The Two Wings of Intellect and Love

Thursday, March 2, 2017 - 5:00 am

The Two Wings of Intellect and Love

Muhammad’s ascension to see God face-to-face is as key to understanding Islam as Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are to Christians, or Prince Siddhartha achieving enlightenment by sitting under the Bodhi tree. The narrative of the Ascension is that the archangel Gabriel awakened Muhammad from sleep in the middle of the night in Mecca, and then took him to Jerusalem, whereupon they ascended to Heaven. They rose level by level through the levels and layers of Paradise, where they met with the previous prophets including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Ultimately, Gabriel brought Muhammad to the very threshold of Divine presence. There, the archangel came to a sudden and abrupt stop, refusing to go any further. Gabriel then lowered his wings to put the Prophet on the ground.

Muhammad, somewhat puzzled, asked Gabriel: “Friend, you have been such a faithful companion from Mecca to Jerusalem to Heaven. Why do you stop here, and so suddenly?”

Gabriel answered:

“From this point on the intensity of God’s love is too strong. If I take a step as big as the width of a single one of my feathers, God’s love will burn all of me.”

Muhammad descended, and alone entered into God’s presence. He described that experience as having an “Eternal Now” with God. All Muslim seekers seek to emulate Muhammad. The mystics don’t merely want to act like Muhammad; they literally want to follow in his footsteps to meet God face-to-face.

Rumi and other mystics add a special twist to this familiar tale of Gabriel refusing to go any further. Here is Rumi’s telling of the same story:

Seek wisdom from the sage now, if you can,
Gain knowledge and new vision from this man!

Seek wisdom, and then you’ll become its source,
Needless, safe from what drives men from their course;

The student’s tablet turns to one ‘preserved,’
When intellect from spirit grace is served:

At first his intellect would lead the way
But like a student now it must obey,

The intellect repeats what Gabriel said:
‘Prophet, I’ll burn if I should move ahead!

But you can still proceed towards the goal,
I’ve reached my limit, Sultan of the Soul!’

— Masnavi, Volume 1, lines 1070-1075

These mystics tell us that in Islamic thought the angels symbolized the intellect. The intellect is enough to get us from Earth to heaven. The intellect is enough to get you to paradise. The intellect can help you rise up to the very threshold of God. But to enter “into” God, we need something else. Only God can enter into God. Only something that is of God, of the same essence, can enter into God. Why can Muhammad enter into God?

Because Muhammad himself is love. He is mercy. He is “mercy to all the universes.” And since he is love itself, love can enter into love.

What is love? Not merely an emotion or sentiment. Love is the very unleashing of God on this realm.   And this love enters through human beings, realized human beings like Muhammad who embody this Divine love.

In so much of modern Western thought, there is a bifurcation between the mystical and the rational. The mystical was banished to the realm of the “private” and defined as non-rational, even anti-rational. In the Islamic tradition it was a different story. To begin with, the intellect was not something merely rational, not in the “head,” but actually seated in the heart. But even more important is the notion that Muhammad and Gabriel ascend together to God’s presence. We need both the intellect and the love. We need the intellectual and the mystical.

And what would it be, as Rumi insists again and again, to realize that Gabriel is inside us? That Muhammad is inside us? That the means of arriving at God, and entering into God, are already inside us?   These are not external characters, but all inside us.

Our beings are like a bird with two wings. We need both wings — the intellectual and the spiritual — to soar. One wing can elevate us to God’s presence. The other — this fierce and radical divine love — gets us to enter into God’s heart.

May we soar on both of these wings.
May we combine the intellectual and the spiritual.
May we not settle for heaven, but aspire to enter into God’s own presence.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Ayisha

    Just the other day, the man who was replacing the battery in my watch, gave me the Muslim greetings, and proudly shared how he’d just converted to Islam. He did a happy dance as he told me of his plans to do his first Ramadan, and was in awe of my having completed the Hajj rites. I learned that he was former Military (White, big guy with a Northeast accent and skull rings on his fingers). He shared that one of his favorite stories was when the Angel of Death visited Prophet Muhammad (saws) and gave him the option to stay here on earth or to join his Beloved (his Lord), at which point the Prophet answered that he’d rather be with the “Higher Companion” (i.e., God). And he went to his Lord pleased and well-pleasing. ~~ I share all this to say that I believe it’s stories like this one, and those you often share here, that ultimately invite/welcome and lead people to the beauty and spirit of our Islamic faith. Thank you!

  • Paul Miller


  • Louis Schmier

    Omid, you latest reflection reminded me of human “wholeness.” That is, the need to have two wings to soar. It caused me to go back and read I short reflection I wrote for the internet about 14 years ago. It’s titled: “Two Winged Teaching and Learning.” If you’re interested, you can pull it up at:

  • Mike Conlon

    I’m curious about those who attempt to soar on one wing, on intellect, and fail because they’ve lost contact with love, perhaps replaced by ego. Is this the message of Satan, Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel?

  • IPM

    When I started meditating, I only did meditations of logic – counting breaths, learning to be still and present – but lately I’ve been feeling like the logic only pulls me in circles of “I can’t” and “I don’t know” I think it’s a very physical imbalance in the health of my brain – I think it’s like confusing the health of the bicep for the strength of the arm.

    At the same time, I’ve been remembering the moments I was most proud of in my short life; brief moments of passionate and total abandon, connecting with other people, but also in connecting with my own strength. There are moments in my life where I have shocked people with my courage, my tenacity, my strength. I have left people standing by the side of the Track gaping, gawking, staring, before shouting, jumping, hooting and hollering… Logic in my training got me to that point, but by no means did it carry me across the finish line, nor did it help me explode off of the starting line. If anything, Logic should have dictated that I would fail, that I would come in last place, that no one could make up that kind of distance in just 400 meters, that I should accept my limitations and not even try… and a voice in me screamed. Passion hurled me around those 400 meters of rubber and road; passion made people scream my name; passion made me soar, like Icarus, as close to the sun as I could. Yes; Fly higher and higher, because your wings will one day fail you, no matter what. We all fall to the ground one day, hopefully with the feeling, even the knowledge, that we flew as high as we could.

  • David French

    That amazing painting is a beautiful depiction of what Omid is writing about. Can anyone provide more information about it? It’s apparently at the British Library, but title? artist?

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