Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Islam and Zen philosophy - some thoughts

Yesterday I decided to take the plunge and buy my first Bonsai, a Chinese Zelkova [pictured to the left]. At first glance this might seem incredibly boring, but there is something deeply philosophical about the whole experience. Firstly it is not something you stick in a corner and forget about, it is a miniature tree that is living, breathing and growing. Bonsai is a culture rooted in Zen philosophy and a key tenet in Zen has been the harmonious and unobtrusive existence of the human being with nature. Trees are symbols of an immense power and wisdom. From tiny seeds sprout the greatest living creatures. They provide shelter, shade and fruit for living creatures. We use them to provide us warmth. Their roots give them a firm foundation whilst also protecting smaller trees from being swept away. In essence they are the symbol of the rock solid, of the reliable. They exude stability.

Like the tree, we have our roots in the earth but we try to reach out to the heavens. As the Qur'an says:

ألم تر كيف ضرب الله مثلا كلمة طيبة كشجرة طيبة أصلها ثابت وفرعها في السماء تؤتي أكلها كل حين بإذن ربها ويضرب الله الأمثال للناس لعلهم يتذكرون

Do you not see how Allah sets an example? - A good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed, and its branches (reach) to the heavens-- It brings forth its fruit at times, by the leave of its god. So Allah sets forth examples for people, in order that they may remember.

In this case, the "good" word is truth, whatever it is. It is based on firm foundations, and with it you can grasp what you could never have imagined possible. As Jesus said, the "Truth shall set you free". When we look at it from the perspective of Greek philosophy, we see how premises for any syllogism must be prior, better known and completely solid before a conclusion can be deduced. If this principle is followed soundly then the conclusion can only be truth, according to Aristotle.

Yet we choose to live our lives on premises that are anchored to floating buoys. We don't think about the basis of our beliefs or traditions, instead we blindly imitate. One person says a good and just god would not allow suffering in this world, because she heard this argument on television and she thought it sounded like a sound argument. Another man tells us that as long as he is not hurting anybody he can do whatever he wants, then goes off and drinks, smokes or does drugs - in moderation of course. No thought is ever given as to why they say or do what they do, it is all about how emotionally convincing the argument can be and whether it is enough to satisfy the ignorant.

That is not enough for me, it is not enough to leave an argument unfinished because I cannot be bothered to complete it, or because I have reached a stage of reasoning which is convenient for me or which I find appealing. The human being is constantly seeking not just to reach to the heavens, but to find their roots. As Ibn Arabi reminds us from the Prophet's hadith, we must know ourselves before we know Allah, and to do that we need to know what truth is. A tree is as good a place as any to start looking.


Anonymous said...

This post made me feel like getting a Bonsai too ; )
I was just recently moved deeply by the taoist philosophy, and a precious friend of mine advised me to read two books. I'm sharing the references in case you would be interested: Sufism and Taoism by Toshihiko Isutzu - which is really amazing (first part is about Ibn Arabi; second part is about Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu; third part is a comparative study)
And this is the other book I haven't opened yet: The Tao of Islam, a sourcebook on islamic gender relationship by Sachiko Murata.
Bonne lecture ma'a Salam!

KJ said...

Thank you for the post. True, we should always be constantly growing, seeking new knowledge and experiences, otherwise we become dull and wilt away.

Just for the record, a Bonsai I had survived six months under my nurturing. It is incredibly difficult to keep it alive but I was glad I managed to do it for so long.