In Praise of the Marginal, Chapter 43, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

“And from the outskirts came a man running who said, ‘Oh, my people, obey the Messengers, obey those who ask you for no reward and who are rightly guided’” (36:20). From the outskirts, from the enormity of marginality, I find meaning.


I call You and You hear my call, and I find meaning. I call unto others, and I am ignored, and in that is all the meaning. My thoughts are like the drizzle of rain before the storm, its generosity is its restraint. These thoughts are like the generosity of the dawn before the searing sun. They are like the generosity of warmth before the scorching of the smoldering heat. Yes, in the restraint of marginality, there we find the full meaning.


Don’t you see that in the restraint of virginity, in the restraint of modesty, in the restraint of the whisper in the ear of the beloved, in the restraint of the hesitant gaze, in the restraint of the soft touch, in the restraint of the diminutive kiss, in the restraint of the demurring prayer, in the restraint of the diffident thought, in the restraint of the judicious word, in the restraint of a timorous love, in the self-conscious bashfulness of beauty, you will find the unrestrained and full meaning?


Have you seen the restraint of this Conference, have you noticed its tenacious marginality? Have you heard the marginality of the distant melody? Have you compared the subtlety and tranquility of beauty to the rambunctiousness and restiveness of ugliness? Have you compared the equivocations of life to the decisiveness of death? Have you noticed the resonance of life compared to the finality of death? Have you compared the marginality and richness of life to the utter poverty of death?


My God, in marginality I am alive, and in marginality I find myself. Your centrality and the marginality of all else is but a reminder that through restraint and humility we will find ourselves. Every marginality is but a taste of the truth to come, that the temporal bliss of life is but a glimpse of the eternal ecstasy of the Divine.


God, I have stood before the solemn pleasures of life. All its trappings, all its enticements, all its delusions have defied my sense. If the pleasures of life are meaningless, then I would have found meaning in death. The questions simmer and gurgle in my head. Is the eruption of arrogant pleasures simply a tedious test? Can the marginality of worldly pleasures carry a meaning beyond itself? Are the marvels of creation but a vanity seeking absolution? If the melody from majestic chords is just a test, then why does it console the torrents of the tormented self? If the gaze upon the soul of purity is a delusion, then why does it absolve the agony of sins? If the ecstatic tremor in the presence of a bashful beauty is a sinful omission, then why does it pacify the recalcitrant heart? If the liberation of the soul at the moment of intoxicating union is but a passing vanity, then wouldn’t virtue set us apart? If every blissful gift is either a test or an indulgence, then what is the meaning of beauty, and what is the meaning of love?


God, considering Your centrality, what is the meaning of all else? But it is the marginality of this Conference that has interspersed the moments of elucidation in this aching head. The marginality of this Conference is the guarantee of its humility; the insight of this Conference is the taste of the enlightenment to come. God, You promised us the bliss of the heavens of unadulterated enlightenment. But your justice necessitates that we experience the marginal as a taste of the truth to come. In the omens and joys of this earth, in the clouds that warn of the rage of thunder, we experience Your blissful mercy despite our unabashed plunders. Yes, the marginal is but the messenger of grace concealed in the distance between meaning and vanity.


I realize that when we touch, when we gaze, and when we love, it is but a taste of a potential ecstasy. Even the union in marriage is an experience of Your unity. You are all the potentials fully realized and the marginal is but an unfulfilled potentiality. If we experience the pleasures of this earth as a venture into the Divine, then this life is no longer a vanity. What a melody, beauty, or love teaches us is the potentiality only found in the Divine of utter happiness and unfettered ecstasy.