“It’s divine providence.”
She stood between two men in lab coats, the huge windows behind them so bright that their silhouettes were partially blotted out. I could barely sense her smile; framed by shoulder length, graying hair she dramatically tossed back from time to time. She repeated it thoughtfully, “Divine providence.”
I found her statement as quirky and unusual as the model herself, but I was too distracted by the lifeless body directly in front of them, and the pervasive odor of formaldehyde, to wonder about the meaning of her words.
My life-drawing class had piled into a classroom at Columbia University for an exclusive opportunity to study anatomy more deeply, literally.
We compared the exterior appearance of the human body with its underlying muscular structures by observing a live model alongside a human cadaver. I know it sounds disturbing and repulsive, and it was, but seeing what lies beneath the surface gave us an edge as artists, and was a unique privilege not to be missed.
When a person forms a fist with their hand, it causes changes to occur in the arm as well. Observing the actual tendons and their function was meant to facilitate and enhance our ability to reproduce expressions and movement realistically on paper, or in paint or sculptural form.
While I was fascinated that day, the model understood something I wouldn’t grasp until several years later. “Divine providence.” For her, the impeccable form and function of the human body pointed directly to the majesty of the Creator.
While the connection between the divine and the natural world was lost on me back in college, the kind of seeing I was made to do in art school did help open a door for me to accept the existence of a creator.
As art students, my colleagues and I were taught to look more closely – to see detail; color, shadow, light, angles, contours, contrast, texture. Instead of seeing an apple, we had to see the variation of its color, the way the light accents its shape, and reflections of the room in its shine.
It was this intense kind of seeing and appreciation of things – from living things to inanimate objects, from small spaces to expanses of the earth and its atmosphere – that enabled me to begin to realize that there was no way that even a leaf could have come about by random chance.
Seeing is a Skill
I didn’t make the connection right away. The first step towards seeing at a deeper level is child-like curiosity. Children as they walk through a garden, may notice all sorts of things we miss as adults. Slowing down, stopping and noticing details makes a difference. By honing the skill of seeing, it is as if the entire world is new.
For me, it was art school that helped open my eyes. I was taught how to look more closely and see things most may pass by. But this type of looking isn’t something only artists can do. Anyone can do it. Each of us, regardless of our education or roles, can find ways to be more present and to see our surroundings in more profound ways.
This skill of seeing is crucial for us as Muslims to nurture and improve.
And on the earth are signs for the certain [in faith]. And in yourselves. Then will you not see? (Quran 51:20-21)
Don’t Let it Go
Bogged down with responsibilities, bills to pay, kids to care for, family to visit, friends to socialize with, tests to pass, whatever it is, this skill of being awake and seeing is too valuable be allowed to become dull.
Recognizing divine providence in all aspects of our lives is possible no matter what our current situation. It could be as simple as stepping outside before bedtime and appreciating the vastness of the sky, taking an extra minute to notice the rise and fall of the chest of a loved one while they sleep.
Seeing is Believing
The world is decked with signs for humans to see, which should consequently lead us to believe and worship the Creator.
Indeed! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the distinction between the night and the day there are signs for those endowed with insight. (3:190)
Sight without insight is a form of blindness. The verse starts with directing our attention towards examining creation, but ends with a goal– insight. It’s a two-step process.
Marveling at ships in the sea, as if they were mountains, constitutes the first step– examining creation.
And of His signs are the ships in the sea, like mountains.
Possessing a deeper awareness, having insight, serves as the second step.
If He willed, He could still the wind, and they would remain motionless on its surface. Indeed in that are signs for everyone patient and grateful.
What does it take for one to perform these two steps? Taking in a scene and processing its depth requires one to be patient. Realizing the bounties surrounding us to draw a connection with the Creator requires one to be grateful.
Indeed in that are signs for everyone patient and grateful.
Seeing leads to believing, and believing leads to gratitude.
More Than Meets the Eye
The heightened awareness of sight can serve as a doorway to deeper awareness. The model in my drawing class, enamored by the complexity and perfection of this physical creation – the human body, with all its mechanisms and abilities musculature – understood that our bodies are provided by the Divine.
That moment offered an opportunity for seeing beyond the physical body as well. Life itself is divine providence, yet how many standing in that room and other similar classrooms didn’t realize that all of us will eventually become as lifeless as the body we were studying?
The likeness of the life of the present is as the rain which We send down from the skies: by its mingling arises the produce of the earth – which provides food for men and animals: (it grows) till the earth is clad with its golden ornaments and is decked out (in beauty): the people to whom it belongs think they have all powers of disposal over it: there reaches it Our command by night or by day, and We make it like a harvest clean-mown, as if it had not flourished only the day before! Thus do We explain the Signs in detail for those who reflect. (10:24)
As we look deeper and begin to decode the signs our Lord has provided us with, part of the awe comes from the fact that all of this beauty is fleeting. The gorgeous flower we stop to admire today, may be wilted, brown and crumpled tomorrow. Likewise our lives will waste away and that is one of the greatest signs for us to remember.
(From Discovering Islam archive)