Photo by Clem Onojeghuo
by Saad Ismail
“Falsafi ko bahs ke andar Khuda milta nahin,
Dor ko suljha raha hai, aur sira milta nahin.”
“The philosopher fails to find God in his subtle debates,
While he unravels the knot, the end eludes his gaze.”
– Akbar Allahabadi
Where philosophy flounders, where logic is dumbstruck, and theology is at pains to explain, comes the poet who has the sense to offer silent surrender to the mystery before him. Where others are threatened by the exposure of the limits of their systems, and zealously seek to guard their boundaries – even seeking to confine God within their boundaries, the poet makes no such transgression.
The poet welcomes mystery, welcomes perplexity, welcomes God, and welcomes the Unknown (ghayb). The poet in this act of utter simplicity and conceptual poverty (faqir) before the overflowing abundance of the Infinite, comes closest to offering a container for the Divine. All others who are full of themselves and their scholarship, fail to fulfill this basic prerequisite for seeing God as possibly more than merely our image of Him.
“So, when you empty yourself, turn to your Lord.” (The Qur’an, 94:7-8)
Naaz Khialvi, a contemporary lyricist, embodies this poetic sensibility, and in colloquial Urdu verse, gives us a confessional masterpiece that lays bare the most heartfelt and heart wrenching raptures of a worshipper grappling with the puzzling nature of God. The poem entitled ‘Tum ek gorakh dhanda ho’/’You are a puzzle-lock’ has been immortalized in its Qawwali adaptation by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. For an English translation of the entire poem and a brief contextual discussion, see this paper by Amer Latif of Marlboro College.
Latif translates the repeating refrain gorakh dhanda referring to God, as “puzzle-lock”. He elaborates on the range of meanings for the term: “an intricate or difficult affair or problem; a puzzle; a labyrinth; an intricate lock, a puzzle-lock. But perhaps the most evocative and tangible sense of gorakh dhanda is that it is a child’s toy with an attached string. When the string is pulled in one direction the toy turns out to be of one color and when pulled in the opposite direction the toy turns out to be of another color. The entire poem is a catalogue of the many ways in which the one reality that is God turns out to possess varying and contradictory qualities. The poet’s reason is incapable of solving this puzzle or opening this “puzzle-lock”.”
Contrary to the theologian or the philosopher, who seeks to solve this puzzle in one way or the other, the poet seeks earnestly to maintain its two-way mystery: That God is both ‘x’ and ‘not x‘, and neither ‘x‘ nor ‘not x‘.
“You are not and You are everywhere.
You are a puzzle- lock! . . .
If you are not of my thoughts, then how did I understand you are God?
You are a puzzle- lock!
I am perplexed at this business: what are you, who are you?
When you come to hand, you are an idol; when you do not come to hand, you are God.
You are a puzzle- lock!
How can that which is encompassed by reason be limitless?
How can that which is understood be God?
You are a puzzle- lock! . . .”
The poem progressively realizes that all attempts to think of, or talk about God, are ultimately doomed. But these frustrations themselves are put before God, and they become the center of the mediation on God, and the heart of the prayer to God. Perhaps herein lies the most subtle paradox of all, running through the entire poem. As Amer Latif reflects: “How can the poet search for God and address Him at the same time? An examination of this apparent contradiction sheds light on one of the reasons for the poem’s popularity and points us towards a fundamental principle on which depends a full expression of the religion of Islam. This principle is ihsan or doing the beautiful. In the hadith of Gabriel, the Prophet defines ihsan as, “to worship God as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you.” Ihsan, then, is an action in which the worshipper enacts the “as if” described by the Prophet by imagining God to be present.”
This enactment of the ‘as if seeing’ is perhaps more significant than the seeing itself. For it births the seeing, it builds, erects and sustains the seeing. As another statement of the Prophet relates God saying: “I am as my worshipper sees I am”.
But what does it mean to see God, or to see as if one sees God? Perhaps the clue to this lies in the next part of the same Prophetic advice: “… for even if you do not see Him, He sees you.” If God is ultimately unseeable and ungraspable, then perhaps for me to see God is not to see God Himself (by definition unseeable), but to see God seeing me. Not to grasp God, but to grasp that I am grasped by Him.