Drawings for Merciful (Ar-Rahim)

Drawings for Merciful (Ar-Rahim)

99 Names Project Introduction (Part 2)

I am a Christian.  My father was an engineer, my mother was an educator, and my Christian upbringing was, evidently, rather non-traditional.  Rather than take things at face value or believe unequivocally what we were told, my brothers and I were taught that the Creator was a Being of reason; this meant we were expected to question, research, and trust the Holy Spirit as a guide to learning.  We were also taught that no one can be saved in willful ignorance, and that God expected us to learn as much as we could.  As a result of this upbringing, I realized I had to honestly and earnestly learn about the group which was the object of this fear.

Learning about Islam is not difficult, but creating a practical methodology for research is very important.  When researching belief systems or religions source documents are crucial, and being careful and critical about secondary sources is vital.  The Qur’an is best in the original language, Arabic, but this is not one of the languages in which I can read.  However, I found an English version translated by a scholar, Dr. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, who included in footnotes context and history surrounding the revealed text–a version I made sure was accepted and endorsed by a wide array of Muslim clergy and scholars.  When using websites and supporting writings for research, it became quickly apparent that material was most useful when written by scholars and writers who did not announce active antagonism towards any group.  It seemed appropriate also to seek out ordinary Muslims and Muslim leaders comfortable answering the questions of an ignorant, round-eyed (albeit sincere) Westerner.

I learned a few surprising things immediately.  First, Islam is one of the three Abrahamic traditions which include Judaism and Christianity; a primary impetus for Mohamed to seek Divine guidance was his desire to heal the cultural rift between these two other faiths.  Second, almost every one of the 114 chapters in the Qur’an begins with an invocation to God as the Merciful and Compassionate–startling if the religion in question systematically taught hatred.  Also, the people I contacted were chosen more or less at random and they were all–regardless of where in the world my email found them–pleasant, considerate, and eager to answer my questions.  And the principles of faith I discovered shared among all the Muslims contacted mirrored my own:  love of family, hope for the future, and a desire to build a better world.

As an artist trained in traditional western stained glass techniques, my inclination is towards constructive resolution and not confrontation.  During the process of overcoming and healing my own ignorance, I determined to create a journal of the ongoing journey and share it with whomever cared to look–that journal took the form of glass sculpture.  After initial forays, it seemed appropriate to apply more structure to the exploration of this other faith; at this moment in my studies I discovered the tradition of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God.

Remarkably, although the tradition of these 99 Names is specific to Islam, They have universal resonance.  Religious traditions hold the Creator as an infinite Being comprehensible only through allusion, comparison, and allegory–and this comprehension is only truly helpful when accompanied by the medium of the Divine Spirit.  As with concepts like Buddhism’s Eight Fold Path or Christianity’s Beatitudes, the 99 Names are something of an index to help develop an appreciation for those principles which are included in the Divine.  Names like The Compassionate and The Merciful (Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim) are both reminders of what humans need to emulate to become better beings, and the reality that these concepts begin, end, and are defined by their Divine Source.  Exploring the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God provides a tangible framework for exploring Islam, and their universal nature gives a common foundation for personal growth.

Two principles in Islam are reflected in many faiths and particularly in my own so have been guides during the process, Order and Openness.  God is a Being of structure and order–this is shown through rules of nature, laws of physics, and in relation to humans, the Ten Commandments.  God is also a Being of freedom and growth–although the principles of good living are provided in paths of faith, how each unique individual applies them is also unique in each individual’s life.  An expression of how these two concepts work together in the natural world is shown through the organic growth of plants:  although leaves branch off a common stem following Fibonacci’s sequence, the precise mathematical evaluation of the branching applies to the aggregate of growth; each particular sample is unique.  These two principles are applied to the art process by prayerfully establishing rules for construction (what materials to use, which colors, etc.) and trying to remain open for the organic deviations which accompany inspiration and events beyond my personal control.  (Continued…)