Lord of the Starry Heavens: Three Islamic Stories
The sage as astronomer. – As long as you still experience the stars as something “above you,” you lack the eye of knowledge. – F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §71
For a time, I lived in a Zen monastery in the Ventana Wilderness of California, a mountainous and sparsely-inhabited region several miles inland from Big Sur. The first night I was there, I went into the Zendo for evening meditation, and when I emerged and looked up, my first thought was literally that there must be some mistake. There couldn’t be that many stars.
I think the desert and its enormous night sky are essential to understanding the poetic mode of Muhammad’s revelation. The Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar described its impact on the soul in this brief story:
One moonlit night
Sheikh Bayazid, attracted by the sight
Of such refulgent brilliance, clear as day,
Across the sleeping city took his way
And thence into the desert, where he saw
Unnumbered stars adorning heaven’s floor.
He walked a little and became aware
That not a sound disturbed the desert air,
That no one moved in that immensity
Save him. His heart grew numb and gradually
Pure terror touched him. “O great God,” he cried,
“Your dazzling palace beckons far and wide –
Where are the courtiers who should throng this court?”
A voice said: “Wanderer, you are distraught;
Be calm. Our glorious King cannot admit
All comers to His court; it is not fit
That every rascal who sleeps out the night
Should be allowed to glimpse its radiant light.
Most are turned back, and few perceive the throne;
Among a hundred thousand there is one.” (1)
Certainly, Muhammad was such a one. According to an account of the Prophet (Hadith) preserved by his beloved wife Aisha, he began to travel alone to the wilderness to meditate and pray, in the middle of his life’s journey, and there he began receiving holy visions. The tradition records her account:
The commencement of the Divine Inspiration to Allah’s Apostle was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright day light, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him. He used to go in seclusion in the cave of Hira where he used to worship (Allah alone) continuously for many days before his desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food like-wise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira.
The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read. The Prophet added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists) has created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous.” (96.1, 96.2, 96.3)
Then Allah’s Apostle returned with the Inspiration and with his heart beating severely. Then he went to Khadija bint Khuwailid and said, “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him till his fear was over and after that he told her everything that had happened and said, “I fear that something may happen to me.” Khadija replied, “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your Kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones.” (2)
According to Ibn Ishaq, the most illustrious of Muhammad’s biographers, when Muhammad first emerged from the cave in the episode described above, he traveled to a nearby mountain. When he arrived at the summit he heard a voice from heaven say “O Muhammad, thou art Allah’s Apostle, and I am Gabriel!”
The Prophet continues: “I looked up and saw Gabriel in the form of a man with crossed legs at the horizon of heaven. I remained standing and observed him, and moved neither backwards nor forwards. And when I turned my gaze from him, I continued to see him on the horizon, no matter where I turned.” (3)
I love the humanity of this story, and its feverish, visionary intensity. If Buddha speaks to the divinity of persons, to awaken them to their own Buddha Nature, and if Christ speaks of his own divinity, then Muhammad speaks as a human being to other human beings; not as archetypes, or bearers of perfection, but as imperfect, and imperfectible, except through relationship to what is holy and true.
Like so many religious heroes, Muhammad took up his vocation reluctantly. He would have preferred to remain silent without teaching, like Buddha, or for the cup to pass before him, like Christ. But teach he did, and recounted his visions, which were written down by his followers and redacted into the Qu’ran. Surah LIII is entitled “The Star;” here is an excerpt:
To God belongs whatsoever is in the heavens
and whatsoever is in the earth, that He may
recompense those who do evil for what they
have done, and recompense those who have done
good with the reward most fair.
Those who avoid the heinous sins and
indecencies, save lesser offenses –
surely the Lord is wide in His forgiveness.
Very well He knows you, when He produced you
from the earth, and when you were yet unborn
in your mothers’ wombs; therefore hold not
yourselves purified; God knows very well
him who is godfearing.
Has thou considered him who turns his back
and gives a little, and then grudgingly?
Does he possess the knowledge of the Unseen,
and therefore he sees?
Or has he not been told of what is in the
scrolls of Moses,
and Abraham, he who paid his debts in full?
That no soul laden bears the load of another,
and that a man shall have to his account only
as he has laboured,
and that his labouring shall surely be seen,
that he shall be recompensed for it with the
and that the final end is unto thy Lord,
and that it is He who makes to laugh, and
that he makes to weep,
and that it is He who makes to die,
and makes to live,
and that He Himself created the two kinds,
male and female,
of a sperm-drop, when it was cast forth,
and that upon Him rests the second growth,
and that it is He who gives wealth and riches,
and that it is He who is the Lord of Sirius,
and that He destroyed Ad, the ancient,
and Thamood, and He did not spare them,
and the people of Noah before – certainly
they did exceeding evil, and were insolent –
and the Subverted City He also overthrew,
so that there covered it that which covered.
Then which of thy Lord’s bounties diputest thou?
This is a warner, of the warners of old.
The Imminent is imminent, apart from God
none can disclose it.
Do you then marvel at this discourse,
and do you laugh, and do you not weep,
while you make merry?
So bow yourselves before God, and serve Him! (4)
1) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 77.
2) Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 1:3. The Hadith Library. Retrieved April 20, 2012. http://ahadith.co.uk/chapter.php?cid=1.
3) Andrae T. Mohammad, the Man and His Faith. The Cloister Library. 1960. pp. 43-4. Quoted in Eliade M. A History of Religious Ideas; Vol. 3. The University of Chicago Press. 1985. pp. 65-6.
4) Qu’ran LIII:31-60; from Arberry AJ (trans.). The Koran Interpreted; Vol. 2. Touchstone Books. 1955. pp. 31-60.