The mercury in the saucer
In the name of the Almighty, the Beneficent the Merciful
While pondering what could be the subject of today’s interaction, I eventually chanced upon this story of faith and consciousness from Imam al-Ghazalli. You would recall that one of the unique features of his works is this constant effort on his part to use stories to teach morals, to source inspirations from the life of our forebearers that could ginger us into more alliance with our Creator. You would recall too that al-Ghazalli’s whole life was dedicated to the search for the eternal, the preternatural, not the ephemeral.
His whole scholarship was fashioned after the pursuit of that uncanny merger between moral authority and spiritual prosperity. He achieved renown since the medieval period for reminding us, among us others, that modesty in life is the nodus prosperity. The story below is taken from His magnum opus – Ihya Ulum al-Din.
There lived a pious man who spent most of his time praying, fasting and praising the Almighty. Almost all his waking hours were utilized in meditation and devotions. He was very happy with his spiritual progress. No wicked thoughts ever came to his mind and no evil temptations ever entered his heart.
One night, he dreamt a rather unusual dream. He saw that a shopkeeper in the town was far superior to him in spirituality and that he must go to him to learn the basics of true spiritual life. In the morning, the pious man went in search of the shopkeeper. He found his target in the latter’s shop as he was busy with his customers, selling goods and collecting money with a cheerful face. He sat there in a corner of the shop and watched the shopkeeper carefully. “No signs of any spiritual life at all,” he said to himself. His dream could not be true. But then he saw the shopkeeper disappear to pray his Salah. When he returned, he was busy dealing with money matters again.
The shopkeeper noticed the pious man sitting in the corner and asked: “As Salamu Alaikum, would you like something, brother?”. The pious man responded saying: “wa alaykum salam. Oh! No! No! I don’t want to buy anything, but I want to ask you a question.” He then related his dream. “Well, that is very simple to explain,” said the shopkeeper, “but you will have to do something for me before I answer your question.” “I will do anything for you,” replied the pious man. The shopkeeper then said: “Alright! Take this saucer; there is some mercury in it. Go to the other end of the street and come back fast within half an hour. If the mercury falls out of the saucer, you will hear nothing from me. There you go now.”
The pious man took the saucer and started running. The mercury nearly wobbled out of the saucer. He saved it just in time and slowed down. Then he remembered he had to return within half an hour, so he started walking at a faster pace. At long last, he returned puffing and panting. “Here is your mercury, safe and sound,” he told the shopkeeper. “Now tell me the true interpretation of my dream.”
The shopkeeper looked at the pious man’s weary condition and asked him: “Well, friend, how many times did you remember the Almighty while you were going from this end of the street to the other?” “Remember the Almighty!?” exclaimed the pious man. “I did not remember Him at all. I was so worried about the mercury in the saucer.”
The shopkeeper then calmly responded as follows: “But I do remember Him all the time. When I am doing my business, I am also carrying mercury in a saucer. I am fair, honest and kind to my customers. I never forget the Almighty, may His name be exalted in my dealings with other men.”
The metaphor of the mercury in the saucer, therefore, becomes clear- while the former refers to our consciousness of His constant presence; the saucer calls our attention to our location and station in this world. The saucer refers to the position you occupy presently; it refers to the opportunity He has granted unto you among billions of other creatures of His. Would you forget Him while the saucer is in your hands”? Can you afford to let His presence escape your cognition for a moment? The Almighty says: “Men whom neither trade nor business diverts from the remembrance of the Almighty, nor from performing Salah, nor from giving the Zakah; they fear a Day when hearts and eyes will be overturned; that the Almighty may reward them according to the best of their deeds, and add even more for them out of His Grace. And indeed, He provides without measure to whomever He wills.” (Quran 24: 37-38)
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Afis Ayinde Oladosu is a professor of Middle Eastern, North African and Cultural Studies. Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
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