Photography by Hawkinson Photography
This is a cube set on its corner, truncated so each side forms an octagon. The beads on each face hold a small octahedron suspended in the center, and inside the octahedron is a tiny wire-close canning jar which preserves a miniature date palm tree.
One concern which continually resurfaces during discussions of faith or belief in higher powers can be summed up in the phrase “if God loves His creatures, why do we suffer?” When bad things happen to good people, does God hide His face? If God truly is all powerful and our Guardian, why does He not protect us from miserable things – or worse yet, is He unable to? These questions and others similar to them danced in my head and echoed in my ears as I meditated on the meanings of Al-Muhaymin.
In the movie “Shadowlands,” Sir Anthony Hopkins portrays one of my very favorite writers, C. S. Lewis. The title refers to Mr. Lewis’ discussions of our perpetual state of dissatisfaction – we wait to be happy until we are surrounded by light, telling ourselves “all will be wonderful when this happens, or this, or that” and we place ourselves in a state of forever-unrealized hope. We live on the verge of happiness, dwelling in the shadows. His character in the movie gives several presentations about why bad things happen to good people, while he himself travels the path of finding a family, finding love, and discovering deep and tremulous pain; and he himself is forced to confront that same questions head on, without the leisure of theoretical contemplation.
If God loves us, why do we suffer? I believe there is an answer, and like everyone else I am still finding it. “This is a matter of perspective,” I was told by an imam. “If we lose ourselves in the present, the pain and loss are overwhelming – and of course a loving Creator would not want us to hurt any more than the most loving of parents. But when we allow ourselves to open into a larger view, which may take years and miles to do, we find how that pain or trauma allowed us the opportunity and motive to become more the creature we were meant to be. The kindest, most gracious people we know are usually those who have seen it all and been through everything.”
God does protect – there are many, many stories of miracles where people and special things were protected through amazing circumstances. But this Name speaks to me on a slightly different level. As Archbishop Tutu says, God created us not because He had to, but because He wanted to – and He is constantly aware of our individual journeys to become the creatures we were designed to be. We are also created to be eternal beings; the promise of Paradise or Heaven is everlasting and the experiences of this life are only drops in the bucket of forever. So the horrible things, the trauma, heartache and suffering are moments or flickers in lives that will continue until after the stars burn to cinders. This doesn’t lessen the pain, but it helps me to get a glimmer of how it may become bearable. The Guardian protects the embers of our souls from all those things we won’t find the internal strength to bear, from all those things from which we won’t learn and can’t recover, and begs us to reach out to Him for the power to continue – He knows we will make it, and is continuously present to help us through the pain.
The eight-sided structure is used in architecture to bridge the cube structure of the earth-bound building with the arching dome of the heavens; in Christian architecture it is a symbol for the bridge of Christ between humans and Heaven, and in Islamic architecture is symbolizes the bridge of the Qur’an between mortals and Paradise. Each octagon face is covered with a tracery of abstract vegetal design, using traditional plants in early Islamic medicine for health, healing and metaphysical protection. The octahedron is the Platonic solid for the element of air and is used as a physical structure holding the canning jar – in a similar way to our awareness that even though we may not be able to grasp the reality of God’s protection, it is still completely present and very real. The canning jar preserves and keeps things fresh, and the date palm symbolizes the human being – on the one hand very much in need of protection as all living things, and on the other capable of growing into something tall, powerful and majestic. It is a reminder, too, that from the tiny seedlings that are the start of all trees, Muhamed built the first open-air mosque; from that humble beginning, the trees of that first mosque are symbolized in the support columns of every mosque after.
By the smallest and weakest of things – be it a tree or a human being – great and wonderful things are brought into reality. The protection of the Guardian isn’t proof against pain, but provides the strength to live through the pain and grow into the amazing creatures we were meant to be.