Tania Henzell-Thomas, the author of Uroboros: The Circle of Time, explores how the Quran and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) inspired her writing.
The themes in Uroboros are universal, but I have drawn special inspiration from the Holy Quran and Hadith and hope that what I have written speaks equally to Muslims as to all communities. Islam calls us to be grateful for what we have been given, and to honour our primordial nature. If we do that we will see it reflected in the world around us, as it is not only our physical actions which change our environment, but also our intentions and inner state. In fact, it is within ourselves that the outer transformation begins.
Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, ‘If it is the last moment of the last day and you have a seed in your hand, plant it.’
This hadith has stayed with me and inspired me over the course of many years, and when I first sat down to write Uroboros I wanted to write a message of hope. We are beset by so much that is negative and oppressive, and so many of us feel we bear the weight of the world on our shoulders. How do we address mankind’s many problems?
The book was inspired by my love of nature and my concern for our increasingly damaged environment. We must renew our connection to the natural world and take responsibility for the damage we have caused. Then and only then can we begin to repair it:
True servants of the Most Gracious are they who walk gently on earth.
The Quran tells us again and again that the natural world is brimming over with luminous signs which offer a continual reminder to all those who, by turning to God with their hearts, are given the insight to see in those signs the living Presence of God in the created world. This is the ‘displayed book’ of nature which calls us to open our hearts in the rapt contemplation of its blessed signs.
Do they not look at the sky above them – how We have built it and made it beautiful and free of all faults? And the earth – We have spread it wide, and set upon it mountains firm, and caused it to bring forth plants of all beauteous kinds, thus offering an insight and a reminder unto every human being who willingly turns unto God.
Verily, in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and the succession of night and day: and in the ships that speed through the sea with what is useful to man: and in the waters which God sends down from the sky, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless, and causing all manner of living creatures to multiply thereon: and in the change of the winds, and the clouds that run their appointed courses between sky and earth: [in all this] there are signs indeed for people who think.
And God has made the earth a wide expanse for you, so that you might walk thereon on spacious paths.
The Quran repeatedly clarifies that the entire universe, from the cosmos to all life on earth, exists by way of a natural balance that should not be tampered with. The Quran also describes the natural order as a single, living, sentient system in a constant state of reflection of the Divine Reality. Every life-form is described as belonging to a community, a social order, that is comparable to that of human life. The Quran conveys not only a sense of wonder at the beauty and majesty of nature, but inspires a deep-seated respect for the sanctity and inter-relatedness of all life.
There is no creature that crawls on the face of the earth, no bird on the wing, but they are communities like you
There is not a single thing that does not sing His praise; but you fail to grasp the manner of their glorifying Him!
Do you not see how all that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies God, and the birds with wings outspread? Each has learnt his prayer and his glorification.
In the light of these verses, Ibn ‘Arabi taught that ‘each created thing has a speech specific to it taught by God’, and ‘a salat (prayer) specific to each genus’. The animals, he continues, have been given an ‘innate disposition’ by God ‘to know Him and to speak rationally in glorification of their Lord.’
The Prophet’s exhortation to plant the seed in our hand, even at the last moment of the last day, reminds us that he was a pioneer in the domain of conservation, sustainable development, and resource management, and one who constantly sought to maintain a harmonious balance between man and nature. He was a strong advocate of the sustainable use and cultivation of land and water, proper treatment of animals, plants, and birds, and the equal rights of users.
The modernity of the Prophet’s view of the environment and the concepts he introduced to his followers are particularly striking. He enjoined that the natural order should be actively protected and nurtured. Not only did he prohibit the wanton destruction of the environment through practices such as deforestation, but he also encouraged people to engage actively in greening the land as much as possible. In Madinah, he also established a historic precedent when he affirmed that sacred precincts should simultaneously be considered as nature reserves. He established several zones, protected areas of wildlife and natural resources where development, habitation, or extensive grazing were forbidden. These areas were considered public property or common lands.
Numerous verses of the Quran, suggest that environmental and social corruption are a consequence of human action that disrupts the self-regulating dynamic of natural balance. It admonishes us for rampant materialism, or, in the words of Muhammad Asad, ‘man’s obsessive striving for more and more comforts, more material goods, greater power over his fellow-men or over nature, and unceasing technological progress’:
You are obsessed by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves.
The Quran also warns us that:
[Since they have become oblivious of God,] corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought: and so He will let them taste [the evil of] some of their doings, so that they might return [to the right path].
Muhammad Asad comments on how this verse points to ‘the growing corruption and destruction of our natural environment, so awesomely – if as yet only partially – demonstrated in our time, is here predicted as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought, i.e., of that self-destructive – because utterly materialistic – inventiveness and frenzied activity which now threatens mankind with previously unimaginable ecological disasters: an unbridled pollution of land, air, and water through industrial and urban waste, a progressive poisoning of plant and marine life, all manner of genetic malformations in men’s own bodies through an ever-widening use of drugs and seemingly “beneficial” chemicals, and the gradual extinction of many animal species essential to human well-being.’
Many of us have lost our connection with the natural world. Many people do not even understand where their food comes from any more, although there are promising signs of greater awareness of pressing environmental issues affecting food production and mounting concern for animal welfare, especially amongst young people. We need to raise awareness of animal cruelty amongst all communities, including Muslims. For example, at the Festival of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) there is appalling cruelty in the mass importation of sacrificial sheep from Australia and New Zealand. How can we justify the horrendous conditions reportedly endured by the four million sheep and 770,000 cattle per annum transported in filthy conditions from Australia alone, packed onto ships 100,000 at a time, subject to trampling, disease, starvation, trauma, and heat stroke during their month-long journey, and a high percentage of deaths in transit? This is no different from the mass cruelty in industrial farming practices (including battery chicken farming) throughout the world, and especially in the overfed West. It suggests that we need to reform an outmoded concept of what is halal with a view of animal welfare rooted in what is ‘good’ (tayyib) and not merely what is ‘permitted’.
But it is not enough just to lament and critique what is wrong. We need to be inspired! It is difficult for us to see the solutions when we are overwhelmed by the problems. We need a positive and optimistic vision that sees light at the end of the tunnel. We need to feel the beauty of the natural world. There are an increasing number of educational films and videos which portray this, but we also need to smell the blossom of a fruiting tree, feel the warmth of the sun and the wetness of the rain, watch and listen to a skylark as it breaks from the meadow and carols its way skyward. Then, and only then, will we remember our sacred trust as caretakers (khulafa) of this beautiful, blue planet.
A story has a special role to play in evoking the felt sense of that beauty through its concrete imagery and descriptive richness.
Eira, the principle character in Uroboros, is a courageous young woman, who finds herself tested by an extraordinary journey of inner growth and transformation, which in turn causes the world around her to change. As she embarks on her adventure, she embodies qualities which we often see as masculine – courage and perseverance, as well as those we think of as feminine – tenderness and compassion. But Aarush also embodies all of these qualities. We have to learn to look below the surface, beyond the body that houses the spirit, which is beyond gender.
I wanted to present an alternative way of viewing our gender relationships, to quash the outmoded assumption that the man should always be the questing hero and the woman should stay quietly at home. It is Eira who takes the active part in this journey, while Aarush patiently awaits her arrival.
In the epilogue to his remarkable book, The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas affirms his belief that the resolution of the crisis caused by the over-valuation of the masculine in Western culture is already emerging in various movements which reflect an epochal shift in the contemporary psyche, a fulfilment of the longing for a reunion with the feminine, a reconciliation between the two great polarities, a union of opposites. This can be seen, as he says, in the ‘tremendous emergence of the feminine in our culture, the widespread opening up to feminine values by both men and women, in the increasing sense of unity with the planet and all forms of nature on it, in the increasing awareness of the ecological and the growing reaction against political and corporate policies supporting the domination and exploitation of the environment, in the growing embrace of the human community, in the accelerating collapse of long-standing and ideological barriers separating the world’s peoples, in the deepening recognition of the value and necessity of partnership, pluralism, and the interplay of many perspectives.’
And it seems to me self-evident that the gift for relationship at the heart of the feminine psyche needs to guide this effort, whether that gift is offered by women or by men who have integrated it into their own being. This endeavour goes beyond the task, important as it is, of presenting Islam with a human face; it can help to transform not only the perception of Islam in the West, so that Islam is no longer misrepresented as inimical to women, but can also contribute to the transformation of Western society itself through the rediscovery of its own soul.
In my depiction of the Noctu, the shadowy presence of menacing beings lurking in the dark places of Eira’s world, I wanted to convey how rejected and oppressed communities are stigmatized and feared, but which are seen to offer no threat when their true nature is brought to light and understood. We must learn not to fear what we do not understand, and not to project unconsciously our own shadow in demonizing the ‘other’. The Quran says:
We have made you into nations and tribes so that you may come to know and learn from one another.
Had thy Sustainer so willed, He could surely have made all mankind one single community: but [He willed it otherwise, and so] they continue to hold divergent views. So Vie with one another in doing good works!
The Quran also advises us that His wonders include not only the creation of the heavens and the earth, but also the diversity of your tongues and colours: for in this, behold, there are signs indeed for all who know [30:22]. In short, the Quran tells us that diversity is a gift, an element of man’s primordial condition, a sign for the intelligent, an opportunity to know and improve oneself through relationship with others, and to be rivals in doing good. And the Quran warns the community of ‘believers’ that if they seriously fail to live up to their calling, they will be replaced by a community better than them:
If you turn away, He will replace you with another people, and they will not be the likes of you!
If we were all the same, how could we ever see beyond ourselves to the infinite diversity which God continues to reveal to us in every moment?
Finally, I wanted to include in my story the archetypal symbol of hope, the Rainbow, as a symbol of God’s covenant to mankind and that of the balance of nature restored. Many of us will be familiar with the appearance of the rainbow in the story of Noah. In the Bible, it is said,
I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.
This beautiful natural wonder is also mentioned in a reported saying of the Prophet Muhammad as a symbol of hope, as ‘a safeguard for the inhabitants of the earth that they will not be drowned.’ How profoundly relevant is this at the present time, with a potentially catastrophic rise in sea level as a consequence of global warming.
We will show them Our signs in the furthest horizons [of the universe] and within their own souls so that they will understand the Truth.
We are surrounded by these signs and wonders in every moment. All we have to do is open our hearts and remember our sacred trust to cherish the beauty of our home and those we share it with.
~ Tania Henzell-Thomas