For the past few weeks, I have been home as the setting sun gleams through the window of my northwest-facing flat in potent shades of red and orange, before swiftly descending beneath the rim of the Arabian Gulf somewhat visible in the distance. I'll usually be cooking dinner at this time but find myself drawn to stand for a few minutes at the kitchen window to watch the sun's retreat. At the crisp moment the sky dims, the call to prayer becomes audible only faintly beyond monotonous clamour of traffic rushing by on the highway below.
While I have always held some appreciation for the nature around me, one consequence of my endeavour to enrich my relationship with God is that I have become incredibly more receptive to the beauty and divine precision inherent in nature than I was before. Like many people, I tended to take for granted God's pivotal role in creation and directing the flow of events in everyday life. We often attribute the mechanisms of nature to indistinct concepts like Mother Nature, assuming the circle and cycles of life somehow simply exist without reflecting on why they exist.
Before I truly embraced my Islam, an Arabic term meaning submission to God, I perceived faith as something we needed to enter into with eyes closed, without rationale, analysis or intellect. To my surprise as I investigated Islamic teachings more thoroughly, I realised that it was through the acquisition of knowledge and use of reason and logic that certainty of God's existence becomes most palpable.
While reading the Quran I was struck by the number of times God asks us to seek wisdom, use our reason and look at evidence in nature and history in order to grow deeper in faith. In virtually every verse we are called upon to ponder its divine messages. The best of believers are not those who blindly submit, but rather "those who reflect" (45:13), "those who use their reason" (2:164), "those who consider" (13:3), "those who have knowledge" (35:28) and so on.
The perfect balance of nature is described superbly in the Quran, which I read in full for the first time last year. We learn that watching, reflecting on and understanding nature are among the principal ways to gain certainty in God's signs and be receptive to His message to humanity.
Geese flock onto grass field one afternoon in autumn (courtesy of Mandy Merzaban)
There is an order to things in nature: birds glide through the sky and make their homes in trees as ants structure their productive communities on or near the ground. Leaves flutter in the wind, change colour and disintegrate into the ground, and the ground appears stationary until it shakes to remind us of our fragility. The clouds converge and disperse, the rain falls and stops, the sun rises and sets according to a meticulously balanced system that can only be divinely weaved. All of the world's vegetation and animal life are constantly obedient to Him; that is, except for humans, who often lose their connection with Allah, the Arabic word for the Almighty God.
In the creation of the heavens and of the earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the ships that sail the ocean bearing cargoes beneficial to man; in the water which God sends down from the sky and with which he revives the earth after its death, scattering over it all kinds of animals; in the courses of the winds, and in the clouds pressed into service between earth and sky, there are indeed signs for people who use their reason. (Quran 2:164)
People of various faiths who are spiritually in tune with God experience glimpses of the Divine in everything. I recall marvelling to learn that the Quran refers to ants and bees as feminine; science proved that worker ants and bees are female only about ten centuries later. I was amazed further when I came to verses describing how animals are created out of water, bodies of the world's sweet and salt waters are separated with a partition, the sun and the moon glide in orbits, the foetus develops in distinct stages and much more.
Having faith requires that we reflect on what we read in the holy books and in messages relayed by the great prophets. I find it counterintuitive to observe animals, vegetation, weather patterns, human diversity, etc, and assume that they simply exist without having been sprung into being by an Almighty force. Once you gain certainty, you accept that while you may not have all of the answers, research and discovery will uncover God's secrets in nature over time.
About a year ago, research findings based on new computer simulations showed how the parting of the Red Sea, described in the Bible and the Quran, could have been caused by strong winds, enabling Prophet Moses, peace be upon him, to cross with fleeing Israelites before the waters engulfed the Pharaoh's soldiers.
Other discoveries of modern science lend credibility to more routine teachings embedded in holy books and prophetic wisdom.
A friend recently related a Hadith, or saying of the last Prophet, where Muhammad, peace be upon him, advised that if a fly is to touch the surface of your food or drink, you should submerge it completely rather than trying to shoo it away. I was initially repulsed at the thought, until I learned the wisdom behind it. The reason, according to the Prophet, was that, "under one of its wings there is venom and under another there is its antidote."
This Hadith alludes to two things. The first--that flies can carry disease-causing pathogens triggering such ailments as typhoid, cholera, dysentery and tuberculosis--was discovered only centuries after this Hadith. It was only in the late 19th century that germ theory, the idea that microorganisms cause many diseases, became a fundamental tenet of modern medicine.
The second, that flies produce their own antibiotics, has come to light in recent research, such as a widely cited study by bioscientists in Australia this past decade. They hope confirmation of this could lead to better treatment for human infections.
I believe God appeals to our rationality if we are willing to explore and listen to His messages and signs, with an open mind. Discovering my faith has led me to be more receptive to the signs that were under my nose all the time. Now even witnessing something as commonplace as the daily setting of the sun prompts me to utter "Subhan'Allah," an Arabic phrase roughly meaning "Glorious is God."