Tag Archives: muslim

Faith

28 Jun

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When I was four I was obsessed with the idea of Heaven and very interested in God. “How do you get to heaven?” I would ask my mother. “Is it by train, or by boat, or do you get to heaven by aeroplane?”. I took matters into my own hands one day with my mate, Alan when we drank bath water. In West Africa, where I grew up, this was forbidden, because it could be a sure fire way of contracting typhoid or any number of other deadly tropical diseases. I simply wanted to see how one got to Heaven.

My mother, as she recounted the incident, was at pains to put a stop to these early mystical experiments. When I asked her “Yes, but Mam WHERE is God?” she said to me: “Henkje (in Dutch ‘Little Henk) do you see your shadow on the ground?”

“Yes” I replied

“Pick it up” she said

Apparently, I bent down and tried to reach for my shadow…..”I can’t!”

“Well Henkje, God is like your shadow, He is there all the time, but you cannot pick him up or see him, He is just with you”

My mother in her infinite wisdom would happily engage me in these small philosophical discussions throughout my life sharing her rather impressive knowledge of the Bible (she was truly an Old Testament kind of girl), her understanding of other faiths and the origins of Christianity, Judaism and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Blessings be upon his name).

In this Holy month of Ramadan my Muslim neighbours are fasting. In denying themselves food and drink during the hours of daylight according to their teachings they give space in their daily lives for spiritual contemplation. I perceive that it is in what we decide to eschew, that we become closer to our God as humans. There is a rich tradition of asceticism in many of the great faiths, where pilgrims, scholars and holy people deny the flesh in order to move closer to God.

I was asked recently by a young Muslim boy whether I believed in God. I answered him thus “Well, my young friend, no man is capable of knowing everything – therefore it is impossible to deny the existence of God based upon our limited knowledge. This position is called ‘Agnostic’, it is not a belief, rather it is a set of principles based upon logic. But, every human has to have faith in order to meet the challenges of the day. I respect your faith because it gives you Peace.” He seemed satisfied with my answer, I had shown him my shadow, without asking him to pick it up.

Speaking of large shadows, I am engaged at present in the making of a big sculpture for the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield. My collaborator Mir Jansen and I are planning to exhibit the commission in January 2016. I showed her the central piece of the sculpture ( a giant steam bent oaken bower) on Friday – it was the first time she had seen it for real. She had up until that time shown great faith in my design and my ability to deliver as a craftsman.

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Here then is a sneak preview of our exercise in faith. Both of us are investing all our creative resources into producing a piece of Art that can be seen, touched, entered, contemplated and enjoyed by all, for it is a celebration of John Ruskin’s mind. Made from a single oak tree from Ruskinland, Uncly’s Farm in the Wyre Valley, donated by the Ruskin Trust – the Guild of St. George, felled and worked by myself and painted by Mir Jansen.

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Mir is illuminating many oak panels from the tree in the manner of the Old Dutch Masters – who often painted directly onto wood – creating several narrative themes from the work, ideas and legacy of John Ruskin and the Victorian era he influenced. Her panels will be hung inside the sphere, supported by steam bent oaken beams – which currently hang in my studio like the ribs of some beached up wooden whale.

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Art and Craft are coming together supported by generous donations by the Arts Council and the Millennium Gallery and the Trustees of the Ruskin Foundation – if this is not an act of great faith, I don’t know what is.

It is also a meditation on a tree and a mind.

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Ruskin’s view of God was intimately bound up with his contemplation of Nature:

“there is no climate, no place, and scarcely an hour, in which nature does not exhibit colour which no mortal effort can imitate or approach.” His thought that no mortal can convey properly the effects of nature indicates that one must contemplate the higher workings of God in Nature.

In the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (Ruskin’s contemporary):

God’ Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Prayer

8 Feb

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The other day I was asked to tutor a young muslim woman in science by her father, in order that she might achieve her career ambition of becoming a Doctor. A bright young person, she and I discussed the best way to proceed at Tea with Percie my wife’s tea shop on Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. I wanted to understand how I might help her by discovering the way in which she herself learned and understood concepts and, in particular, how she had been taught to date.

It is a very long time since I have done this and I was apprehensive – I did not want to fail them.

I am not a great believer in didacticism, rather, I prefer the Socratic method. Tutor and pupil create a dialogue in which mutual respect allows trust and exchange to develop in order to foster imaginative leaps and insight in the pupil’s mind. It can be a challenging way to teach for both parties: the tutor must be prepared to listen very carefully to a student’s responses, and the student must be encouraged to give precise answers. There is no room for woolly thinking, pat answers, or obfuscation.

There is also no ‘right’ answer in these exchanges, because both parties are moving towards building a model of a (scientific) concept.

Too many of us are happy to be spoon fed by people not qualified to do other than to dispense facts. Thus, the first thing I did was to invite her to check my credentials. It is not a good idea in my book to put any faith in the words of someone who has no form. Googling P.M.H.Littlewood, she discovered the scientific papers I have published on neuroscience, centipede biology, behaviour, neuroanatomy and physiology. I counselled her of the need for skepticism in the pursuit of knowledge together. Her dad, acted as chaperone over a pot of tea. An excellent arrangement for both of us as it made her feel safe. My wife Clare, my psychological chaperone, made me feel safe to use the full extent of my intellect without risking my own ‘fall-out’ (depression usually).

alhazen Al Hazen demonstrating a pin hole camera.

I had given her father some homework for her the previous week when he and I discussed terms. I had asked her to investigate Al Hazen, the 11th Century philosopher who is rightly dubbed the ‘Father of Modern Optics’ from his treatise on light. He was one of the first scholars to pursue what we now think of as the ‘Scientific Method’. My new pupil had identified this achievement and recognised that Al Hazen had also debunked Ptolemy’s ‘Extromission’ theory of vision – that we see by emitting rays, hypothesising and demonstrating by experiment that rays of light enter our eyes (Intromission). I chose Al hazen as a fine example of a polythmath, and a muslim scientist/role model to boot. I thought that my tutee might appreciate this as she is, herself a devout muslim.

I was delighted that she had grasped the opportunity as she told me all about the man who torpedoed Ptolemy. Al Hazen had used practical and thought experiments to postulate that we ‘see’ by receiving light into our eyes, not by beaming light rays out of our heads onto objects. A good philosophical starting point for any student.

I gave her a hand written summary of the ‘scientific method’ on a scrap of paper as a reward, and we proceeded to split light with a prism. She immediately pulled out her note book to write.

I said “Please put it away, it will only hinder you, you can make notes in your own time if it helps” – I wanted her to exercise her young brain to make its own connections and memories unfettered by slavish wrote recording.

As we progressed more deeply into discussing the nature of light she said “I don’t really like how all these subjects are separate, they don’t seem to be connected” showing me a glossy science revision text book. “Well, everything is connected”, I said, “but it is easier for teachers to dole science lessons out in spoonfuls when faced with a large class of students – who are not really interested. What bit of science do you particularly not get?”

“Chemistry” she said “bonding in particular”

“To ‘get’ this you need a model” I said “Because it is impossible to see, unlike the rainbow exiting the prism, which gave us a clue to the make up of white light”

“If you think of the atoms of a metal, all lined up like the congregation of the mosque, all facing Mecca and the Imam, then the prayers of the Imam are the electrons that hold the people (atoms) together” I suggested.

Electrons as prayer from the Imam, she loved this. Her dad had initially bridled when I mentioned the Mosque, but he liked it too.

“I’m sure you could think of your own analogy to describe when electrons are shared – as in covalent bonding, or where atoms with opposites charges stick together as in ionic bonding?

I chucked a sugar cube into water and some salt to get her thinking. “Food for thought, and to help you – have a fresh look at the periodic table – Mendeleev has given you a rather elegant menu of ‘stuff’, which we might consider in the light of what you have now discovered…”

Arabic teaching, learning and literature is vast and underpins many ‘Western’ concepts. Muslim tradition places great emphasis on logic, writing and memory – but imagery is eschewed in their teaching. Western learning is riddled with visual analogy based upon natural forms. I believe that powerful understanding can emerge in the exchange. Perhaps in these troubled times our prayer should be to seek the understanding of our children.

أول الشجرة بذرة
“A tree begins with a seed.”