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FaithScience

Celebrating Nature: Finding Faith Through the World and Universe Around Us

From the injunctions of Allah (swt) and the Sunnah of the Prophet, the wise sages of Islamic mysticism have implored those that struggle with spirituality and connecting to the Divine to look upon and ponder on the stars and the majesty of the universe.

Just imagine: You are lying comfortably on the luscious, untamed blanket of grass and daisies of a majestic meadow. The sun has just passed its peak, and the unrelenting glare of the summer sun has given way to kinder rays of the late afternoon, tamed by a gentle breeze boasting the aroma of a myriad of flowers.

The birds sing their joyous symphonies, dancing across the sky. The crickets chirp a cheerful chorus celebrating the calm. A hummingbird hovers by the brilliant bluebells and scarlet roses graciously lapping up their golden nectar. You can hear the soft trickling of a nearby stream and, as you gaze in the distance, you can see the horizon is pierced imperiously by the snowy peaks of lumbering giants asserting their majesty. 

At that moment, as your fingers run through the floral quilt, as you are consumed by the halcyon serenity of the symphony of nature, everything is just perfect.

The Miracles of the Natural World

Most people reading this article are city folk. About 55% of people worldwide live in an urban environment [1], a number that starkly rises in more “developed” countries (83.4% in the UK) [2]. As we run relentlessly in an endless rat race forced upon us by the capitalist powers that are [3], we are only rarely exposed to the true glory of nature.

As such, the table below is an attempt to remind us all how truly spectacular nature truly is. For copyright reasons, it has not been possible to put pictures or videos of these wonders but they are just a google search away!

Figure 1, The Magnificence of Nature

Salar de Uyuni An 11,000 km2 brilliant white salt plane (the legacy of a dried prehistoric lake).
Danakil Depression Pools of bright green sulphuric acid and exposed lakes of molten lava.
The Singing Sea of the Sahara The sands of the Sahara flow like the waves of an ocean but they sing a haunting chorus as they move.
Zombie Ant Fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis infects carpenter ants, compels them to leave their nest, climb a nearby plant stem and clamp its mandibles on a leaf. Thereafter, the fungus sprouts from the head of the now dead ant and sends spore on the ant’s colony below to restart the process!
Resurrection Plant This plant dies under the scorching heat of the Sahara and blows aimlessly in the wind for decades until it hits a patch of water whereupon it comes back to life. The rain knocks of seeds which bear shoots within hours and they flower within weeks developing their own flowers. The sun then kills them, but their seeds can survive for a century!
Mind Control Wasp Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga paralyses a spider and then lays its eggs into its abdomen. The hatched larva grows by sucking the spider’s blood whilst the spider continues living a normal life. However, when ready to pupate, it injects mind-altering chemicals into the spider forcing it to build a web unlike any other. On completion, the larva kills the spider, eats the remaining nutrients, and then hands in a cocoon from the web.
Fog Basking Beetle It doesn’t find enough water in the sands of the Namib desert so each morning, it performs an extended handstand to capture the coastal fog from the air.
Porsha Spider This cannibal spider that pretends to be prey in another spider’s web. When that spider comes to eat it, the hunter becomes the hunted!
Bombardier Beetle It mixes hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide which brings the mixture to the boiling point of water.
Horned Lizard When threatened by predators, the horned lizard raises the blood pressure in capillaries around its eyes and fires a jet of pungent blood into the mouth of its assailant, warding them off.
Axolotl This Lazarus salamander can regrow not only severed limbs and tail, but even parts of its brain and spinal cord making it an intriguing area of modern research.
Immortal Jellyfish After Turritopsis dohrnii reaches senescence, it can simply decide to return to an earlier stage of life; somewhat crudely akin to an elderly person deciding things were easier when they were a child and promptly becoming one.
Tardigrades These microscopic wonders can enter into a cryptobiotic state when faced with trying conditions allowing them to, among other things, survive: 87,000 PSI, -200-150oC, without any water and the vacuum of space with the unfiltered radiation of the sun. How long they can remain in this state is not yet clear but an Antarctic moss sample that dated back to 1983 had tardigrades present that was revived, without complication, in 2014.

There are many who do not value nature for its intrinsic magnificence, but even a cold, selfish view of the natural world, without reference to its emotional or spiritual wonder, reveals countless extrinsic sources of value.

We are both in, and of nature, and owe it our past, present and future. How could we live without the nourishment from its food and water, shelter from its elements and energy from its resources?

The obvious aside, a myriad of modern medicines owe both their discovery and synthesis from plants including: digoxin (heart conditions), quinine (malaria), L-dopa (Parkinson’s disease), caffeine, aspirin [4], and suxamethonium (which makes anaesthesia and therefore complex surgery possible) [5]. And perhaps most importantly of all, Fleming’s serendipitous discovery of penicillin revolutionised modern medicine, which played a vital role in raising life expectancy by three decades since the start of the 20th century [6].

Less conspicuously, enjoying a forest retreat or a stroll on the beach can reduce stress and anxiety. John Muir instructed: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of autumn.”; a notion similarly reflected in Arthur Gordon’s “Turn of the Tide” [7]. Such claims are not mere romantic idealism but also reflect what has been found in peer-reviewed literature [8,9]

Marvels of modern engineering, especially vehicles used to traverse the seas and the skies, owe many of their secrets to the animals that ruled them long before we trespassed. This debt is in both their conceptual inception and its nuanced execution. Despite how haughty we may be of the towering achievements of modern science, the species that reached the moon still can’t match the fluid dynamics of dolphins (which use a combination of secreted substances and shed skin) [10], the dynamism of the Peregrine falcon (which adopts an M-shape configuration towards the end of dive providing extra aerodynamic forces through vortex-induced lift minimising deceleration during pull-out) [11], or even artificially approach the same order of magnitude of the friction coefficient of knee cartilage [12, 13].

The Islamic Wonder on the Natural World

Thus far, the majesty of the natural world has been extolled in some detail, but what is the Islamic interpretation of this raw wonder? The Islamic lens sees it as a door to the Almighty.  A door not just in the more intuitive teleological sense (i.e. a strictly logical inductive argument for God’s existence from observations of design), but more potently in a direct experiential sense.

The highest level of knowledge of God comes not through logical deduction (which is indubitably crucial), but through direct experience. Think of a particularly special prayer that you have performed. This is not usually the everyday salah of the average Muslim [14], but rather that prayer when you prostrated before Allah (swt) in a truly spiritual moment, either of profound gratitude or in abject misery, and you opened your heart ready for Allah (swt) to pour His Divine light therein.

This was what Imam Ali (as) was teaching Dhi’lib al Yamani, when the latter asked if he could see Allah (swt). He replied: “Woe to you Dhi’lib. I do not serve a Lord that I have not seen.” Perplexed, Dhi’lib asked him how to which Imam Ali replied, “Woe to you! The eyes do not see him through means of vision, but the hearts see Him through the certainty of faith (emaan)” [15]. To truly appreciate the gravity of the words of Imam Ali (as), it is best to hear them in their entirety here [16]. 

Throughout the Qur’an, Allah (swt) repeatedly beseeches us to employ this experiential method of connecting to Him:

Qur’an Aale Imran 3:190 “Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of Night and Day, there are indeed Signs for men of understanding”.

Qur’an Yunus 10:6 “Also He said; Verily, in the alternation of the Night and the Day, and in all that Allah hath created, in the heavens and the earth, are Signs for those who fear Him”.

Such was a favourite method of the Prophet (saww) himself, who loved to escape from the affairs of man to the tranquillity of the desert under the watch of the glowing stars, engulfed in the cool of the desert breeze. He frequented the cave of Hira, and it was whilst in the cradle of nature’s glory that he received his first revelation. More directly about nature, he remarked: “Verily, Allah is beautiful, and He loves beauty…” [17].

From the injunctions of Allah (swt) and the Sunnah of the Prophet, the wise sages of Islamic mysticism have implored those that struggle with spirituality and connecting to the Divine to look upon and ponder on the stars and the majesty of the universe.

We cannot perceive God directly, for the finite cannot comprehend the infinite; Allah (swt) explicates this in the Qur’an (2:55, 4:53, 6:102, 7:143, 25:21). But we can access His majesty indirectly; through salah, through the Qur’an, through the Ahlul Bayt and through, most salient to this topic, His signs that decorate the universe.

Qur’an al Jaathiya 45:13 “And He has made subservient to you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth, all, from Himself; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect”.

Qur’an Fusilaat 37 “Among His Signs are the Night and the Day, and the Sun and the Moon. Adore not the sun and the moon, but adore Allah, Who created them, if it is Him you wish to serve”.

The more we ponder over the beauty of creation, the more we marvel at the majesty of the Creator. On this point, Rumi writes:

“Is the sweetness of the cane sweeter
Than the One who made the canefield?

Behind the beauty of the moon is the MoonMaker.
There is Intelligence inside the ocean’s intelligence
Feeding our love like an invisible waterwheel.

There is a skill to making cooking oil from animal fat.
Consider now the knack that makes eyesight
From the shining jelly of your eyes

Dawn comes up like a beautiful meal being served.
We are hungry and distracted, so in love with the cook.

Don’t just be proud of your moustache
as you drive three donkeys down the road.

Instead of gemstones, love the jeweller.
Enough of these exhaling sounds.

Let the darling finish this
who turns listening into seeing.”
― Rumi, The Essential Rumi, These Exhaling Sounds

This splendour is not limited to the outside world, but the glory of nature extends within.

Qur’an Yasin:78-79 “And he presents for Us an example and forgets his [own] creation. He says, ‘Who will give life to bones while they are disintegrated?’ Say, ‘He will give them life who produced them the first time; and He is, of all creation, Knowing’”.

Imam Ali (as) said: “Your remedy is within you, but you do not sense it. Your sickness is from you, but you do not perceive it. You presume you’re a small entity, but within you is enfolded the entire universe” [18]. 

دواؤكَ فيكَ وما تشعرُ وداؤك منكَ وما تُبصرُ
وتحسب أنك جرْمٌ صغيرٌ وفيكَ انطوى العالمُ الاكبرُ

In fact, arguably the most complex entity in the entire universe is our own mind. With some levity, Emerson Pugh trenchantly remarked, “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

This call to the utilise the grandeur of nature as a door to the Divine is most lucid in Surah Rahman (55), where Allah (swt) rhetorically proclaims 31 times: “Which of the blessings of your Lord do you deny?”

Such spiritual sentiments on the natural world are not lost on luminaries of different nations, ages, and ideologies. To state but a few:

George W Carver writes: “Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God”.

St Bernard of Clairvaux: “What I know of the divine sciences and Holy Scriptures, I learned in woods and fields. I have no other masters than the beaches and the oaks”.

John Muir: “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls”.

John Ray saw the plant specimens he saw as signs of God, Keppler his laws as Divine harmony, and Newton his mathematics as studying the “mind of God”.

The Universe is Alive

It is of capital importance, however, to recognise that Islam does not simply stop at giving value to nature through its effects (i.e. extrinsically), lest we be misled into thinking that as caretakers of this planet (Qur’an 2:30), that we can use it to our every selfish whim.

This world is not valuable just because it is beautiful, not just because it is beneficial, not just because it is a door to the Divine, but rather it has sanctity in its own right. The universe is alive not just in a metaphorical sense, but in a real, spiritual sense and, as such, it boasts intrinsic value.

Qur’an Israa’ 17:44 “The seven heavens and the earth and everyone in them glorify Him. There is not a single thing that does not celebrate His praise, though you do not understand their praise: He is most forbearing, most forgiving”.

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Abū al-Ṣabāḥ asked Imam Sadiq (as) about the meaning of these. He explained: “Everything glorifies Him with His praise. When we see a wall cracking, that is its glorification” [19]. Another elucidation of this verse is found in the specific question as to whether a dried tree glorifies God to which the Imam replied “Yes! Have you not heard the sound of the wood that is used in a house? That is its glorification. So glory be to God at all times” [20]. 

Several other verses in the Qur’an also make reference to the living universe including:

Qur’an Hajj 22:18 “Do you not realize [Prophet] that everything in the heavens and earth submits to God: the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the animals…”

Qur’an Fuss.ilat 41:21 “…they (our organs) shall say: ‘Allah’, Who makes everything speak, has made us speak…” 

Qur’an Baqara 2:74 “…and others (stones) tumble down through fear of Allah…” 

Qur’an Saba’ 34:10 “…O’ mountains! Sing praises with him (Dawud (as))…” 

Qur’an Anbya 21:79 “And We made the mountains, and the birds to celebrate Our praise with David”. 

Qur’an Saad 38:18 “Surely We made the mountains sing the glory (of Allah) in unison with him (Dawud (as)) at the evening and the sunrise”. 

Qur’an Fuss.ilat 41:11 “The heavens and the Earth come willingly. He said to it [the heaven] and to the earth: Come both, willingly or unwillingly. They both said: We come willingly”.

There are also several examples in the ahadith, such as the following narration via Ibn Abbas: “The rulers of Ḥaḍramawt came to the Prophet and asked him, ‘How can we know that you are God’s messenger?’ The Prophet took a handful of pebbles and said, ‘These pebbles testify that I am God’s messenger.’ Thus, the pebbles started glorifying [God] in his hands and they testified that he is God’s messenger” [21]. 

The life that the Qur’an and narrations detail is, as Allamah Tabataba’i cogently and extensively argues, that “glorification in this verse includes both metaphorical and literal”. The full implications and particulars of the degrees of life in the universe is beyond the scope of this article and, for the sake of brevity, it is sufficient merely to establish the point.

Take Home Message

In spite of the grandeur and wonder of the world, an iota of which may have been conveyed above, we humans have not treated it well. We have usurped it for selfish gain decade after decade, century after century. Until recently, however, the price of our avarice was borne by the trees we cut, the rivers we polluted and the animals we killed. But now, our misdeeds are catching up to us.

Global temperatures are rising, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, sea levels are rising, and we are living through the sixth mass extinction in the history of our planet. The animals mourn and we are their tormentor. Nature bleeds and we are its assailant. The Earth is sick, and we are its pestilence [22].

If we can take one thing from these reflections, let it be to treat the natural world as a sacred entity, deserving of the utmost respect.

The best way to imbue this thought is to follow the sagacious advice of Nasr who astutely describes nature as a Qur’an. We respect the written revelation of God with the utmost courtesy. We perform ablution before we touch it, we wrap it in decorative cloths, we place nothing atop it, and from it we hear both our first words and our last. In a similar fashion, nature is a Qur’an Tawkini (of creation). As both are gifts from the Divine containing pages that bear testimony to His majesty, both deserve our utmost reverence. Until we can make a paradigm shift from seeing nature to be used for our selfish gain, to a gift of God with intrinsic sanctity, the world will continue to suffer. 

Be like Yusuf (as) whose sustainability saved a nation. Be like Sulayman (as) who diverted his armies to save an ant. Be like Nuh (as) who planted the trees he used to build the ark. Be like Muhammad (saww) who was at one with nature, preached its protection, and lived in harmony.


Bibliography

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[2] Trading Economics, United Kingdom – Urban Population (% Of Total). Available from: https://tradingeconomics.com/united-kingdom/urban-population-percent-of-total-wb-data.html (accessed 19/5/20).

[3] Cutts, S. Happiness. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9dZQelULDkd (accessed 19/5/20).

[4] Taylor, L. (2000). Plant-Based Drugs and Medicines. Square One Publishers. Garden City Park, N.Y.

[5] Dorkings, HR. Suxamethonium – The Development of a Modern Drug From 1906 to the Present Day. Medical History, 1982,26: 145-168.

[6] Adedeji, WA. The Treasure Called Antibiotics. Ann Ib Postgrad Med. 2016 Dec; 14(2): 56–57.

[7] Covey, S. (2020). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon and Schuster, New York. Pp.346-347.

[8] Hassan, A et al. Effects of Walking in Bamboo Forest and City Environments on Brainwave Activity in Young Adults. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med . 2018 Feb 11;2018:9653857.

[9] Bang, K et al. The Effects of a Campus Forest-Walking Program on Undergraduate and Graduate Students’ Physical and Psychological Health. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Jul 5;14(7):728.

[10] Bandyopadhyay PR, Hellum AM. Modeling how shark and dolphin skin patterns control transitional wall-turbulence vorticity patterns using spatiotemporal phase reset mechanisms. Sci Rep 4, 6650 (2015).

[11] Gowree ER, Jagadeesh C, Talboys E, Lagemann C, Brücker C. Vortices enable the complex aerobatics of peregrine falcons. Commun Biol 1, 27 (2018).

[12] Oungoulian SR et al. Wear and Damage of Articular Cartilage with Friction Against Orthopaedic Implant Materials. J Biomech. 2015 Jul 16; 48(10): 1957–1964.

[13] Guilak, F. The Slippery Slope of Arthritis. Arthritis and Rheumatism. Vol. 52, No. 6, June 2005, pp 1632–1633.

[14] Hanif, M. (2008) A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Vintage Books. London. P28.

[15] Seduq, S. (2009). Kitab al Tawhid (The Book of the Divine Unity). The Saviour Foundation, Parastesh. Chapter 43, pp. 613-614.

[16] Ahlul Bayt TV. Who is God? (Vision of Allah) – by Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (as). Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9mlaAEWv9o [accessed 19/5/20].

[17] Ibnul Qayyim. Allah is Beautiful an Loves Beautiful. Primary source: al-Mu’jam al-Awsaṭ 6902. Available from: https://sunnahonline.com/library/purification-of-the-soul/200-allah-is-beautiful-and-loves-beauty [accessed 19/5/20].

[18] eShia. Diwan al Imam Ali (Vol 1, p. 71). Available from: http://lib.eshia.ir/27056/1/71/%D8%AC%D8%B1%D9%85 [accessed 20/5/20].

[19] Tafsir Ayashi via Tafsir al Mizan, Commentary Under Qur’an 17:44, available from: https://almizan.org/ [accessed 20/5/20].

[20] Tafsir Ayashi via Tafsir al Mizan, Commentary Under Qur’an 17:44, available from: https://almizan.org/ [accessed 20/5/20].

[21] Ibn Shahr-Āshūb inal-Manāqib via Tafsir al Mizan, Commentary Under Qur’an 17:44, available from: https://almizan.org/ [accessed 20/5/20].

[22] Cutts, S. Man. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfGMYdalClU [accessed 20/5/20].

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