THE MYSTIC PEN – Lecture 2:
Sacred Spaces – Journey Toward the Light
by Katherine Schimmel Baki

Katherine Schimmel Baki

Katherine Schimmel Baki

“Everything is connected in some mysterious way to something else.” – Dr. Annemarie Schimmel

There is a Native American legend, which beautifully illustrates the central Sufi theme: That which we often search for is within us all along. We have only to look.

In this particular legend, the Creator gathers all the creatures of the world and asks the pressing question: “I have a great and mighty secret. Where should I hide it from the humans so that they may only find it when they are ready?”

The eagle said, “I’ll take it to the moon and hide it there.”

“No,” said the Creator, “One day they’ll travel to the moon and find it.”

“Then I’ll hide it in the bottom of the ocean,” offered the salmon.

“No,” said the Creator, “One day they will get there and surely find it.”

“I know, I know,” cried the buffalo, “I will hide it in the Great Plains!”

“Oh, but, they will dig it out one day, too,” the Creator said.

The mole then said, “Hide it inside them.”

The Creator said, “It is done…for they shall look there last.”

Sometimes, the invisible is only made visible by realizing that we must look deep within ourselves. Who would know, for instance, that the greatest pearl may lie hidden inside the plainest of oysters?

It is raining hard on a warm, mist-filled spring day as I plug in my tape recorder and put in a cassette. Green surrounds me as I settle in and listen to Annemarie’s voice. Green is in the branches of the many trees in our backyard forest forming a thick canopy over my house. It is in the thick carpet of velvety moss, which slowly creeps up the cool, moist trunks of the tall shade trees. It is in the tender blades of grass I love to walk on with my bare, calloused feet; and it is in the sea of ferns growing wildly all around our home…I relish their furry fronds, curled up tightly as though protecting a sacred drop of dew.

Green is also the color of the many flower stems dotting our yard, their heads bowing under the weight of so much rain, and reminding me of tiny Sufis in green robes deeply immersed in the act of full prostration before their beloved. The wind blows and swirling leaves band together, nature’s finest whirling dervishes at my feet. All life is caught in the delicate dance of spring and awaits the return of the sun.

The lecture I am transcribing, a continuation of Part Two of the second lecture in Anne Marie’s Harvard, Spring Semester, 1992, series, picks up where we last left off. The topic is light and the illumination of the soul. In the Qur’an, we find the core essence of light brought to life in “Parable of Light” or Sura al-Nur (24:35):

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth,
The parable of His Light is as if there were a niche,
And within it a Lamp: The Lamp enclosed in Glass;
The glass as it were a brilliant star;
Lit from a blessed Tree,
An Olive, neither of the East nor of the West,
Whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it;
Light upon Light!
Allah doth set forth parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.

As we will see, in this lecture, the sun, the moon and the stars all play an important role in the mysticism of light. The light of the sun is compared to the light of the Prophet, while the moon is a sign of beauty.

In contemporary songs such as Fairuz’s “Nehna wil-Amar Jiran…Beitu Khalf Tlalna-We and the moon are neighbors, its house is behind our hills,” the enduring power of the moon (or lover) being blessed and beautiful is once again reaffirmed in a charming and highly popular love song.

We must also not forget that in Islam, the Prophet Muhammad first received the word of God in Arabic (610 CE) over a 22-year period on none-other than the ‘Mountain of Light (Jabal al-Nur)’ also known as Mt. Hira, a sacred place located on the outskirts of Mecca.


The Sun

“I am the sun and those who shun me are like bats” The Prophet, Muhammad

One interesting aspect of the light – metaphysics – should be not forgotten. Muhammad Iqbal, whom I like to mention time and again because in his system we find a very interesting blending of orthodox Muslim, mystical Muslim thought, and modern European philosophy.

Iqbal agrees that God is light, but he does not see it as his bequeathed, he rather sees the comparison between God’s absoluteness and the speed of light as the absolute measure. That’s, of course, a very modern interpretation but it is interesting to see how it works with a modern Muslim philosopher. The sun, of course, is part of this light mysticism or this admiration for light.

Muslims have interpreted Sura 93 Al-Duhaa – By the Morning Light – as pertaining to the light-full presence of the Prophet. That is something you find time and again, and, on the other hand, we have to make here a big distinction between those religions in which the sun and its movement plays a central role, and Islam.

When you think that ritual prayer should be held at one point before sunrise and then after sunrise, we can see here that Islam avoids, very carefully, that idea as though someone might worship the sun by praying just at the moment of sunrise or sunset. Just as Islam took its calendar from the old calendar of the four seasons, one is very careful to avoid any similarities with those who worship the sun by praying at sunrise.

In fact, we can deduct this from the Qur’an in Sura 6 Verse 98, when the story of Abraham is told, who looked first at the stars to take them as his Lord, then at the moon and wants to take him as his Lord, and then at the sun; and all of them sat, and he said: “La uhibbu al-‘afilin – I do not like those that sat.”

And that takes out the whole worship of stars and sun and so on out of the religious sphere. It does not mean that the sun and the moon and the stars haven’t got an important role, but it’s more in the symbolic way. The Prophet himself says in one Hadith, I don’t know if it’s genuine, but it very typically expresses his concern: “I’m the sun and those who shun me are like bats,” because bats are the enemies of the sun…an image which occurs time and again. And the one offers itself as a very good image of the Divine Power because just like water and wind, it can be a blessing by ripening the fruits and by giving life to everything. But, it can also be – if it’s too strong – a curse. And again, it is here Maulana Rumi who has used this imagery very intensely.

The Moon

“…the moon can be reflected everywhere, be it in the ocean, be it in a little pond, be it even in the tears of the lover.” Dr. Annemarie Schimmel

Much more important in Islamic religions and poetical thought is the moon. The moon is, as you know, connected with Islamic thought. Especially the crescent moon because, again, the break with the tradition sets in here. Islam here is not a solar year, but a lunar year.

And the month is distinguished by the appearance of the first very thin sign of the helal of the new moon, the crescent moon, and it’s a beautiful custom in Islamic countries that when you see the first helal in the evening sky, then you utter a little prayer or you look at a beautiful person and say some blessing, or you touch some golden ring or some gold and utter always a wish that the month would be as blessed and as beautiful as the thing you are looking at. That’s a custom widespread in the Islamic world, and it shows the importance of the new moon.

Of course, it is necessary that in official documents, in for instance financial documents, you have always to have two ways of reckoning: the lunar year for the religious purposes, the solar year for accounting. Because, after all, harvesting and so on are connected with the solar year and not with the lunar year.

For the Muslim, the idea of the lunar year is very important because this means month of fasting, the month of pilgrimage, moving through all the seasons. And thus, it is easier, they argue, than if, for instance, the month of Ramadan were always in the hot summer or always in the cold winter. This is an argument, which you can read very frequently in modernist defenses of the lunar year. But it is also a strange coincidence, if we can call it like that, that the whole lunar reckoning is very much in tune with the Arabic alphabet. The lunar cycle is 28 days, the Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, and so the 4 x 7 reckoning plays a great role in this connection, and later saints such as Harufi have developed whole systems of analogies between the lunar stations and the letters of the Arabic alphabet, and so on and so forth.

It seems to me that the moon as a sign of beauty is also very typical of Islamic thought to compare one’s beloved to a full moon, which would not be very poetic in English or in German, but is one of the greatest words of praise you can utter, because radiance and purity, the whiteness of the full moon, was always highly appreciated.

And we have to keep in mind that in the ancient Near East, it was the moon god that had the most important position among the deities, because the sun was seen more as destructive while the moon was gentle and loving. And may well be that these ancient ideas have colored a little bit the Islamic love for the moon and to call the beloved, or the manifestation of the divine, a moon is always, as I said, the greatest praise.

Of course, Islam knows also the story which is so well known to those who have worked in East Asia, Central Asia, the story that the moon can be reflected everywhere, be it in the ocean be it in a little pond be it even in the tears of the lover. And this use of the moon symbol has colored poetry to a large extent.

The Stars…

“As for the stars…they are signs of God…” Dr. Annemarie Schimmel

As for the stars…they are signs of God, as everything, and they have played an enormous role in Islamic thought and in Islamic theology and practical life because the stars were used for navigation. You have to know the stars and their movement when you want to perform the pilgrimage, or for other journeys. You have to figure out the direction of the stars and the stars are also connected with the heavenly sphere.

The shooting stars are, according to the Qur’an, used to throw out the devils who might try to listen to what the people in heaven have to talk to each other, for the shihab, the meteor, plays a great role in popular imagination. And several stars occur time and again, especially the Pleides. But, we should, in this connection, not forget that the stars, as such, were always the objects of interest for the Arab, and the great number of astrological, astronomical terms in our languages. The names of stars and so on and so forth, Zenith and Nadl, and so on are all of Arabic origin because the Arabs were really the great astronomers of the medieval world, and we have learned all our basic information from them.

That this could also lead to a development of astrology goes without saying, because people who watch the stars so carefully certainly figured out ways to interpret them in their own style. It may be that Islam, like all the prophetic religions, has certainly basically no sympathy for astrology, but on the other hand one saw in the movement of the stars – and their working on our little world – a sign of the harmony that permeates the whole world.

And if a star had this or that influence, one saw it was part and parcel of this great network of combinations and relations, which were so typical of the whole world. Everything is connected in some mysterious way to something else. And as for astrology, there is barely any historical figure who did not use the help of astrologers in order to determine his luck or bad luck, and one of the most important duties of the court poet, for instance, was to cast horoscopes for the king and the princes and pregnant women, and so on and so forth. So astrology played a much greater role in the whole Islamic world than is usually accepted. And even the great scholar, Adaruni, at the beginning of the 11th century has given some extremely valuable rules for this art.

But, it was not only that one tried to interpret the movement of the stars in various ways. Mystics could also see in the stars a writing on the skies and we have reports of mystical visions such as Adaruni when he could read the script of the stars, which seemed to form certain Qur’anic verses, which were relevant for this or that point in his life. And, with this, I think, a very interesting development of the love for and interest in stars.

The whole sky, of course, on which the stars, the sun, and the moon appear, was regarded as it was in every religion with great interest. However the way – how the sky was described – is usually not very favorable because the sky or the turning spheres are in general, related to unreliability. The turnings of sky, the seven wheels, as it was sometimes called in connection with the seven layers of planet, that was something one could never rely upon.

And the fact that the sky was at nighttime, dark blue, reminded the Muslim thinkers and poets of the fact that dark blue is the color of the aesthetic, but its also a color connected with sadness and with unreliability. And so, the comparisons of this turning sky in its dark blue robe are anything but flattering and…creatures of God. Only in the poetical tradition it takes a more or less a negative view and is connected with a fate.

The Tree Of Life

“A good word is a good tree.” Qur’an

It is quite natural that human beings from the very beginning were deeply interested in trees, plants, in gardens, in the whole of vegetation as well as in the animal world. And from ancient times onward, we find the concept of “the tree of life”, which seems to appear almost everywhere in the history of religion. And would be amazing if it were not so in Islam.

“The tree of life” occurs under various guises in the Qur’an. “A good word is a good tree”, and a comparison of everything that is growing and is positive to a tree is commonplace in religion. The whole world could be seen as a tree, which manifests itself in different branches in which the strange birds can nest.

Ibn ‘Arabi has these ideas as much as they are expressed in particular, by one great thinker of the 11th Century, the Ismaili philosopher poet, Nasir Khusraw (1004-1088 CE), who has a whole three-tree imagery in his poetry. I’ve never come across so many trees: the world as tree, the man as tree – everything becomes a tree in his imagination, everything that’s alive. And the question of being alive is probably the one that is most central in the whole concept of the tree.

There is a tradition, a Hadith, in which the Prophet said: “A person who performs a dhikr – the constant remembrance of God – is like a green tree among dried up trees, he is the one who really lives on the water of life which is given by God. And of course, for the Muslim, and especially in the Qur’an, this Hadith immediately evokes the words of Sura 111, where Abu Lahab, the enemy of the Prophet, is cursed and his wife – the carrier of dry firewood – is cursed likewise. So the dry wood is always connected with the fuel for hell fire, while the green tree is the one that really means life and means also happiness because after all paradise is seen as a great garden.

The image, the idea, that God is something like a living tree, can be found in some of the most beautiful poems I have come across in the Islamic tradition. One is by a Sindi poet of the 16th century who compares God to a Banyan tree, its mystical friend is a Banyan tree. And you know, Banyan trees have one stem and then internal long roots, air roots or branches – whatever you would call it – so that one banyan tree really is like a little forest in himself. And so, this poet compares his divine beloved to a banyan tree who is one and at the same time a whole forest. Just like God who is one and has manifested himself in the multiple layers of his creatures.

On the other hand his contemporary, one century later – and a little bit far north in the Punjab – has invented the most beautiful comparison, that God is like a jitneys (?) tree in his heart which is watered by the words of the profession of faith: There is no deity, save God, and thus it grows slowly and finally permeates the whole body and the whole being of the seeker with its fragrance. These two examples can really be seen as something that points to the very special role of the tree in the mystical tradition.

We will see next time more about gardens, about plants, about animals, and then go over to the man-made things… See you then on Friday

Katherine Schimmel Baki
Director of Global Partnerships
Chief Correspondent on Islam
Curator of The Mystic Pen Series
Host of Peace Routes
Wild River Review


Katherine Schimmel Baki is Director of Global Partnerships at Wild River Review, a 501 C3 not-for-profit whose mission is to build bridges of understanding between cultures and to highlight all the positive work going on around the world. She hosts a series at WRR called The Mystic Pen ( which focuses on the life and scholarly works of the late, legendary specialist of Indo-Muslim culture and religion, Dr. Annemarie Schimmel ( Katherine holds a B.A. in professional music from Berklee College of Music, and a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University, where she was the Islamic representative for the Eastern Chapter of the United Nations World Religions and Peace, Youth Program. Additionally, she has spent much time in Egypt where she conducted original research on the Adhan. That work commenced in a book entitled, Hayya ‘ala al-Salat, the Socio-Religious Impact of the Adhan on the Muslim Community of Cairo. She also writes for the San Diego Examiner, where she hosts a new series called MOSAIC, which focuses on Islamic art and architecture in California.

Katherine’s interests are in profiling the work of peaceful visionaries, and in particular those of Muslim extraction. She and her team at Wild River Review were honored to be chosen as the exclusive media escorts to Nobel Prize recipient, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, while on tour through Ecuador in 2008. Her academic collaborations include the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Harvard University, The Davis International Center, Princeton University and the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.

Currently she is continuing her work on the Adhan and is engaged in several large research projects whose aim it is to highlight the Islamic contributions to western society and to fight Islam phobia in the west.