Friday Thoughts 31
It is God who sends out the winds that they raise up the clouds. Then We drive them to a dead land and revive with (their water) the earth after its death. Thus is resurrection. (Surah 35:9)
Every year the miracle happens: the earth that seemed dead during the long dark winter becomes green with grass and herbs, trees blossom, flowers appear in various colours, the birds start singing. In the woods, animals come out of hibernation. After the long dark winter there is light, life and new hope.
While the season is not necessarily the same, the change can be even more dramatic in the desert. Apparently there is nothing but rocks and sand, dead earth where nothing seems to grow and nothing seems to move. It seems barren and hopeless. But then there is rain, and within few hours there is a green landscape alive with various insects and animals.
Whatever the geographical or seasonal background for this experience, people cannot close their eyes and ears against these wonders. They come out and celebrate.
The Qur'an repeatedly points out these phases of death and life in nature as signs of the Creator and indicates that death does not have the last word, neither in nature nor in the experience of the cycles within a human lifetime. Spring is therefore an occasion to reflect on various aspects of revival that is manifested in different ways in in various religious traditions. It is also associated with resurrection after the end of our life on earth.
In several ancient traditions, the revival of nature in spring was felt to be a new beginning. That is why the beginning of a new year was celebrated in spring, usually with symbols of new life like green herbs and flowers as well as symbols of fertility like eggs or fish. An example is nawruz that is celebrated in a number of Middle Eastern countries at the spring equinox and to some extent adopted into Muslim tradition, but also occasions like carnival that goes back to Egyptian and Roman fertility cults, or there are traditions in which winter is "driven out of the country". In the latter two cases there is a strong emphasis on pleasure and enjoyment, and they have a reputation for not always keeping within the reasonable limits most Muslims would feel comfortable with. On a more practical level, this is the time when gardening is resumed: we tend the plants we are growing, flowers and vegetables, and pull out the weeds. Nobody would give up gardening because there are weeds. Likewise, it would be most unnatural to ignore the joy of spring because there could be exaggeration. Even for Muslims who live in the concrete deserts of modern big cities it might be worthwhile to be aware of the re-emerging light and life in nature and to find ways of expressing their joy and gratitude.
In Christian tradition, spring is associated with Easter. Beyond the appearance of eggs and the Easter Bunny that have actually been adopted from pre-Christian tradition, the focus is on the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is admittedly something specifically Christian that is not shared by anyone else. But the concept of resurrection after death is common to a number of religious traditions. The idea of human responsibility is presented in images of a Day of Judgement when we are called to account for our actions in the world and harvest their fruits: the ugly, bitter fruits of bad actions or the sweet, lovely fruits of good actions like the grapes and pomegranates of love, friendship and companionship. The concept of a life after death has sometimes been misunderstood in the sense that life in this world should be neglected in favour of the "Hereafter" but in fact our present life is the ground on which the fruits for the future grow. Some of our sages and mystics have therefore taught a system of daily evaluation of our actions that remind of gardening: bad actions are the weeds that are to be kept under control, and good actions are useful plants that we are to care for and that we may be happy about.
In Jewish tradition, spring is associated with Pesach when the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt is remembered. This experience of liberation and communal revival is repeatedly mentioned in the Qur'an where the Children of Israel are especially encouraged to remember God's loving care for them. But the reminder is also addressed to the Muslims, the cousins of the Children of Israel so to speak, for whom it is equally worthwhile to remember and become aware of God's help in bringing about a social and cultural revival. Something similar has since been experienced repeatedly by Muslim peoples in the course of history. In fact, the Muslim community as a whole is currently experiencing such a revival after the long dark night of colonialism. In Arabic, the word bara'ah includes elements both of liberation and creation. It is a new spring. New plants start growing in the garden of the Muslim community worldwide. It is time to work in this garden, keeping the weeds of foolishness, fanaticism and extremism under control and tending the tender plants of sensible responsibility, spiritual beauty and loving cooperation with others that may bear the fruits of justice, kindness and peace in the world.
The thread that binds together all three aspects is spiritual resurrection. The image of the rain water and the "dead earth" also relates to blessing and revelation that descends on otherwise barren hearts and minds, causing vision and spiritual strength to grow from them. Let us pray for this rain to revive our hearts and minds and give us new insights and the strength for all the "gardening" to be done.
(c) Halima Krausen, 2007