Friday Thoughts 53
Time, Space and Beyond
God asks, "For how many years did you stay on earth?" They say, "We stayed for a day or part of a day. Do ask those who keep count." He says, "You stayed just for a little while, if you only knew! Did you think that We created you as something meaningless, and that you would not be brought back to Us?" (Surah 23:112-115)
This month of Rajab is the month when we start preparing for Ramadan. We start watching the moon more carefully in order to facilitate a precise calculation of the calendar. And we also start watching our habits and looking back at how the year has been so far - so many months have already passed, and without most of us even being aware of it in our daily routine. Time seems to be flying past. Actually - the older we become, the more quickly time seems to pass, especially if we never stop to reflect before our time is on earth is up.
The word Rajab comes from the root rajaba, to respect, and the month of Rajab was originally, already in pre-Islamic time, one of the sacred months when all warfare was forbidden, when differences had to be temporarily accepted with tolerance and respect. Unfortunately this arrangement was lost in the course of the centuries. Imagine one whole month without fighting, without the news of people dying from bombs or bullets! It could give a real taste of security, space, and peace. Certain politicians and representatives of the arms industry would not like it, but people - individuals, communities, nations - desperately need a break from struggle, disaster and despair in order to stop and to reflect, to find their way back to who they really are.
Talking about time: in these days in Rajab, many Muslims remember the Prophet Muhammad's heavenly journey. Some contemporaries did not believe the story and made fun of it; some modern readers frown when they read or hear how, in one single night, the Prophet was taken from Makkah to Jerusalem and then through the lower and upper spheres of the world beyond physical existence, all the way into God's presence. Exciting details are described in hadith literature and popular folk tales, and they eventually inspired the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri to write the Divina Comedia and several European artists to paint dramatic images of Hell and Paradise. But - how would it be possible to see and hear all these wonders in such a short time?
Depending on their respective backgrounds, some commentators point out Einstein's theory of relativity that says that time simply depends on speed, while others refer to Sufi stories in which the protagonist lives through decades of adventures in distant continents while his head is dunked in a bowl of water, finding himself, only a few minutes later, back in the time and place where he started from. Certain theologians have given up on any attempts of explaining a long time ago, recommending, instead, to accept the narrative "bila kayf", without asking how. The latter obviously miss a number of points that are important and useful.
For when we consider our everyday experience, we find that time is often a matter of perception. Even with the most precise "inner clock", we do not always feel the same about seconds, minutes, hours or even days and years. We normally do not notice how the time passes during the night while we are asleep while our dreams can take us on a long journey. In an unpleasant situation or a period of frustrated waiting, we get the impression that things simply take forever - this is where the German word "langweilig" comes from, literally "taking a long time", that is used for "boring". Some entertainment is therefore designed to make the time seem to pass more quickly, to "kill the time", as it were. Pleasant situations sometimes come across in a rather odd way: the time seems full and short simultaneously. Again if we keep reacting to work demands, routine, challenges etc., time passes unnoticed and some day we look back and suddenly find that we spent a lifetime without realizing it: it is as if we spent "only a day or part of a day" on earth - almost like the time that passes during the night while we are asleep, and that is most probably why the Prophet said, "People are asleep, and when they die, they wake up." For it is often only a crisis like a severe illness or a sudden disability that causes people to stop and think about the meaning of their lives and to make changes, to try to live a fuller life, to become more conscious of the beauty of the world around them and within themselves, before it is really too late.
There is, in fact, another dimension. Prayer and meditation, if done carefully and consciously, can take us beyond our ideas of time and space and give us rest in God's presence. It is no coincidence that the five daily prayers were prescribed during the Prophet's heavenly journey. They are, as it were, an ordinary Muslim's own personal heavenly journey. The Arabic word salâh used for ritual prayer means connection or link: prayer provides us, five times every day, with a chance to reconnect with the source of our being. Like special days - festivals or memorial days - it reconnects us with our memories of what we really are and what we have been given by our Creator. Like the ancient sacred months, it gives us space to stop fighting and to learn again how to trust. Like the pilgrimage, it gives us an opportunity to take account of our activities and to recharge our "batteries" for a new life. We discover a dimension of life other than the reaction to the demands of our work, the routine of our daily tasks, our illusions and our disappointments. We can take time to breathe, to gain strength and confidence, to get a taste of security and peace, to come across new insights into the meaning of life, to catch a second of eternity beyond time and space. For where is God? God is in the highest heaven, light years away, far out of the reach of even the fastest possible spaceship. God is here with us right now, wherever we are, hugging us with light in those precious moments when we are aware of it. From this new starting point, we may see the world with new eyes, being able to appreciate its beauty and to deal with the challenges of our everyday life in a way that is constructive and enriching for ourselves and others. Haven't we been created in order to glorify the Creator - along with the minerals and the flowers and the birds and the clouds and the stars? Haven't we been given the potential of God's own attributes of mercy, trust, wisdom, justice, patience in order to unfold it and make it known and felt in the world in ever new ways? The limited time that we have in this temporary universe assumes a new quality in God's presence, a quality of gratefulness and love, a point of being at peace with ourselves, our fellow beings, and our Creator.
It is then like an overflowing cup. That is why, coming back from our own heavenly journey of prayer, we give a greeting of peace right and left to the beings around us - to angels, human beings, animals, plants, and all the world, sharing the peace that we experience ourselves. It is like an intention to share it beyond the mere wish contained in the greeting, to spread it in the world through our words and actions in everyday life - in order to make peace as long as there is time.
(c) Halima Krausen, 2008