Rumi's Circle

a community of lovers

Spirituality and the Outdoors

fairfield horseshoeIt’s all about Nature! Yesterday was Earth Day and we shared the selection below from Mevlana on our Facebook page. And this coming Saturday some friends of Rumi’s Circle will be trekking 12 miles across Fairfield Horseshoe in the Lake District to raise money for Syria through Human Appeal International. For more information on this charity appeal, see here.

We are pleased to bring you a transcript of a talk given by a dear friend of Rumi’s Circle, Dr. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, at the British Mountaineering Council: Equity Symposium held in Haworth last month. The symposium celebrated and supported ethnic minority adventure in the great outdoors. Jeremy talks about the beauty and spirituality of mother nature through the lens of faith and literature. Enjoy – and we hope to catch you rambling on the moors soon!

How many a generous rain has poured,
so that the sea could scatter pearls!
How many a sun of blessing has shone,
so that clouds and seas might learn generosity!

The sunbeams of Wisdom struck the soil,
so that earth might receive seed:
the soil is faithful to its trust—
whatever you sow, you reap.

The soil’s faithfulness comes from that Faithful One,
since the Sun of Justice shines on it.
Until springtime brings the touch of God,
the earth doesn’t reveal her secrets.

[Mathnawi I: 501-511, tr. Kabir & Camille Helminski, The Rumi Daybook]

BMC Equity Symposium, Haworth, 28-30 March 2014
Spirituality and the Outdoors by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

It is a privilege and honour to speak to you today on a subject which is very dear to my heart: Spirituality and the Outdoors, and I thank the BMC and MM most warmly for inviting me to do so.

Breaking down Barriers is a great objective, and if we are to do that, we need to bring into consciousness and deal with those barriers to participation in the outdoors which may be rooted in fixed attitudes and lifestyles linked to heritage, culture, gender, socio-economic class and the like, and all of this is of fundamental importance.

Now this is by its very nature an experiential weekend. The programme offers many practical and educational themes and activities related to physical adventure, leadership and organisational skills, better health, and personal challenge and achievement.

As a keen walker, I relish all of that myself. Having turned 65 last year, I spent an exhilarating week mountain trekking in the Pyrenees, and then walked the 180-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path in Wales, a walk which surprisingly has a total ascent of 30,000 feet (higher than Mt Everest) or an average of 2,500 feet every day over 12 days. My wife Tania and I are staying right now in our camper van on Black Moor up the road having just spent a few days walking in the Yorkshire Dales. And the week before that, I spent 3 days hiking in the spectacular Brecon Beacons in Wales. I hope I will be able to continue doing such things well into my 70’s and beyond, God willing.

But my purpose today is to shift the focus, to extend our vision of the outdoors beyond its scope for physical adventure, challenge and personal achievement to embrace what I believe is the greatest adventure of all, the spiritual adventure by which we discover ultimate meaning and purpose in our lives. For this, there is the priceless opportunity offered by immersion in the natural world to all of us of, young and old, male and female, physically active or disabled, members of faith communities or not, and whatever our ethnicity, to become more spiritually aware and by being so to become more fully human.

This awareness of the sacred, this reverence for the manifestation of the Divine in the beauty and majesty of Nature, is accessible to us in so many ways at every moment, whether in the sublime view from the highest mountain peak in the wilderness or in the haven of peace offered by a beautiful garden in the place where we live. As the title of this Equity Symposium tells us, the outdoors is for everyone, and I’d add to that the outdoors takes many forms, both great and small. Today is Mother’s Day, and I think of my 90-year-old mother whose greatest love and comfort is to sit on the little patio outside her flat, surrounded by the profusion of plants which she so lovingly tends. In Zen Buddhism, the maintenance of gardens is considered an elevated spiritual practice. Mountains may often be the sites of divine inspiration and revelation in many spiritual traditions, but is not paradise so often depicted as a garden? And there is a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad: Paradise lies at the feet of the mother. May God bless all our mothers, both with us and departed, and help us to find blessing in Mother Nature. The outdoors is not a masculine preserve dedicated solely to prodigious feats of muscularity and daring. It encompasses both the grand and the intimate, the starkly majestic and the ravishingly beautiful. In Islamic tradition, God has both majestic and beautiful names, names of severity and names of mercy, those divine attributes of perfection reflected in creation.

Now, I don’t want to give some kind of pious homily or sermon about what religious traditions say about the sanctity of the natural world, although it may be important at some point to refer to some concepts and texts within faith traditions (and I do apologize by the way in advance if I fail to give equal attention to all faith traditions or spiritual perspectives – I hope that a discussion can bring to light your own experience, and a greater vision than I could possibly encompass in a talk of this kind). I don’t think that people are necessarily inspired to change their lives, break down barriers, activate and develop the full range of their faculties and realise their full potential by being given religious texts, whether from the Qur’an, the Bible, the Torah, the Vedas, the Sutras, or any other, especially when those texts are not actually lived in any deeply experiential sense by those who repeat them for the edification of others. Many times I have heard pious repetitions of lines from scriptures, including this one from the Qur’an: And God has made the earth a wide expanse for you, so that you might walk thereon on spacious paths (71:19-20), even though the one quoting the verse may have never set foot outside city or town.

As I’ve said, this is an experiential weekend so I want to bring spirituality into the same domain. Al-Ghazali, the great 11th century Muslim educator, theologian, philosopher and mystic, said: The way to spiritual certitude (yaqin) is through tasting (dhawq), by which he meant concrete lived experience, not inherited beliefs or imitation.

I also want to connect my theme to the British context, for that is the context in which most of us will probably explore the outdoors, or at least begin our exploration of it, even if the more intrepid and adventurous may well follow the lead of some of the exemplary role-models we have amongst us here at this event to explore more distant, challenging and exotic environments. The British context also itself provides such a rich literary culture around nature and spirituality.

So let me start in the very concrete reality of the place where we are today, the South Pennine Moors, for this is of course a famous place in British literary culture, the setting for Wuthering Heights, the novel by Emily Bronte. May I ask how many of you have heard of this novel? And how many have read it, or have seen any of the film adaptations of it, including the famous one with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy? The Parsonage in Haworth just down the road, and now a museum, was the lifelong home of the Bronte family. The word ‘Wuthering’ is a provincial term describing atmospheric tumult or turbulent weather, and the moors are typically depicted as wild, bleak and desolate places, full of hazardous pits, depressions, rises and deep marshes and swamps, as well as even more hair-raising menaces. It is on Dartmoor, of course, that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson encounter the fearsome Hound of the Baskervilles. I remember well the occasion when I dragooned a Muslim friend to venture one mile with me into the wilds of Dartmoor. It was a bleak day, and he had the apprehensive look of a man who half-expected the hellish Hound to charge at him ravenously out of the mist, or for him to sink without trace into a treacherous piece of boggy ground. And I always remember that when I walked the hills and crags of the Isle of Man, my father-in-law, who was a Manx man, told me to watch out for the Moddey Dhoo, a legendary black dog with long shaggy hair and eyes like coals of fire.

But as much as the moors represent threat and menace, they are also full of mystery and mystical allure. Bleak as they may be, they are a source of inspiration and relief from the prison-like atmosphere of Wuthering Heights. To Cathy and Heathcliff, the lovers in the story, the moors exist as a supernatural, liberating region without boundaries. For them, to wander on the moors is the ultimate freedom, away from incarceration in the stifling artifice of society, with all its suffocating expectations, restrictions and conventions. The book was controversial when it was published in 1847, largely because it challenged strict Victorian conventions of the day, including religious hypocrisy, social class fixations, and gender inequality, and although society may be very different now for many of us from what is was at that time, we need to continue to ask what barriers still exist to be broken down and how individual freedom and adventure on all levels (whether physical, intellectual, inter-cultural or spiritual) can be hampered within any community.

And let us be clear that such barriers are not confined to any particular community, even if they may be stronger in some. Barriers are not always a matter of social convention or traditional cultural conditioning, but may shift with the times to encompass other impediments and restrictions. As an example, when I was discussing with a friend recently the intention of my wife and I to travel to Norway later in the year for some mountain trekking, he told me that his teenage sons don’t like going very far into the wilderness because they can’t get a wifi connection. Ouch, a whole hour or even more separated from Facebook – what torture!

Dependence on hotspots of another kind brings to mind another barrier, the result of a rather common lack of independent thinking and imagination. This is the mentality derived from books like 100 Things to Do before you Die, or 100 Places to Visit before you Die, which tell you that you’re really sad if you haven’t conquered iconic hotspots like Mt Snowdon, or met the ultimate challenge of climbing Mt Everest without oxygen, or walked on a tightrope from one hot air balloon to another at 10,000 feet and taken a selfie doing it. I remember pictures in the newspapers on August bank holiday last year of hundreds of people queuing on their way up Snowdon and at least 30 crowded on the summit, many trying to take pictures of themselves. It resembled pictures taken on Mt Everest earlier in the year of climbers crowded together as they queued for up to two and a half hours on their way up to the summit.

I walk every day on the Malvern Hills where I live, rain, shine or snow – an iconic landscape to be sure, and one which has inspired many creative people, including C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien and Edward Elgar – but the spiritual benefit does not depend on seeing some new and stupendous panorama at every turn, but resides in the simple act of going over the same ground with an open eye and heart and seeing something new in it every day. In my years of walking on those hills, I have got to know intimately the distinctive shape of every tree, and to feel the character of every foot of ground. For me, every walk there has the aura of a pilgrimage. This very talk took shape there, for there is nothing like walking for inspiration.

Let me go further now by leaping over some other common hurdles and barriers. One of the very common impediments to finding the liberating power of nature and seeing it as something fundamentally beneficent and spiritually inspiring is the crippling assumption that it is dangerous and threatening. As I said, today is Mother’s Day, so let’s celebrate that beneficent aspect of Mother Nature. But of course the media are quick to bombard us with images of mother nature at her most turbulent and destructive, as we well know from the broadcasting of the increasing eruptions of extreme weather around the world. Not only that, but there is a common trend in the media and popular culture of sensationalizing the ferocity of wild creatures. This was summed up for me the other day when prime time TV news ran a story about a great white shark which could be the first white shark to reach our shores. It was actually still a thousand miles away, but…well, look at those jaws, how terrifying.

Of course, I’m not discounting sensible preparation and proper attention to real safety issues, and I’m not suggesting that anyone should climb Snowdon in flip flops, but sadly, we live in an obsessively risk-averse society. We’ve probably all heard that a lot of schools have even banned the age-old game of conkers because of health and safety fears, or at least oblige children to wear goggles or crash helmets when they play it. I remember one rambling club somewhere up here being told by their local council that they could not undertake any country walks until they had done a full risk assessment of every inch of all their paths. Look, here’s an overhanging branch which might cause injury, there’s a pebble which someone might trip over. There is even a supposed condition labelled Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods, published in 2005. This shows how children are spending less and less time outdoors, often because of over-protective parenting, but also because of addiction to screens. The consequence is a wide range of behavioral problems, as well as a general impoverishment of cognitive and sensory faculties.

Several years ago, I wrote an article for emel Magazine (the Muslim lifestyle magazine) entitled ‘Walking in Nature: A Call to the Heart’ and I was contacted by a number of readers (and still am to this day) asking me if it was ‘safe’ to go rambling in the outdoors. I remember one young Muslim woman who emailed me to ask if she might be mugged if she did so. I asked her where she lived, and she said North London, so I replied gently that she was perhaps more likely to be mugged in North London than in the countryside.

Another enquirer asked me whether I knew of any Muslim walking clubs, because she wanted to engage in what she called ‘Islamic walking’ with other Muslims who would not expect her to go to the pub after the walk, something she assumed was the obligatory destination of non-Muslim ramblers. I really felt for her, but I had to point out to her that there was no need to Islamize the act of walking as if there were some special Islamic form of walking, and in any case there was no need to believe that it was obligatory to walk in a group as part of a single faith community.

I am not of course denying that there are real cultural and religious issues here, and I guess some of them may have been raised yesterday in one of the workshops (women-specific issues in the outdoors), but I do want to make the point that we need to extend ourselves beyond the limitations, conditions, assumptions and fears we impose upon ourselves (or are imposed upon us by sensationalist media, group-think, peer group pressure, or fixed ideas within communities) if we are to reap the inestimable rewards which await us through immersion in the natural world.

At the same time, an essential element in spiritual traditions is that of balance. The Qur’an, for example, urges the Muslims to follow the middle way, just as the Buddha taught his followers to steer between extremes. This is not the way of mediocrity or half-heartedness, but holding to the golden mean between excess and defect. Much of Islamic ethics is built on this principle. Thus, courage is the golden mean, the virtue between the vices of recklessness and cowardice. Enthusiasm is the golden mean between fanaticism and indifference. Notice that the golden mean here is not moderate interest, but enthusiasm.

I was talking earlier about the barrier of fear, whether of the unknown or of imagined dangers and threats, but we need to ask what other impediments are there to immersion in the outdoors, and the spiritual benefits which it brings?

Let me mention one in particular: the false assumption that outdoor pursuits have to be adrenaline-fuelled, time-pressured extreme sports or exploits testing the limits of human endurance.

Now, I’ve long harboured a wish myself to trek to one of the Poles (though not the South Pole in winter in temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees!) so I am not of course intending to dampen your admiration for any of the amazing exploits which we have heard about this weekend. In the same way as awesome physical and mental feats may be needed for great exploits of exploration, so there are many examples of physical privation, austerity and asceticism of varying intensity within the wilderness as elements of spiritual training and practice in many spiritual traditions. It was the regular retreat, seclusion and fasting of the Prophet Muhammad in a mountain cave near Mecca which prepared him to receive the first revelations of the Qur’an. In Hinduism, the third of the four traditional stages or ashrama of life is the stage of Vanaprastha when one’s own children have grown up, and one renounces all material pleasures, retires from social and professional life, and goes to the forest as a hermit to live a simple life of spiritual devotions. I mentioned this recently to an elderly relative, and she was concerned that such people might get eaten by tigers. Well, I replied, what’s worse – to be eaten by a tiger in the forest as we strive to reach enlightenment or to be consumed by the tiger of materialism as we tramp around shopping malls?

Then there is the tradition of Christian hermits and ascetics in the wilderness, including the desert Fathers, and monasteries on mountain-tops and other hard-to-reach places. Some Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist monks took asceticism to the limit by meditating on mountain tops in sub-zero temperatures. There is even a yoga called the ‘yoga of the psychic heat’ practised by these monks which reputedly enabled them to generate their own heat from within so that they could practise such austerities without freezing to death.

It’s also clear that many of the virtues of character developed through adventurous exploits in the outdoors may well have great value for the development of spirituality; for example, the virtue of perseverance, endeavour and patient endurance (sabr in Islamic tradition) – the famous polar explorer Shackleton’s ship was called Endurance and Captain Cook’s ship had the name of Endeavour – the virtue of intrepidity and courage, the virtue of decisive intention and aspiration (himmah), and the chivalric virtue of heroic generosity (futuwwah) which puts others before oneself.

And it’s hard not to think here of Captain Oates, a member of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911, who embodied the virtue of self-sacrifice. Afflicted with gangrene and frostbite, he walked from his tent into a blizzard, choosing certain death so as not to compromise his three companions’ chances of survival. I remember with great affection an incident recorded in a TV programme about the 190-mile Coast to Coast Walk to the north of here when the presenter Julia Bradbury encounters a walker somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales about half way through the walk. He was an 83-year-old American and was undertaking the walk for the 7th year in succession. He said, “If I should collapse, I only hope that I do not block the path.” We can see here the beautiful virtue of resignation and natural spiritual courtesy, a completely self-effacing respect for others. We tread here on the path of what is described in Islamic tradition as adab, a level of exemplary courtesy and decency which is a fundamental aspect of excellence of human character. In spiritual traditions, excellence is not simply about mastery, achievement and success, but always includes a moral and spiritual dimension.

As far as education is concerned, there is clear evidence of the benefits gained by young people through sustained exposure to the natural world. Challenging goal-directed adventure programs and wilderness experiences lead to significant improvement in problem-solving abilities, leadership skills, social skills and independence. Furthermore, research has shown that the gains of such students continued to be realised after the experience in contrast to educational programs where the learning gains fade rapidly after the programme ends.

But let’s be clear that nature education is not only about challenging adventure programmes. I remember a BBC Radio 4 programme which described a project developed by a farmer to give children a taste of country life by actively involving them in work experience on his farm. At that time he had given over a thousand children this opportunity. He said that children love the contact with the land and the animals, and above all they thrive in an environment in which they feel useful and where there is communal effort in which everyone’s contribution is valued. He said he was saddened by how “spiritually impoverished” was the life of so many young people in Britain today, and he attributed this spiritual impoverishment with their alienation from nature. In these times when sensationalized views of natural phenomena so often paint a distorted picture of nature as threatening and dangerous, it is vital that children capture a balanced, healing and beneficent vision of the natural world.

And, perhaps above all, young people benefit enormously from simple immersion in the spaciousness and tranquillity of nature without any necessary goal-directed activity. One of the recognised problems I have seen in schools and within families is too much emphasis on controlled and organised activities, and not enough on creative play which by its very nature has no definable objective. Walking with a child on the beach (and I confess at this point to having ten grandchildren so I am familiar with this kind of activity) does not have to involve the specific quantitative educational objective of collecting, identifying and naming ten different kinds of shell or pebble.

Education in nature is not about ticking boxes; it is a holistic and qualitative state of freedom and immersion through which we let the full range of our faculties unfold in a natural way. We may think of development as dependent on instruction; but if you look at the root of the word it comes from Old French des-voloper which means to unwrap or unveil. Islam has the concept of fitrah, the essential or primordial nature with which we are all endowed; immersion in nature is one of the most effective keys to unlocking that innate potential. William Shakespeare wrote: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. In other words, amidst nature our own essential nature is awakened and we understand effortlessly that we are all one human family. The famous diarist Anne Frank expresses the same thought in a different way: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”

There is far too much instruction in many educational systems, both secular and faith-based. We have a prevailing transmission of information model of schooling taking place in stuffy classrooms with all that prescribed content and that preponderance of teacher talk to deliver right answers into letter-box brains. Roland Barth, the Harvard educationalist, has a telling phrase to describe this sterile form of education: he calls it ‘Sit ‘n Git’. Let’s be aware that only 15% of students typically learn well through verbal instruction; of the other 85%, 40% are visual learners and 45% are kinaesthetic learners who learn best by doing. Getting out in nature means we can stop sitting and gitting, and start moving and seeing for ourselves. That dynamic capacity to use our senses, to observe, to stand in awe and wonder, gives us a window into the higher-order contemplative faculties which are the root and branch of spiritual development.

Another important aspect of the development of spirituality is the realisation that we cannot control everything, we cannot plan for absolutely every eventuality. Unpredictable things happen for that is the nature of reality (and how boring life would be if they didn’t). I am reminded of the native American tribe who always left an empty place in their circle of elders to honour the mysterious dimension of the Unseen, to leave space for the wisdom that comes from a higher source, to acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient. To believe we are can only foster three things: firstly, hubris, that self-sufficient arrogance which can only lead to nemesis or downfall; secondly, petulance, anger and disillusionment that our so-called perfect plans have gone awry; and thirdly, the delusion that if something has gone wrong, then someone else or something must be to blame. Robbie Burns, the Scots poet, famously said: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and there is an apt Egyptian proverb which tells us: “The camel has his plans; the Camel-Driver has His.”

One aspect of the illusion of self-sufficiency is the belief that my way is the best way, or, indeed, the only way. This is probably more typical of what one might describe as masculinism, or male authoritarianism. As an antidote to this, I have one of those fridge magnets which depicts a male gorilla and the words, “Save time – see it my way”, and another one depicting a man shouting down a megaphone and the words “My husband gives me sound advice: 99% sound and 1% advice.”

I remember one country walk with my wife Tania which says a lot about leaving the door open to different approaches. I walk fast, and I was I guess a hundred yards ahead of her climbing a hill in the Lake District when I came to one of those high stone walls. I managed to clamber over it with great effort, and, jumping down onto the other side with a sense of grandiosity I was astonished to see Tania waiting for me. She smiled wryly and pointed to…yes, an open gate a mere ten yards to my right which she had seen and ambled through while I was tackling the wall. I had not even seen it, so focused was I on walking purposefully in a straight line and tackling any obstacles head on. So spirituality in the outdoors, as indoors, includes the humility to realise that one’s own way is not always the best way, and certainly not the only way. The open heart is always a listening and receptive heart. There are many ways through the woods, and it may be the unplanned route which reveals many unexpected bounties.

The theme of following a path and finding the way reminds me that there is I think a workshop this afternoon on navigational skills and this made me think about the spiritual meaning of concepts like navigation and orientation. I recall a discussion several years ago on the BBC Today Programme which aired the concern felt by many geographers that increasing reliance on in-car navigation systems and other GPS (global positioning systems) technology was likely to lead to a further decline in map-reading skills. I even wrote an article about this for emel Magazine under the title ‘Knowing Where We Are’.

I’m often amazed by the underlying sense of disorientation in contemporary culture. And it’s not just the disorientation from that Flatlander reliance on SatNav which is sidelining our own sensory faculties and undermining map reading. Fewer and fewer people in our culture, it seems, are able to locate themselves in relation to the cardinal points of the compass and would have little or no idea how to approximate time or direction from the position of the sun. Even fewer I guess would be able to find the north star in the night sky, even if they could see the night sky, given the intensity of light pollution.

More than that, in a very real sense, physical disorientation, the chronic unawareness of environment and firmament is a metaphor for a deeper spiritual disorientation in which we lose our inner map and compass.

The concept of orientation is absolutely fundamental to spiritual traditions. In the ritual prayer, Muslims orient ourselves towards the qibla in Mecca and Christian churches are built so that the congregation faces towards the east, the orient, where the sun rises. The English word ‘orientation’ comes from Latin oriri, ‘to rise’ which also gave us the word ‘origin’. To be in a state of orientation is to face towards our divine origin, to the place of our ‘arising’, which is also the place of our ultimate return. The Greek word anthropos (human being) may well have the original meaning of he or she who looks up at the sky. Our erect posture gives us that upward vision, that higher aspiration which reaches beyond the earth to the heavens, and positions us as a bridge between the two realms. We have within us, in our fitrah, our essential nature, a Global Positioning System that gives us a true direction, shows us the way to be fully human.

Of course, this may seem far from the practical reality of learning navigational skills for outdoor pursuits, but developing the self-reliance to find our way in the outdoors, using resources and our own faculties to do so, can well be seen as a metaphor for our orientation on the spiritual path.

Now, one must include in any discussion of spirituality and the outdoors the principles and values of environmental ethics and ecological awareness, the virtue described in the Qur’an as ‘treading lightly on the earth’. Care of the environment and stewardship for future generations is absolutely germane to a spiritual vision of nature and the outdoors.

The sacred texts of Hinduism (Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and Smriti) lay great emphasis on ecology and environmental ethics and in fact contain the earliest messages for preservation of the environment and ecological balance. In this religion and philosophy, the natural world has never been considered a hostile domain to be conquered or dominated. Man is taught to live in harmony with nature and recognize that divinity resides in all elements and life-forms, including plants and animals, for all material manifestations are a reflection of the divine. This is also the basis of the beliefs and way of life of so many native peoples.

The Qur’an repeatedly clarifies that the entire universe, from the cosmos to all life on earth, exists by way of a natural balance that should not be tampered with. The Qur’an also describes the natural order as a single, living, sentient system in a constant state of reflection on the Divine Reality. Further, every life-form is described as belonging to a community, a social order, that is comparable to that of human life. The Qur’an conveys not only a sense of wonder at the beauty and majesty of nature, but inspires a deep-seated respect for the sanctity and inter-relatedness of all life. Numerous verses of the Qur’an suggest that environmental and social corruption are a consequence of human action that disrupts the self-regulating dynamic of natural balance.

The Prophet Muhammad was a pioneer in the domain of conservation, sustainable development and resource management, and one who constantly sought to maintain a harmonious balance between man and nature. He was a strong advocate of the sustainable use and cultivation of land and water, proper treatment of animals, plants and birds, and the equal rights of users. The modernity of the Prophet’s view of the environment and the concepts he introduced to his followers is particularly striking. He enjoined that the natural order should be actively protected and nurtured. Not only did he prohibit the wanton destruction of the environment through practices such as deforestation, but he also encouraged people to engage actively in greening the land as much as possible. In Medinah, he also established a historic precedent when he affirmed that sacred precincts should simultaneously be considered as nature reserves. He established several zones, protected areas of wildlife and natural resources where development, habitation, or extensive grazing were forbidden. These areas were considered public property or common lands.

There was a native American tribe whose council of elders never made any decision affecting the community without considering the welfare of the next seven generations. Yes, the next seven generations, or nearly two hundred years. Is that vision part of our contemporary political, economic and social system? I think not. The Qur’an tells us that the human being is appointed as khalifah, vicegerent of God, and this imposes upon him and her a sacred trust (amanah) which encompasses the duty to be trustworthy custodians and stewards of the earth. We do not own the earth, but hold it in trust.

Let me now come to the final stage of describing what I mean by spirituality in the context of the outdoors by an illustration from a recent discussion with a family member. Having noticed how my wife and I love to walk, and having begun to join us in a modest way in our walks in the area, he recently announced to us that he has decided to do the Three Peaks Challenge, climbing the 3 highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales (that is, Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) in 24 hours.

Of course, I expressed my approval and support for such a venture, not wanting to dampen his enthusiasm, but part of me yearned to say to him: “Why don’t you climb just one of them (avoiding Snowdon on bank holiday!) and just sit on the top in silent contemplation and awe, reflecting on the beauty and majesty of the view, and forgetting about the time pressure to rush to the next peak? Why not consider deeply and ponder (as the Qur’an continually advises) what the exquisite and awesome signs of nature tell us about the beneficence of the Creator, the wonders of the created universe, and your place within it? Why not contemplate in stillness the perfection and sublimity of the natural order, as expressed for example in the Psalms of David: The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork, or in the Qur’an:

We have built the universe with skill and power;
and truly, it is We Who are steadily expanding it.
And We have spread wide the earth—
how well We have ordered it!

To contemplate in this way is to use the organ or faculty of the creative imagination in its most sublime sense, the organ which opens a window to the Unseen, the faculty which does not just see the signs, but perceives their significance as pointing to what is beyond them, their Divine Origin. There are two books in spiritual traditions: the written book of divine revelation, and the displayed book of nature, the book that is brimming over with luminous signs which offer a continual reminder that in those signs we can see the living Presence of God in the created world. As the Qur’an tells us:

To God belong the east and the west.
Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.

In the Sikh religion, too, the entire universe is regarded as sacred. Nature is the sacred expression of the divine will, the domain to understand and contemplate the bounty of the Supreme Giver.

I like these words of the 18th century English theologian and mystic William Law: “This world,” he wrote, “with all its stars, elements, and creatures, is come out of the invisible world; it has not the smallest thing or the smallest quality of anything but what is come forth from thence.”

And the famous lines of the great English nature poet William Wordsworth also leap into mind:

…. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Mahmoud Shabistari, mystic poet of Iran, wrote: “Know that the whole world is a mirror; in each atom are found a hundred blazing suns. If you split the centre of a single drop of water, a hundred pure oceans spring forth. If you examine each particle of dust, a thousand Adams can be seen.”

And that is exactly the message of our own poet William Blake when he wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand 
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

You know, in my experience there is an inverse relationship between time and space. We live in such a frenetic and hyperactive contemporary culture, under constant pressure to do more and more in less and less time, constantly fuelled by adrenalin rushes, and one of the best ways to escape the tyranny of time pressure is to get into space. When you walk in nature, the expansiveness of space somehow dissolves time and enables you to be fully present in the moment. That physical spaciousness is like a reflection of the limitless and timeless space within our own being, at the very centre of ourselves, within our heart.

I wish for all of you with all my heart all the expansion of that inner space in the great outdoors.


Biographical note

For the past 15 years, Jeremy Henzell-Thomas has been involved in intercultural education focused mainly on trying to improve public understanding and perception of Islam in Britain and America, firstly as the Founding Chair of FAIR (Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism), then as the Founding Director of the Book Foundation, and more recently as a Visiting Fellow at the Cambridge University Centre of Islamic Studies. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Prince Alwaleed Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS UK ). He speaks and writes widely on the themes of education, society and spirituality, having written regular columns over the years for Islamica and emel magazines, and more recently for the Credo column in The Times.

He can be contacted by email at


Image: Fairfield Horseshoe by David John Ward


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This entry was posted on April 23, 2014 by in Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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