Wherever water flows, life flourishes:
wherever tears fall, Divine mercy is shown.
–Rumi (Mathnawi 1:817-820, tr. Helminski)
In desert environments, water sources are treasures and oases are havens. I tried imagining the terrifying hopelessness of being lost in an endless wasteland of burning sand, then the utter relief of topping a small rise and discovering a beckoning pool of cool water. I’m more familiar with the imagery of the woman at the well in the New Testament, offered the Living Water by Christ; the stark contrast between the harsh and unforgiving landscape of hopelessness and the utter relief of a saving oasis gives this metaphor many more layers of depth and meaning.
The woman is looking for truth, and Christ delivers it; all of us are looking for a path to free us from the pains and heartache of day-to-day living and the consequences of our own poor decisions, and Al-Basit delivers. Rumi’s reflection shows the readiness of our Creator to deliver, “wherever tears fall, Divine mercy is shown.”
What kind of relief is given, how is the mercy shown? Visiting with Imams and other Muslim friends, there is an undercurrent of an idea informing the Muslim view of adversity which ties directly to an appreciation for God as Opener, Al-Fattah. Yes, miserable things can happen – we lose a job, a family member passes, we get sick – however, every door that is closed in our life gives opportunity for another door to open. And this new door opening is exactly what we need at that moment. This concept enriches our understanding of Al-Basit because it helps us understand that Divine Relief is not just to ease pain and cool the burning, but is actively opening new and positive opportunities of experience and growth. The relief is an active and energetic healing, as if after an operation the doctor says, “Not only will this fix your old illness, but now you can do all these new things, too.”
For this sculpture I was drawn to medicine cabinets and oases. The back of the cabinet is etched with a stylized acanthus leaf. Much of the Western United States was settled by pioneers kicked out of every decent place back East and overseas, so families with all their meager worldly possessions and supplies crossed vast reaches of harsh, unrelenting landscape with no hope in sight. When a stand of cottonwoods was seen in the distance, it was taken as a sign of Divine Providence because the cottonwoods marked a much-needed water source. The acanthus leaf is also an ancient symbol associated with Divine Benevolence. In the Arabian Peninsula where Mohamed was born, no natural open water source remains all year round; the acanthus grows above water sheltered by a layer of sand, so a traveller parched and dying of thirst saw the acanthus as a sign that his Creator was mindful of his dire situation and wanted him to live.
A seven-pointed star is also etched into the back. This particular star is shared by many faith cultures, and also resonates through the ancient sciences. For alchemists, the heptagram represented the seven heavenly bodies, the seven metals, the seven energy centers of the human body (many Eastern cultures referred to these as chakras) and other sets describing the functioning of the observable world. One point I particularly enjoyed learning is while Western alchemists used changing base matter into gold as a metaphor for personal growth and development, Muslim alchemists also saw as the ultimate goal of their work to produce the Panacea, or the perfect medicine to heal all ills. The vial contains burn ointment, which I made with alchemical techniques using a medieval recipe, and sealed with beeswax.
The date palms on the floor of the cabinet represent a cooling oasis filled with the Living Water, and the doors and sides are covered with stylized floral imagery to remind us of the vibrant growth and bounty in Paradise. Originating from within a desert environment, this kind of vegetal imagery used in Islamic work even further underscores the rich, endless vitality of Heaven. The door pulls are brass beads looking like petroglyphs of the sun. Whenever I think of how to symbolize the true timelessness of Divine things I realize the futility – how to appropriately express that God and His works are before and throughout all time, that time as we appreciate it has no bearing for an Infinite Being? Seeing petroglyphs around the world fills me with a sense of my own mortality, and makes me aware that however important I think my life may be, it will be less than a mere blink in the history of the universe (and God is still aware of it!) – using the petroglyphs doesn’t do justice to the timeless nature of Divinity, but alludes to it.
Burn ointment and an oasis – what every wandering soul needs to find relief.