Ibn Arabi encourages us to embrace the concept of ummiyya in the tradition of the Prophet. Just as the Prophet opened himself to the lights of grace in Revelation, so too should we pursue ummiyya by renouncing judgement and fostering spiritual perfection.
We are not alone nor unequipped in this process, however. Allah, through the Qur’an, offers us some understanding of infinite divine mercy.
In Surah al-A’raf, verse 156, God narrates, “Wa rahmati wasi’at kulla shay’in.” Translated: “And My mercy embraces all things.”
God’s mercy, as manifested in God’s forgiveness, is said to be so vast that even Iblis will stretch forth his neck on the Day of Resurrection, hoping to be touched by it. This is profound in that there is a fundamental connection between Divine Mercy and existence itself.
In one of his books, Ibn Arabi tells us about a dialogue that takes place between Iblis and a ninth-century Sufi. In it, Iblis tells the Sufi, “God said, ‘My Mercy embraces all things.’ Surely, you must have noticed that I am a part of the universal all, and that I am a thing. Therefore, God’s Mercy must embrace me.”
Scandalized by the notion that Iblis might be privy to God’s infinite and all-encompassing mercy, the Sufi scoffs and says, “I didn’t think you were so lacking in knowledge.” Iblis, sassy as ever, responds, “Do you not know, O Sufi, that the limit of your understanding is not shared in God’s unlimited mercy?”
Almost every chapter of the Qur’an is prefaced by “Ar-Rahman, Ar-Raheem,” the most merciful, the most compassionate. Iblis, in his teaching moment with the Sufi, reminds us that Divine Mercy is universal, it is infinite, and it is bestowed upon all creatures in this world. As we prepare ourselves for Ramadan and for purifying our souls to become ummi, let us reflect on what it means to embody mercy as a corollary to existence. Let us turn to mercy as a practice in creating the ummah.
While we prepare ourselves to celebrate the descent of the Quran from the heavens, I am reminded another descent from the heavens—one also cloaked in mercy and hope: The descent of Adam and Eve to earth.
In the Qur’an, the divine command God gives Adam and Eve while they’re hanging out in heaven is not, technically, a prohibition for eating the forbidden fruit of a tree. Rather, it is a command of ‘not approaching the tree.’ This is where it gets interesting.
According to Ibn Arabi, the tree is a metaphor. In Arabic, the word for tree is “shajara.” The root of this word, in the verb form, however is “tashajur” or, “the act of dividing.” If we look at the verse again with this meaning in mind, it reads, “We said, O Adam, dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden and eat freely thereof, wheresoever you will. But approach not the act of division, lest you be among the wrongdoers.”
The transgression they made is not about picking the wrong tree, but rather, committing an act of division, of rupturing the unity that affirms the oneness of God and creation. Ibn Arabi takes it a step further. In another verse that parallels the story of Genesis, the verse reads, “They ate of it and their nudity became apparent to them.”
The word for nudity, saw’atuhuma, refers to pudenda, or, Adam and Eve’s sexual organs. In other words, sexual differentiation, the most elementary manifestation, the most evident of the division, or the rupture of unity. This is, for Ibn Arabi, the unity symbolized by the whole form of what was originally the human being.
What do we make of this story of trees and pudenda? Why do etymological examinations of random verses in the Quran matter when we consider Ramadan?
It matters because to discuss Ramadan is to inherently discuss the ummah. The holiness of Ramadan is not incidental. It is believed that other holy scriptures like the Torah and Injeel were revealed during Ramadan as well.
In fact, fasting during Ramadan is not unique. According to the Qur’an, fasting for the sake of God was not a new innovation in monotheism, but rather, an obligation practiced by those truly devoted to the oneness of God, devoted to unity. Fasting, then, is not just a practice of self-discipline and spiritual rejuvenation, but an exercise in mercy.
It is an opportunity to return once more to our roots; to pay homage and to rejoice in a rich and shared history of a blessed community that extends beyond this world, that transcends time, and that traverses geographical boundaries.
This year, inshAllah (God willing), there will be over 1 billion Muslims across the world partaking in Ramadan. If we are to take Ibn Arabi’s account of creation, then the first transgression humanity committed was the act of division. As an act of divine mercy, Adam and Eve descended to the earth to remember God, to multiply, and to grow into nations so that we may know one another. It is in this vein that we commemorate the descent of scripture and celebrate the perfection of our religion.
We have inherited a religion that spans continents and decades, and yet sometimes we struggle to embrace one another in mercy and community. From one Ramadan Muslim to another, may we purify our souls and become ummi. May we remember mercy in all its forms. May we make space for our ummah in the ranks of prayer and our hearts in dua. And may we stand shoulder to shoulder in a tradition that has lifted those who have come before us, those who stand with us, and those who will come after us. Ameen.