On the proximity of International Women’s Day and the start of Ramadan

Ken Sehested

Introduction: On the proximity of the International Women’s Day (8 March 2024) and the cusp of Ramadan (10 March 2024 sundown, a month-long ascetically devotional observance commemorating the initial revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in 610 CE, later named the Noble Qur’an)

Little is known about the 8th century CE Islamic poet and mystic often named simply as Rabia of Basri (a city/region in what is now southern Iraq). But her stature as one of the first saints in Islam is unquestioned, especially among Muslims who identify with the more mystical tradition of Sufism. The quote below which addresses (without naming) Allah (the Arabic word for God) as “eternal beauty” is a striking feature of mystical traditions of all sorts:

“If I adore You out of fear of hell, burn me in hell. / If I adore You out of desire for paradise, lock me out of paradise. / But if I adore You alone, do not deny to me Your eternal beauty.”

The suggestion that beauty and truth are interrelated is ancient. The Latin phrase pulchritudo splendor varitatis (“beauty is the splendor of truth”) is thousands of years old. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” British poet John Keats famously wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The interrelation between beauty and truth is puzzling to Western ears. The “beauty” referenced here is not that of fashion runways, high brow classical music, or museum worthy art in general.

Truth is more than naked fact. Truth is more than conclusive, demonstrable science, or even the “beauty” of mathematical coherence.

Truth is beautiful because it is compelling and captivating. It moves the feet, not just the brain. This is why a beatific vision—not relentless resolve—is essential to redemptively engage a world predicated on enmity and violence. Moral heroism is impressive; but grit and determination are insufficient capacities to be sustained over the long hall.

Beauty, rather than duty, is the fertile ground from which right-relatedness flowers, nourishes, and endures. Beauty’s offspring is mercy, which is more than charity, but also does the demanding work of mediating the demands of justice with the prerequisites of peace.

Tellingly, the Arabic root of the word Ramadan can be translated as “burning, blazing, or glowing”—not unlike the dazzling, glowing scene of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospels.

Sustainable work for justice, the pursuit of peace, the advocacy for civil rights, is inherently grounded in doxology (praise): Those enraptured by the vision of a New Heaven and New Earth (though our performance never completed), of a New Jerusalem (James Baldwin’s preferred metaphor), of the Beloved Community (a phrase Dr. King employed to great effect), of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming “Kingdom of God” (the consistent premise of his words and deeds) do not engage in this risky work in order to afford a later reward.

There is no divine lay-away plan at work, whereby we make incremental payments toward an eventual, greater pay-off in the bye-and-bye. We undertake our perilous calling because we have been saturated with the assurance of Heaven’s claim on history’s consummation.

In short, there is no getting “right” with God. There’s only getting soaked.

The psalmist declares that Heaven’s affirmation is for Earth’s reclamation, predicting that “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase” (85:10-12).

It’s a bet-your-assets kind of affair.

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9 March 2024