In my neighborhood, there is a running trail that overlooks a small river and sits under a wide stretch of sky. There, the sun glitters off the shallow water, yellow flowers blanket the embankment, and swallows soar above the tall grasses. When I go jogging on the trail, the beauty of that place often prompts me to remember God, to acknowledge God’s presence in creation. Running there also reminds me of the Qur’an — and what it has offered and taught me, a Christian.
For many Americans, the Qur’an is a mysterious, if not disconcerting, text. Even though few non-Muslims have engaged with it as Muslims do, many assume that the message of Islam’s holy scripture must be one of violence, oppression, and intolerance. Contrary to these expectations, I find the Qur’an is replete with reminders of God’s loving relationship to creation. For me, a Catholic Christian, the Qur’an’s encouragement to recognize the divine imprint on creation not only speaks to my experiences of nature but also invites me to be more attentive to God’s presence in the world.
Nearly 400 times in the Qur’an, God talks about what are called ayat (singular, ayah). This Arabic word refers to the “signs” of God, the miracles in creation that remind humanity of who God is. “[God] it is whose writ runs everywhere,” the Qur’an proclaims, “He sets forth His signs — it may be you will realize and know that it is your Lord whom you encounter.”
The verses of the Qur’an itself, which Muslims believe are God’s revelation to humanity conveyed through the Prophet Muhammad, are also called ayat. Muslims believe that, like the miracles of the natural world, the verses of the Qur’an are signs of and from God that reveal to humanity God’s wisdom, power, and mercy. Muslims believe that both the text of the Qur’an and creation can be “read” to know God better.
In the Qur’an, God gives beautiful descriptions of the natural world:
“The earth also We [God] stretched out, setting thereon the mighty hills, where We made every kind of joyous thing to grow… From heaven We have sent down the blessed rain whereby We make the gardens grow, and grain of harvest and tall palm trees laden with clustered dates, in provision for men, thereby bringing again to life a land that was dead — similitude of the coming forth.”
The rain and wind, cattle, olives, pomegranates, and even honey bees are just some of God’s ayat that are mentioned in the Qur’an and upon which humanity is urged to reflect. In these things, there are “traces of God’s rahma,” or loving mercy and compassion. God’s ayat are meant to help us remember God and acknowledge the inherent dignity of all creation. They should prompt us to be grateful, thankful for the blessings the divine has bestowed. Human beings are urged to learn from cattle, and to recognize how the birds “pray” in flight. All of creation belongs to God and gives praise to its Creator, the Qur’an says repeatedly.
For me, flying birds are some of God’s most poignant ayat. On an Ignatian spirituality retreat, a soaring sea bird served as an encouragement to trust in God. When I lived in Amman, Jordan, the flocks of flying pigeons were a reminder of God’s care. And on the running path near my home outside the U.S. capital, the swooping swallows that crisscross the trail draw me into a disposition of gratitude and delight. The swallows fly joyfully, allowing their pointed wings to catch the wind as they tumble and glide in the breeze. They seem to be in a constant state of dhikr, remembrance of God, and of islam, the peace that comes with living the life they were created for. No wonder swallows are sometimes called asaafeer al-jenna, “birds of heaven,” in Arabic.
Though I know consciously of the peace and joy that can come with contemplating nature, I often forget to pay attention. On walks, I get buried in my Twitter feed. On runs, I get preoccupied with podcasts or phone calls, and miss the lessons God has woven into creation. I distract myself — partly intentionally sometimes — from God’s incessant invitation to encounter Him in the world He embraces. So, I need the questions that God poses to humanity throughout the Qur’an, asking us why we are often blind to his signs:
“Do men not take stock of how the birds are schooled to fly in the air of heaven? It is only God who upholds them and for believing people this is truly a sign.”
Constantly in the Qur’an, God asks humanity why they are so often blind to the signs of God around them. I love this persistent, urgent reminder from God. In so many Qur’anic passages, I hear God asking us to develop the attentive, joyful, and grateful disposition of Elizabeth Schulyer Hamilton, the character in the musical, Hamilton who constantly sings: “Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” In the Qur’an, and in creation, God is pleading with us, trying to get our attention, saying, “Look around, and be grateful!”
In the final days of Ramadan, the holy season for Muslims, I am grateful for the wisdom of their religious tradition — and for the friendship of my Muslim friends. Muslims’ scripture has offered me new ways of understanding God and the world, and has challenged me to be more cognizant of God’s presence in my life and in the natural world.
The Prophet Muhammad once said, “Divine breezes from your Lord waft through the days of your life. Listen! Be aware of them.” On that running path, when I sometimes am overcome with awe for the beauty of God’s ayat, I can’t tell if it’s the blowing wind that brings tears to my eyes, or the birds of heaven blessing my path.