One of the richest, and simultaneously most difficult, teachings of the Islamic tradition is that the path to the Divine presence goes not through an institution, or a creed, or a location, but through humanity.
This close connection between God and humanity goes back to the very foundation of Islam. The Quran records the creation of humanity as a conversation between God and the angels. Unlike the angels made of light, and the Jinn made of fire, the human would be a composite being, made of both clay and spirit.
Ever hear of people describe their relationship as "it's complicated" on Facebook? We humans were complicated from the very beginning.
It is this humanity that it is the ultimate paradox, the being that is created in the image of God and has Divine breath inside. We are the beings that God intended to put as vicegerents on Earth, the beings that led to the bewilderment of the angels, who exclaimed: "Why would you put one therein who will shed blood and cause mischief" (2:30). We humans are the beings that Satan rebelled against, because he looked at the human and refused to see the divine presence inside the human.
As the great Muslim thinker Suhrawardi said, we are taught these stories to help us figure out what kind of manners, what type of "adab", we will follow in life. If we look at a fellow human being, and only imagine the worst case scenario -- that the human in front of us "might cause mischief" -- we are imitating the manners of the Quranic angels. If we look at a fellow human being, and assert our own superiority over them, we are following the manners of Satan. It was Satan that looked at the human being and said: "I am better than this!"
So what alternative is there? Divine manners. When the angels complain to God about what the human might do, God's answer to them is simply: "I know something that you don't." There is something about the potential of the human being that God knew and the angels didn't know. God worked with the human, taught the human, and redeemed the human to set up the human as God's representative. Some commentators have taken the Quranic line "secret of Heavens and Earth" in that passage to refer to the human being: If you want to know the secret of the Heaven and the Earth, you have to know the human being. To engage humanity, to work with humanity, to redeem humanity -- that is following divine manners. It is these Divine manners that the Prophet was sent to perfect in us.
This working with humanity to get to God also applies to our own being. The mystics of Islam were fond of saying that to know God, we have to truly know our own selves. Yet again, the path to God goes through the human.
A key component of this comes in what Buber called "Projecting the I into the Thou." Brother West said at one point that of any person one can should ask two questions: "How deep is your love? What is the quality of your service to others?" Muslim sages through the centuries have agreed with Brother West. A great Muslim ethicist and Persian poet, Sa'di, said:
Service to humanity is the whole of worship:
The worship of God is not done by rosary beads,
robes of piety or prayer carpets.
What is it about service to humanity that leads to God? How is service worship itself? Service forces us to rise above attachment to our own ego, to our own "nafs," and instead devote ourselves to another. It moves us to shatter the ultimate idol -- the idol that is not made of stone or wood, but is rather that illusory sense of being the Lord and Master of All. To reach out in love and service to even one other human being is the beginning of shattering the idol of the self, recognizing our shared humanity, and making room for the real God to enter the temple of the heart.
If you want to be great, learn to serve. Dr. King was right: "Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. ... You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."
Anybody can serve. Service can take on any form. A mother nursing a child, nourishing a child, that is service. A father changing a diaper is service. Taking care of an elderly parent is service. Teaching is service. Stopping a war and waging peace, that is service. Providing health services to those without, that is service. To speak for the weak, that is service. To be the voice for the voiceless and marginalized, that is service. Feeding one's neighbor is service. Any profession, if done with love and a desire to serve humanity, can become a form of service. Again, Martin:
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lives a great street sweeper who did his job well.
Service is not the same as pity. We don't serve because we feel sorry for someone. Pity is unworthy of us. We were made out of love, made to love and made for love. We serve because we recognize the dignity of divine presence in others, and in ourselves. We serve because we recognize that we can't be who we ought to be without others being who they ought to be. We serve because we recognize that our humanity is connected together. As our Prophet said, we are members of one body. Not just Muslims, the whole of humanity. As God is One, so is humanity.
As God says in the Quran: "I created humanity and the jinn so that they may come to worship me." May we come to fulfill our cosmic duty, to worship God, by going through the difficult and most challenging path, the path of humanity. May we do better than Satan did, better than angels did, by living as a true human being who recognizes that we are part of the inescapable network of shared humanity. We just might find, simultaneously, the secret of humanity and the secret of the Divine.