The Value of Water in Faith Traditions
The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
March 8, 2012
On this, the 101st International Women's Day, I would like to applaud a very important woman whose commitment and steadfastness inspired me as a Muslim woman today. Hagar, the slave of Abraham who gave birth to Ishmael, Abraham's first son was left alone in a desolate valley in what is now the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Alone in the blistering heat her son was thirst and Hagar desperately began looking for water. She pleaded to God to help her find water and ran between two hills looking for this life giving sustenance for her son. God heard her plea and sent angel Gabriel who took the tip of his wing and struck the ground where water gushed out. That well of Zam Zam is stil pouring out water in one of the most holy places in Islam called Mecca. Muslims who visit the Kaaba drink this water and bottle it so they can carry it back to their own countries.
In Islam, water is the medium of creation, and Islam ascribes the most scared qualities to water. Water is life-giving, sustaining and purifying resource. It is the origin of all life on earth, and the substance that created man. And it is He who has created from water a human being and made him [a relative by] lineage and marriage. And ever is your Lord competent [concerning creation] (Qur'an 25:54).Water is the primary element that existed even before the heaven's and the earth did. The throne of God is even sits upon water, "And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days - and His Throne had been upon water (Qur'an 11:7). Water here represents the pure receptivity with which God creates the Cosmos. It is what mystics call the "Breath of the All Merciful". It is also a symbol of the mercy we all receive in being given the very chance to exist. We are each unique, a different, ripple in the water of God's mercy. It is the most spiritual of blessings. It formlessness and other worldly qualities should evoke the memory of God with every sip. Looking at the vastness of the ocean is a way to remember the vastness and the greatness of the Almighty God.
The great Muslim Mystic, Ibn al-Arabi likened this to the Womb. The Arabic word for womb, riham, is related to the word for mercy, rahma. The womb, is synonymous with the Breath of God, and the waters, is the medium within which we have all come to be. The womb represents the beginning, nourishment and new life that is given to us all through God. When a child is born they are pure and their purity is represented by water which surrounds them inside their mothers womb. After a child is born they are cleaned in a tradition known as "guhsul" which means "renewal". This renewal, when is also performed when a Muslim dies to invoke a remembrance of where we came from and where we are going. Even when it rain we must consider it as a blessing for it is a sign of mercy and a form of purification.
In the Islamic tradition the performance of ablution is very crucial. Prayers cannot begin without first washing one's self. It is a constant remembrance of our origins and brings us back from the worldly realm into a sacred space, where they are prepared to speak with their Lord. When a person converts to Islam they perform the act of purification known as "wudu". It is like a rebirth which returns a person back to their state of purification as a newborn child. When performing ablution each part to the ritual has a specific meaning and significance.
The first step in the process is to wash the hands. Washing the hands is wash away from all worldly affairs. While washing the hands the words, "In the name of God the most Generous and the most Compassionate." are recited. Washing of the face represents our orientation. We should always be facing towards God, "Brighten my face with your Light". The right arm is washed and the right arm while you repeat, "Let me hold my book (of deeds) in my right hand" and the left hand is then washed while repeating "and not in my left hand".. When the head is washed you are showering your head in the benevolence of the Lord. It is a representation of humility and protection from God. It's admitting that God is your master and you are the servant. At the end the right foot is washed followed by the left. "Let me walk upon the path that leads to you (the right foot) and no the path that keeps me astray (left foot)".
While conversion is like new life, and ablution is a constant reminder and purification of a person during their daily lives; purification is also performed at the end of a Muslims life. Ghusul is performed on every deceased Muslim and is to clean them so they may enter the afterlife in a state of Purity. In the afterlife according to the Qur'an, Paradise is full of water. There are numerous references to cooling rivers, fresh rain, and fountains of flavored drinking waters in the gardens of Paradise. The blessed people, who are allowed to enter, restore their lost youth in the "Fountain of Life". In Paradise people can take any form, like that of a bird, or be formless like water. In these otherworldly states they become receptive and free to such a degree that they are able to see the face of God. Even Hell will experience water. The Prophet Muhammad, al nabi (pbuh), said "A day will come when water will grow in the deepest valley of hell," signifying even those in hell will experience mercy.
This divine element, water, is so precious. We need to maintain it and give it the respect that it deserves. In our effort to save, protect and purify water it helps save, protect and purify our own spirits. Human beings are made from water so we need to show respect and at the same time respect our divine source. Finally, it is important to remember water is a gift that has been given, and not a right that we deserve.
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