THE famous English expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” is an oft-used adage that has become curled at the edges. Covered with greasy fingerprints and yellowed with age, I’m forced to use it because there are none better.
It implies, with little ambiguity, that the cover of a book may not be indicative of its contents – that something may not be what it appears to be, that the human personality may not always be the sum of its appearance.
On another level, the saying warns against prejudice: we should caution ourselves against judging the human condition purely through its outer shell. Behind a friendly smile there might lurk a back-stabbing enemy, behind jolly laughter there might just be great sadness.
But judging a book by its cover carries a further caveat: we cannot think that its inner issues are incomprehensible just because we might not be aware of them. What may be mystery to us is painfully obvious to the one who has opened the book and experienced it. There is always someone wiser than us to teach us a lesson.
And don’t think that we can ever reduce the contents of a book to its cover. The secrets of metaphor cannot be condensed into literal paraphrase, or be summarily discarded just because they might challenge the limitations of our own stunted thought.
In other words, the sacred cannot be shrunk to its husk like a cannibal’s head on a stick. Or, to put it into theological terms, we cannot reduce God. This is something that represents the biggest crisis of modern times, the inexplicable, Infinite Divine becoming the Reader’s Digest of our soul.
And hopefully without sounding like I’m ranting from a Friday pulpit, we have to admit that in Islam we’ve not been exempt from this affliction of reducing the Divine. Islam’s ‘puritans’ – so desirous of reducing the time-honoured customs of Islam to dust – have probably been the worst contemporary culprits of judging a book by its cover.
Their obnoxious culture of takfir – declaring unbelief on all those who disagree with them – is the worst possible manifestation of this narrow mindset, one that naively thinks that all covers must be the same, and that the cover is actually the whole book of Islam.
Those who arrogantly reduce God (and May Allah forgive us for saying this) to ‘an old man sitting in a wooden chair’ really need to examine the tragic import of their literalism.
My first real experience of this reductionism – Islam caricatured in ritual and physical appearance – occurred during the apartheid era over twenty years ago at Nairobi airport. Like so many South Africans at the time, I’d been stranded. In those days there were no transit visas. As apartheid’s personae non grata we would be confined to the airport.
A group of Muslims landed on their way to Jeddah, and as they were about to pray, I innocently joined their congregation. I’d been travelling on my own and longed for human company. But it was only after the salah that I realised I’d upset their sensitivities.
“He didn’t even have a topi or wear a kurtah!” hissed one of the bearded elders loudly enough for me to hear.
I had not been Muslim for long, and his words really stung me. What had a hat and an oriental coat have to do with prayer? Only much later did I realise my huge sin – that I hadn’t worn a fez or Pakistani clothing. Appearance, it seemed, was far more important than what was in my heart.
Another such instance was when an eminent Egyptian scholar (who will have to remain nameless) visited our South African shores, and was prevented from leading the prayer in Durban because he did not have a beard.
A literalist misunderstanding of the Sunnah (the Prophet’s noble way) had led to a belief that the length of a person’s beard determined their piety for leading the prayer. Suffice it to say that the scholar was totally flabbergasted. He wrote a scathing article about the gross ignorance of South African Muslims when he got home.
Of course, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) had said “trim your moustaches and grow your beards” but the context – ignored by those only interested in the cover of the book – was that the Prophet (SAW) had wanted Muslims to look different from the Persians who had shaved their chins and grown their moustaches into whiskers.
Applying this principle, the Egyptian scholar came from a country where Copts, and even Jews, wore long beards. To look ‘different’ in his environment was to be clean-shaven.
Then there was the ‘ruhsah’ (the legal relief) of the beard not having to be obligatory in the legal sense. The underlying wisdom was that people such as the Chinese or Indonesians, many of whom could not grow beards, would not be excluded from Islam.
Then there have been the recent historical examples of Bosnian Muslims. When your neighbourhoods are being ethnically-cleansed, the wisdom of wearing a mullah-type beard is definitely questionable.
Even in holy places, one encounters those who can only see their universe in extremely limited terms. Once at al-Aqsa, where my Muslim-ness is challenged at every prayer time, I had asked one of the waqf guards how he actually decided people were Muslim.
“Zabiba”, he said, pointing to his forehead where some Muslims (mostly Salafis and Wahhabis) display what the Arabs call a ‘raisin’ from making prostration of the prayer.
When I showed him that most of those people he was letting through the gates had clear foreheads, and that Islam – according to Prophetic Tradition – was a matter of the heart, all he could do was become irritated. Luckily, he chased me into the Sanctuary, and not out of it.
Another instance of this shallowness, the judging of a book by its cover, occurred to me in a well-known Arab country. In a twist to the usual scenario, a person watched me intently make my prayer. After I’d finished, he approached me and asked me whether I was Muslim.
Perhaps one of Islam’s finest examples of ritual perfection was Imam Shafi’i, whose memory always humbles me every time I take wudu, and wash my limbs for ceremonial prayer.
Regarded as one of history’s greatest jurists, he taught that the ritual prayer was a sacrosanct act. His postures were so precise, his demeanour so focused that people used to watch him pray in amazement.
A literalist’s dream, it was said that if one poured water on his back during the ruku’, the bowing of the prayer movement, it would not run off. But for the great Imam Shafi’i, a Gazan by birth, the perfection of his ritual was a mirror of his inner condition.
Or as Imam Ghazali would say in later centuries: ritual without an understanding of its inner meaning would be pointless, and deeds without knowledge would be meaningless.
Of course, the biggest danger of us reducing God is God reducing us. Parables of this are legend. One such instance that springs immediately to mind is something that happened in Cape Town to a friend of mine some years ago.
There was a ‘street person’ in his middle-class (non-Muslim) neighbourhood who had distinctly annoying habits. Smelly, often drunk and sometimes downright rude, he would often bang on the man’s door demanding food or money.
“One cold night he made a racket on my stoep, and I rebuked him for his poor manners. He looked a little sorry after that, so I heated him some soup. When I gave it to him, something amazing happened…something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” he said.
“As the man stood by my door a different, sober voice came from inside him that said: ‘Alhamdulillah, Praise Be to Allah!’”
“I got such a fright that I nearly jumped out of my skin,” he said, “and from that day on I’ve learnt to never judge a book by its cover. That man, whoever he was, taught me through my own pride never to judge others for what might, or might not be, in their hearts just because of their appearance.”