Asani reflects on water in Islamic sacred texts, poetry

Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures at Harvard University, discusses Muslims’ relationship with water at Thursday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.
Photo by Lauren Rock.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Islam is a diverse and fluid faith. Its history of growth across geographical boundaries — and invisible cultural lines — catalyzed the creation of a variety of views related to water, Ali Asani said.

On Thursday, in the fourth Interfaith Lecture of the Week Four series themed “Water: Life Force/Life Source,” Ali Asani examined the role of water within the Islamic tradition, through an analysis of sacred texts including the Quran and the Hadith. He also explored the role of water in the mystical writings of Muslim poets in a lecture titled “Water as Substance and Symbol in Islam.”

Asani is a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures at Harvard University.

Asani commenced his lecture by focusing on the use and nature of water in the Quran, the holiest text of the Muslim faith. Muslims view the Quran as the word of God incarnate, Asani said. To discuss water in the Quran, it is necessary to understand that it was written in seventh century Arabia, an area that is notoriously arid, Asani said.

“Water is a gift from and an instrument of God, who wills it to fall upon the arid earth and bring forth vegetation,” Asani said.

In the Quran, water and other natural elements are called Ayahs, which is the same term used to describe a single verse of the Quran. That means that, like the words of God written as verses in the sacred text, nature and water specifically are signs of God on which people are called to meditate.

“Viewed from this perspective, nature is a scripture that surrounds us, which we must learn to read and interpret, just as we read and interpret explicit scriptures that God has revealed, such as the Torah, the New Testament and the Quran,” Asani said.

The Quran also promotes the idea that water and nature are trusts given to man by God to protect and respect. Water deserves such respect, because it is one natural feature that predates creation, Asani said. In the Quran, it is written that the “throne of God rests upon waters.” The Islamic tradition teaches that water sustains life — and life originated from water.

“All living things, including humans, were created from water,” Asani said. “Water is indispensable to Quranic descriptions of heaven. The rivers there provide fruit and life for its inhabitants, similar to rain in the mortal realm.”

Almost every description of heaven, paradise or Eden within the Islamic tradition is characterized by an abundance of water, Asani said.

“Water is almost always a positive force in the Quran and might be contrasted with fire — the connotations of which are almost always negative.”

Though water is characterized in a positive light, the Quran does not ignore its destructive and powerful nature. For example, the story of Noah and the flood illustrates the connection between the divine, power and water. Additionally, the story of the egotistical pharaoh of Egypt shows the true authority of God over water and sources of water, Asani said.

In the story of the pharaoh, the ruler claimed that the force and root of his power sprung from his control of water. Later in in the story, that same pharaoh was ruined by water and forced to submit to God, Asani said.

One of God’s most prominent characteristics in Islam is his mercy. In many parts of the sacred texts, rain signifies divine mercy. The prophets are connected to the idea of mercy, and in the Quran, Muhammad is told, “and we God, did not send you except as the mercy to the world,” Asani said. Muhammad’s title is often translated to mean a mercy of the world, Asani said.

“In one Hadith, Muhammad compares himself to rain in that both his prophetic knowledge and the rain, stem from God. He adds that just as rain affects different soils differently, so too his message affects people in distinct ways,“ Asani said.

Mohsin Kakorvi, a well-known Muslim poet who wrote in Urdu, once compared the Prophet to a raincloud that showered grace onto earth, Asani said.

In the Muslim tradition, there are also many recorded experiences where the Prophet Muhammad performed miracles associated with water. In one instance, it is written that during a time of drought, a Bedouin asked the prophet to call on the Lord to provide rain. Muhammad reached to the empty, cloudless sky and drew water; so much came for days on end that it almost flooded. The water did not stop until Muhammad called on God to stop it, Asani said.

In other stories from the Hadith, it says that water would pour from Muhammad’s fingers for ablution. It is written that at one time, after performing his own ablution with little water, he created enough water for an army of hundreds of men, Asani said. Stories of miracles with water paralleled stories of other prophets and water, Asani said.

“Establishing a connection with prophets of the old would have been important for Muhammad, who emphasized the continuities between his prophethood and that of his predecessors, specifically Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus.”

The Hadith, a collection of insights about Muhammad’s life that reflect and clarify the teachings of the Quran, contain many practical instructions pertaining to water use and consumption, Asani said. Some laws are complex, but the general rule or understanding is that large bodies of water, such as vast seas or rivers, are considered to be unlimited sources, and thus the property of the entire community with sole authority over them resting with God, Asani said. Smaller bodies of water are controlled by whoever controls the source.

Water is a fundamental aspect of Islamic rituals connected to prayer. Cleansing rituals with water must be performed before entering into a state of prayer. Though if water is unavailable, a substitute of sand or another substance may be used, Asani said.

“The idea is that you’re symbolically cleaning your body from the outside before you enter prayer, and purify it from the inside,” Asani said. “In the Hadith, the purity of water metaphorically reinforces the purity of prayer.”

In later writings by Islamic poets, the spiritual significance of water was emphasized by its connection to creation and our human origins.

Another teaching of the Hadith is that water must be used conservatively. Even in the ablution process of the Muhammad, moderation and conservative use of water was stressed. It is written that Muhammad used less than one liter for his own ablution, Asani said.

“In one Hadith, the prophet commands followers: ‘do not waste water even if performing ablution along the bank of a vast flowing river,’” Asani said.

Though water must be conserved and used moderately, the Hadith also stresses that it must be shared.

“Withholding water from a traveler is identified as one of but three sins that God cannot forgive on judgment day,” Asani said. “Other Hadith tell of a woman who was sent to hell for refusing to give water to her cat. And of a prostitute whose sins were forgiven because she gave water to a thirsty dog.”

Water plays an extremely important role in the writings and work of mystical Islamic poets. The associations the poets make are similar to themes in the Quran and Hadith, but because they wrote at a later time and lived in different geographic regions, their writings added new associations to water. Water became a metaphor for God, the soul and knowledge, Asani said. Mystic writers would often compare water to divinity itself, Asani said. The ocean became inextricably attached to God through the writings of three well-known Islamic poets: Ibn Arabi, Hafez and Rumi.

Ibn Arabi described God and divinity as a green sea, Hafez described the heavens as a vast ocean, and Rumi explored waves as metaphor for the soul, Asani said.

“Hafez wrote of the ocean in similarly abstract terms, telling of the fear of the wave, of those who sail upon the ocean, or more precisely, those who brave the mystical journey to transform themselves and become one with the ocean of the divine,” Asani said.

Rumi’s work was influenced by the story of the day of Alast, a primordial time when all souls were connected in the presence of God.

The idea of raindrops, falling to the earth and immersing themselves in the vast waters only to be drawn back up to the sky, captivated mystic poets, because they saw how this journey reflected the journey of the human soul, Asani said.

“In popular tradition, a rain drop was thought to eventually return to the ocean or turn into a pearl,” Asani said.

That describes a soul that must leave God, mature in the world and then return to its place with God.

Muhammad Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan, built on that idea, saying that “the pearl lives and breathes in the ocean of the divine surrounded by it, and yet distinct from it,” Asani said.

The vastness of the ocean was often used as a metaphor for vast knowledge, both divine and human. Today in the Muslim world, the ocean is still a metaphor for impressive areas of human achievement, Asani said.

“It is common in the Arab world to liken Arab literature to a vast ocean,” Asani said. “Though a reader might swim in it, enjoy a beautiful view of it or be defeated by it, none can hope to fully master it.”

In the Quran, there are references to the “confluence of the two oceans,” Asani said. One river is sweet, the other is salty, and they cannot mix. Certain scholars say this refers to the meeting of two areas of knowledge: pre-Islamic knowledge and Islam. Another understanding is that the meeting of the rivers refers to the meeting of Hinduism and Islam.

Dara Shikoh, the son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, expanded that area of study. He saw similarities between mystical Islamic works and Vedantic thought. Shikoh translated Indian texts, the Upanishads, from Sanskrit to Persian, so Muslims could study them.

During Thursday’s lecture, Asani explored the character of Khidr. Khidr is considered to be a holy and immortal man who guides prophets. He is also associated with water — he controls rivers, he lives on a green carpet that rests upon the oceans. In some Islamic traditions, it is said that there is a spring that provides immortal life; the only person that can lead people to the spring of the water of life is Khidr.

“In hagiographies, Khidr’s immortality and wisdom enabled him to act as a mentor to other prophets and prominent figures, a relationship that became a paradigm for student-mentor relationships so central in mystical Islam,” Asani said.

“The water of life, like all water, is a divine and merciful gift that provides humanity with a means to live,” he said.

“The arduous search by Khidr and his disciples for a fabled fountain of water, the water of immortality, presented an apt allegory for the Mystic’s quest for experiential knowledge of God,” Asani said.

Water in Islam emphasizes the unity of all God’s creations. All living things, though diverse, are connected through water. The Quran and the Hadith point people to a compassionate source that provides water that physically nourishes and provide prophets, who spiritually nourish humanity, Asani said.

Fundamentally, water represents limitless knowledge of God, he said.

In the final minutes of his lecture in the Hall of Philosophy, Asani told the story of Khidr and Moses. Once while traveling together, Khidr and Moses saw a small bird drinking from a stream.

“As his mentor, Khidr thought it fit to remind Moses, ‘my knowledge and your knowledge together are to God’s knowledge like the water the swallow drinks is to the vast ocean.’”