The Autumn of Our Own Existence

Thursday, October 23, 2014 - 5:21 am

The Autumn of Our Own Existence

I’ve been blessed to live in places where the time of fall is magical. In upstate New York, North Carolina, and Iran, I’ve gotten to see streets paved gold and red, with leaves crunching under my feet. As a kid, I used to love to dive through piles of raked leaves. (OK, that was this week.)
A lot of people celebrate fall season with pumpkin pie, sweaters, and taking in crisp mornings. I love all of those, but mostly fall is a season to meditate on colors, death, and divine presence.
Before becoming a scholar of religion, like every Muslim student at the university, I studied medicine. I remember learning in a botany course about the reason that a deciduous tree’s leaves turn colors. The reasoning astonished me then, and I have since come to see more and more spiritual wisdom in it as I enter the autumn of my own life.
Leaves are usually green because of chlorophyll. It is chlorophyll that gives leaves their distinctive green color, and it is (along with sunshine) the key ingredient in the magical, life-producing process of photosynthesis.
The hidden secret of fall: the leaves don’t actually “turn” colors. With the winter season coming, and the process of photosynthesis being without the key ingredients of warmth and sunshine, trees begin to break down chlorophyll. With the “green” gone, the other colors that have been there all along — the magical reds, golds, and oranges — begin to express themselves.

(Stanley Zimney / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

That’s the secret: there is no turning, no changing. There’s only the death of what has been masking the colors inside. The beauty has been there all along. And we as human beings are like this. Each one of us contains hidden jewels inside.

Every breath of your life’s breaths
is a jewel.
Every new atom
is a guide towards God.

—Farid un-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

Each of us contains “colors” inside, which remain hidden by our mere humanity. I see the colors as being different divine qualities that are present inside each of one of us at all times: compassion, justice, kindness, forgiveness. Most of the time these divine qualities are masked, covered up, hidden by our ego self. Greed, lust, anger, selfishness mask these divine qualities. What masks the divines qualities (the colors) is not our humanity, something I see ultimately as a reflection of God but rather our ego, our tendency to see ourselves as a mere terrestrial creature. We see ourselves a mere flesh creature, cut off from God, cut off from one another, cut off from the natural cosmos.
The hidden mystery of the fall season is that when one “life” dies, the colors inside are on display. And there is something similar that happens inside us when we let go of this ego self, of selfishness, of being cut off and isolated. To put in a religious language, we have to “die” to our ego, to our selfishness before we can become “born again” in a bigger, more interwoven, more compassionate, more divine reality.

(Blinking Idiot / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

The Qur’an hints at this in a lovely, mysterious verse:

(We take our) color from God,
and who is better than God at coloring?

—Qur’an 2:138

This fear of letting go of our notion of a limited self is real. We are all afraid of death. Any death. All death. Letting go of this earthly life is frightening. Letting go of any prejudice, any preconceived notion, any notion of identity is a form of death. As more wise sages have told us, we come into this world covered in feces, urine, and blood; we leave it naked covered in a cloth. The mere reflection on our own mortality frightens us. Most of us spend our life in denial, pretending that we are eternally immortal.

What beauty there is in letting go and accepting.
What wonder there is in embracing the colors inside.
What loveliness there is in the death of one color, and the shining through of all the divine colors.
How lovely is this human creature when the divine colors of compassion, kindness, mercy, justice, and forgiveness shine on through.

(Nubobo / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)


It reminds me of the poem of the great, incomparable Rumi.

I died as a mineral
and became a plant,
I died as plant
and rose to animal,
I died as animal
and I was human.
Why should I fear?
When was I less by dying?

Yet once more I shall die as human,
to soar
With angels blest;
but even from angelhood
I must pass on:
all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist!
for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones,
‘To God we shall return.’
—Rumi, Masnavi 3: 3901-03

Why fear one “death” when every death has revealed something more colorful, more luminous, more beautiful. The references to “mineral” and “animal” in the poem below is a reflection of the old Islamic (also Greek) philosophical insight that each of us contains within us the souls of all the beings. There is a level in us that corresponds to the mineral soul, an animal soul, a human soul, and so on. This Islamic model of evolution is not so much the evolution from shared biological ancestors, but a mythic, poetic notion of cycles of ascension into embrace of all the Divine qualities within.
Bring on the sweater. Bring on the crisp morning. Bring on the pumpkin pie. And bring on the death of that ego self that masks those glorious, divine colors within.
As I enter this autumn season — and the autumn of my own existence — I am growing slowly more comfortable with the becoming less and less, so that more and more can be revealed.

Bring on this Autumn of the soul.
Welcome these colors shining through.

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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.

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