If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good. (4:19)
Once upon a time, there was a sister in my weekly women’s Qur’anic study group. A very dear sister, generous and warm and abundantly loving. And loud. She hadn’t quite mastered the aya, “...and lower thy voice, for the harshest of sounds without doubt is the braying of the ass.” 31:19. She made one of herself; no - she made one of the rest of us - in her unbridled enthusiasm.
She had a tendency to blurt things out without waiting for an appropriate moment, without stopping to consider the sensibilities of those present, nor the fact that a bit of information may have been shared in,you know, confidence.
Yes: She was fine. She was pure and uninhibited and swept up in her passion for Allah, Islam, and the ummah. She disgorged classified data only for the purest reasons in hopes of helping another, a sister present who may have had a similar problem, who could have benefited from a bit of information which the rest of us, terminally well-bred and rather rigid about our abad, refused to share.
It was then that the above mentioned aya really got my attention. As literal as I was (was!) at the time in my interpretation of Qu’ran, Allah had blessed me with sufficient sense to recognize relevance when it slapped me across the face. No matter that the verse in question pertained to a situation between husbands and wives; after all, isn’t the family the primary unit, the microcosm of Islamic society? Isn’t it structured to teach us a whole dizzying range of lessons like it or not?
In this case, Allah, in His inimitable way, confronted me with the simplest, yet most profound, of questions: Was I willing to sacrifice this sister’s warmth, her passion for her fellow Muslims, for humanity, for a little WASP-ish (OK, WASM-ish) restraint? Could it be that, through this trait which made me uncomfortable, He wished to show me that it was I who needed to change, to become more flexible, more spontaneous, less externally motivated? Could it be that her shortcomings were inextricably intertwined with her virtues in a delicate symbiotic relationship?
From this incident evolved what I’ve come to see as a theory. That’s right: a theory. From this seething mass of gray matter. I know it’s a frightening notion; seek refuge in Allah from sister Karima’s cerebellum…
But, it works, this Theory of Symbiotic Vice and Virtue. “...ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good.” A thing - not a person. A gritty, irritating thing through which Allah often brings forth the most spectacular of pearls. Eliminate the negative and you’ll deform or kill the positive. Remove the cancer and you’re likely to lose the patient.
It’s not always easy to live a life governed by the Law of Symbiotic Vice and Virtue. For one thing, one must be resigned to a rather compartmentalized social circle. Don’t expect those you love to be crazy about each other; indeed, they may find your taste in friends (with the sole exception of themselves, of course!) rather questionable.
“It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up to the Moon, nor can the Night out-strip the Day: each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to law).” 36:40
Just swimming along, each doing its own thing in its own perfect way. Were one to apply the others’ standards to itself, the entire universe would be thrown off balance. Had human minds designed either sphere, many apparent flaws would have no doubt been eliminated. And, neither would have worked.
This is the strength we must have, knowing where to draw the line between correction and improvement and appreciating the strange and wondrous design of our Creator. Particularly as Muslims living in the US, amidst such a diverse community, we must simply learn to marvel at one another, appreciating our differences with unconditional love.
Perhaps, that is one of the reasons the Qur’an gives us such a strong, yet basic outline of morality, with (to the latent fundamentalist lurking in my heart!) an appalling deficiency of “don’ts!” Qur’an gives us ample room in which to roam, wide pastures fenced in by a Shariah of common sense. Within that vast space, we’ve plenty of grazing room - room for diversity, for mistakes - for shortcomings to take on the color of perfection.
“And among His signs is…the variations in your languages and your color; verily in that are Signs for those who know.” 30:22
Languages and colors - some languages are spoken without words; many colors manifest through personality, through gestures, through flaws. Herein lies the wonderful, almost overwhelming splendor of life, of Allah’s creation for those who, with the heart, truly know.
Originally published in The American Muslim, Winter 1992. Karima passed away some years ago, and those of us who knew her miss her and her wit.