IT is a truism that earlier generations were more sensitive than us to their natural environment. A cloudburst, for example, was a much weightier event than a whorl on a satellite image, or the opening of an umbrella on a wet pavement.
It is a truism too, that 21st century city life and scientism have veiled us from our surroundings. How much can we really see of the world if our living-room focuses on a plasma screen?
We hardly know what the weather is like because we live in an air-con bubble; and pollution and street-light refraction blot out the night sky.
The disappearance of cosmology (the discipline of understanding the world in all its dimensions), says the scholar Sayyid Hossain Nasr in Man and Nature, is due to our failure to acknowledge the hierarchies of existence.
Science as technologically useful as it may be, he writes, can only remain wholesome when it is cultivated in a metaphysical matrix that is centred on the Absolute.
The reduction of the metaphysical and the revelatory to mere cultural superstition, and the elevation of cold scientific hypothesis to the pinnacle of understanding have eroded the very idea of cosmology – or holistic knowledge.
I got to thinking about this after a weekend trip to the mountains recently. Away from urban dissonance and amongst the deep valleys and soaring granite peaks of the Western Cape, I was reminded that the world was indeed a complex, wondrous place.
It made me realise exactly why prophets have always been sent to preach the cosmology of the Supra-Real. In the cacophony and miracle of existence there is much to distract us.
Call it God-consciousness, Creational Unity, recognition of Lordship; it all boils down to the same thing. We cannot shrink the universe to mere cause and effect when we don’t even know where it begins or ends, or even what’s above and below it.
This is a profound philosophical lesson that Nabi Ibrahim (as), the patriarch of contemporary monotheism, learnt in his youth.
The Qur’an (6: 75-9) states that in his search for eternal truth, Ibrahim (as) first considered that a star might be the divine. But when it set and the moon rose, he conjectured that it was the moon. But when the moon set, he declared it was the sun. But when the sun set, he realised that the Absolute could not be partnered with something that obeyed it.
“I have set my face towards Him who created,” Ibrahim (as) is finally quoted as saying.
As I sat in a camp chair under the trees next to a chattering stream, I recalled that historic Abrahamic moment. The sun was busy setting. I could so easily have thought it was literally disappearing as it dropped behind the escarpment.
As dusk descended, Venus rose. Not before long it was accompanied by other stars until the Milky Way appeared and became a smear of fantastic light. I could easily understand how the ancient Egyptians had found gods in the night sky.
Shooting stars catch one’s eye; planets seem to have different colours and constellations appear to pulsate. Suddenly, you realise that everything is alive. Nothing stays in one place for any length of time.
I’ve heard that even the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) used to look up at the night sky, his Companions reporting that he did so to reassure himself of the grand mercy of Divine Diktat, the Heavenly Balance.
As a meteorite blazed across my vision, I was reminded of the verse in the Qur’an (72: 9) that spoke of “flaming fires” being hurled at mischievous jinn trying to eavesdrop on the Angels. Were the jinn, made of smokeless fire, trying to snatch snippets of Angelic chatter that night?
And whilst the phenomenon of meteorites (and other space debris) could easily be comprehended from both scientific and revelatory perspectives, something I’d seen at the same spot two years previously could not. This was when lights, moving in the region of Orion’s Belt, started to zigzag dramatically before disappearing.
They were moving extremely fast, and completely defied what I’d previously understood as the “laws of physics”. There were several witnesses who saw the same thing, and so I definitely wasn’t dreaming.
I have no idea what I observed, and use the word “UFO” guardedly. The Qur’an has also spoken about man and jinn “penetrating the heavens” (55:33), but not without the decree of the Creator.
Soon a moon rose over the valley. It was a half moon, and I recalled it had been about a month since the 10th of Rabbi ul-Awwal, the lunar birth-date of the Prophet (SAW). On that night I’d seen the crescent rising above Signal Hill to the east. It had seemed particularly radiant, a fitting metaphor of the Prophet’s (SAW) spiritual radiance.
Dark clouds began to scud across the sky. They blocked out the stars and masked the moon, which gave the cumulus a fluorescent fringe. Later that night it rained. As raindrops pattered into the trees and splashed onto the flysheet above my head, I was again reminded of Qur’an (56:68). It seemed to ask me directly:
“See the water… (Shafiq)? Do you bring it down from the clouds, or do We?”
By the following morning the skies had cleared. The birds came to life, foraging for insects in the undergrowth. A pair of francolin came into view, and a thrush tweeted from some low branches.
But what caught my attention was a clump of fynbos being visited by bees. The Chapter of the Bee in the Qur’an is a profound one that talks much about nature. But perhaps its most profound verse is the one that proclaims that all of Allah’s creatures prostrate to Him.
I don’t know why, but in my mind’s eye I decided to listen to the bees, rather than observe them. What I heard was astounding. Their buzzing was not buzzing, but the low drone of “Allah, Allah, Allah!”
The birdsong and the stream were accompanying this dhikr, this remembrance. Gusts of wind sweeping down the valley sounded just like “Hu, hu!” (He is, He is). Even a pair of water birds flying above seemed not to be quacking, but singing “Al Haq, al Haq!” (The Truth, the Truth).
For a few seconds I was completely mesmerised. It was an insight that I would treasure for the rest of my life, the enchanting occasion when I was allowed to momentarily see things the way they really are.