A Night with the Qalam, Chapter 34, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

This voice is liberated in this majestic Conference. Realizing its irresolute ignorance, it hopes to be delivered from its resistance. It hopes to be delivered from its impedance and stubborn ignorance. The Conference of the Books is the sublime voice of our very existence. It reflects our silly pattering, our sad confusions, our melancholy delusions, and the jubilant moments of perception. The voice of the Conference flows from the voice of God, a voice searching for its originator, its mentor, its most omnipotent guide. When is a person more free than when a person seeks to be free? A person who does not seek is drowning in the morbidity of his meaningless existence. A person who fancies himself to have become absolutely free becomes enslaved to the delusion of a self-proclaimed divinity.


I don’t know if he visits me in reality or in a dream. I also don’t know if there is a precise divide between what we imagine and what is real. I don’t know if these voices, these images, these visions, and what I proclaim to be events, are real. Perhaps he is one of my friends who, long ago, was devoured by savages. Perhaps he is the echo of my defiant father or the impression of my unfailingly upright mother. Perhaps he reverberated from the torment of so many martyrs or he resonated from the supplications of so many believers throughout the years. Could he be the reflection of that most generous smile of Hasan ‘Abd al-Ghani who survived the dungeons of Egypt and the war in Palestine, but succumbed to cancer? Perhaps he was there with the Qurra’ of Medina who were infatuated with the Qur’an, or perhaps he helped inspire the two hundred volumes of Kitab al-Funun by Ibn ‘Aqil (d. 513/1119). Maybe he was burned to ashes on the first day of December 1499 when Christian soldiers in Toledo gathered the contents of one hundred and ninety-five Muslim libraries and torched them.


Perhaps he is the truth that remains regardless of the words that are uttered. Perhaps he is the qalam—the qalam by which God taught humans what they knew not (96:4-5). “Nun, by the qalam wa ma yasturun; by the grace of your lord you are not mad” (68:1-2). Perhaps nun is the ink, the qalam is the pen, and yasturun is what people write. But perhaps nun is God’s infinite and unreachable knowledge, the qalam is the intellect, and yasturun is what people conceive of and construct. While the pen or the intellect is the invariable truth and the unassailable reality, the product of the pen or intellect is a construct—a construct that exists between fact and fiction, a construct that is imagined and real. Everything relative has the status of the in-between.


He appears at those moments of confusion and frustration when I miss the kind blissful face of my mentor, when the feeling of marginalization and abandonment becomes overwhelming, or when the alienation from my people becomes distinct and profound. He appears when I am exiled from the Conference or when the petty envy of petty people forces an exile upon me. He appears in the aftermath of an immorality or to contain an eruption of ugliness.


My friend, there is an imam who destroyed one hundred copies of a book (which happened to be The Authoritative and the Authoritarian) with which he disagrees. The imam, in a monotone voice of presumptuous piety, declared that the ends justify the means. My friend, a Muslim cab driver, refused to give a blind woman a ride because of her seeing-eye dog. He focused on the desecration of the dog, and ignored the desecration of ignorance and cruelty towards a fellow human being. My friend, can you believe that the misogynistic work entitled Islamic Fatawa Regarding Women is a best-seller? Shouldn’t it more accurately be called Fatawa Against Women?


Self-declared scholars declare the law of God to be whatever they want it to be, dictators are the teachers of democracy, and egoists endlessly preach that God is supreme.


Traveling among Muslims, such are the labors of the day and the burdens of the night. So vast is our plight that the promise of a new dawn is nowhere to be seen. How could Islam co-exist in a Muslim’s heart with the ugly and obscene? Where is the qalam? What is the manifestation of the qalam? What is its essence? What does it mean?


In the hymns of the night, my friend permeates my soul and reminds me that, as long as the question is asked, hope is never lost. “The essence of the qalam is in your essence,” he says. “You have the qalam in you, and this enticement should lead you to think. The manifestation of the qalam is the profound declaration, “You are of an exalted moral character” (68:4). The true manifestation of the qalam is in the proper moral character nurtured by an intuitive sense of decency and right. What did those who are at a far distance from the qalam do? They do not hearken to the truth, they falsely promise and pronounce the oath, they slander and malign, they transgress the bounds, and they are harsh and cruel (68:10-13).


What does God command other than ihsan? And, ihsan is derived from the word hasan, which means the good, proper, and beautiful. Those who transgress the bounds and are cruel are marred in arrogance, for they speak without the knowledge of the book, and they presume that a divine covenant or promise has made them favored in the eyes of the Lord (68:37-9). It is spiritual arrogance which corrupts the natural endowments given by God. It is spiritual arrogance which alters the natural balance and the state of justice and beauty inspired by God into human beings. The qalam, my friend, is the divinely endowed perception and cognition which guides us to what is decent, beautiful, and gentle.


The delights of the night remind me of so many encounters with writers and their thoughts. My spirit overflows with the ecstasy of the pen and the word. In a moment, I remember the inspired qalam of Ibn ‘Aqil (d. 513/1119), who once wrote:


“Observe God’s gentleness towards God’s creatures: how God has endowed them, for their own welfare, with perceptions beyond cognition, with exigencies impelling them to do what is right and to refrain from evil and corruption. For instance, God’s creation of carnal appetite, and the excitement of nature to seek sexual intercourse, which is the way of progress and the preservation of the species; of suffering, resulting from the feeling of compassion for animals, so as to refrain from engaging in causing pain to others, and to curb the assailant; and of making joy, resulting from praise – a motive for the performance of good deeds, since praise is given only for the good. To this category belong all things that remove harm and attract good. God does not allow the good to lack the motives inviting to its performance; nor does God allow the performance of evil deeds to go without taunts impeding performance. Glory be to God Whose generosity flows over with beneficence, in the knowledge that it is good and beneficial; Who wards off corruption in the knowledge that it is evil, and God can dispense with it; Who turns God’s creatures away from their courses, by various means in the here and now, as well as with God’s menaces of punishment in the Hereafter!”[1] 


[1]Quoted in George Makdisi, Ibn ‘Aqil (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1997), 235. Translation slightly changed to reflect my understanding of the original.