by Syed Muhammad Tahir Nasser
“And He has created horses and mules and asses that you may ride them, and as a source of beauty. And He will create what you do not yet know.
And upon Allah rests the showing of the right way, and there are ways which deviate from the right course. And if He had enforced His will, He would have guided you all.” (Al Qur’an 16:9-10)
What makes a horse rider? I have sat on horses many times, indeed, I am able to do the rising trot (with difficulty may I add) but when it comes to cantering (the pace just below a gallop), to be honest, I find it really rather painful. And galloping? Only in my dreams…
So what makes a horse rider? Is it someone who is able to cling on dearly for life while the horse goes hither and thither, ignoring the plaintive cries of its pathetic master who is woefully inept at guiding it in the correct direction? No, of course not. No doubt, the inept rider indeed sits on the horse and literally ‘rides’ the horse, but in no way can such an individual be called a ‘horse rider’. Only that person is the ‘horse rider’ who is able to command the horse in whichever direction he or she chooses and to whom the horse renders obedience. Those among you who watched the recent Olympics may have come across the sport of ‘dressage’ (if you haven’t seen it, catch the Olympic final here). Many among you may have even scoffed and thought ‘how is this a sport?’ (as did I initially). A horse, prancing – indeed – dancing around? Yet as I investigated further I found that there was a lot more to this sport than I previously thought. On hearing my dismissive remarks regarding Dressage, a friend of mine who is an avid horse rider (in the true sense of the word) berated me, telling me that there is far more to Dressage than meets the eye. I was informed that every move the horse does, as it dances across the sand in time to the music, is entirely and totally co-ordinated by the rider, and yet so seamless and subtly is it done that the untrained eye is totally unaware that the rider is continuously feeding signals to the beautiful beast below, to which it responds with obedience and intelligence. This is the beauty of Dressage, but is only visible to those who have some experience of it.
But why my sudden obsession with horse riding? Well, those of you who know me well, will know that actually horses are my favourite animals. They are graceful, elegant and beautiful and perhaps no other animal has been there through so much of human history, carrying us as their burdens. Is this the only significance of horses though? Perhaps there are some who would be surprised to learn that horses and horse riding have a rich and deep spiritual significance in Islam which, though I knew in theory before, I only experienced meaningfully after spending some time actually enjoying riding.
While enjoying a brief riding trip many months back, I received some of my first instructions in riding. ‘Keep your heels down,’ was the first, promptly followed by ‘keep your feet in line with your knees and shoulders’. There were all sorts of rules – keeping rhythmic pressure on the horse’s flanks while changing rhythm, how to the hold the reigns, how to direct the horse and command the horse so that it listens to you. Indeed, whole books have been written about the subject. As I sat upon the beautiful beast, directing this animal beneath me to carry me this way, that way, no not that way, this way…I could not helping thinking of the relationship between man and God. For there are rules to riding a horse, without which one cannot command the horse appropriately nor can one said to be a ‘horse rider’, as pointed out at the beginning of this article. If there are such rules to simply being called a ‘horse rider’, how many more rules and regulations must there be to being a human being, in the true sense of the word?
Is being a human less than being a horse rider? If there are rules one must adhere to, before being worthy of the appellation ‘rider’ are there not rules one must obey before one can be called human and one can be said to be truly living? Is life simply about being swept along by its current, like the inept rider, at the mercy of the horse’s whim? If the latter is not a true rider then how can the former be truly called ‘living’? Regarding this, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) stated clearly: “The likeness of the one who remembers his Lord and the one who does not remember Him is like that of a living to a dead person.” (Bukhari, reported by Abu Musa) True life is not borne out of simply being wafted along through the hourglass of time; true life is an active process which requires discipline, regulation and energy. Just as in riding, in the beginning, the muscles of the thighs and the back ache – muscles which are unused to such strenuous work, so too the spiritual muscles may hurt in the beginning. Yet with practise and perseverance, it becomes a labour of love which yields unending joy for the rider, when his or her art gains momentum and is perfected.
When we look at the relationship between the rider and the beast, we see in it a beautiful parallel between the soul and the body, respectively. Indeed, throughout Islamic literature, we find striking metaphors used, not least in the Qur’an, in which horses and riding-beasts are likened unto the body, and the soul is likened unto the rider. The Qur’an in this regard makes the following statement:
“And by the soul and its perfection — He indeed truly prospers who purifies it, And he who corrupts it is ruined. The tribe of Thamud denied the truth because of their rebelliousness. When the most wretched among them got up, Then the Messenger of Allah said, ‘Leave alone the she-camel of Allah, and let her drink.’ But they rejected him and hamstrung her, so their Lord destroyed them completely because of their sin, and made it (destruction) overtake all of them alike. And He cared not for the consequences thereof.” (91:8-16)
After referring to the soul and its perfection and and after indicating that the prospering of the soul is through its purification, Allah narrates the incident of the tribe of Thamud. The prophet Salih (peace be upon him) who was sent for their spiritual rejuvenation would move about and preach on the back of his camel. He requested his people to leave his camel alone, for an imposition on the camel which carried the prophet of God, was an imposition on the prophet himself and thus on God’s purpose. When they killed the camel down to hinder his movements, God says that he punished them and cared not for them. On this note, the Promised Messiah (peace be upon him) comments on these verses that the import of these verses is that:
“…the human soul is like the she-camel of God. The sole purpose of its creation is that it should function as Naqatullah—the she-camel of God. When the human self is immersed and totally lost in God, He, in His majestic and glorious Holiness, is pleased to ride on it as one does on a she-camel. Addressing those who turn away from truth, God serves notice as a warning and deterrent and says: Like the people of Thamud, you are denying the she-camel access to the spring of drinking water, i.e. remembrance of God and the contemplation of Divine verities on which the very life of the soul depends.” (Elucidation of Objectives, p.53)
In light of this explanation, when we return then to the verses cited at the beginning of this article, we find a new and hidden beauty in them that we did not before:
“And He has created horses and mules and asses that you may ride them, and as a source of beauty. And He will create what you do not yet know. And upon Allah rests the showing of the right way, and there are ways which deviate from the right course. And if He had enforced His will, He would have guided you all.” (Al Qur’an 16:9-10)
For the soul to be like the inept rider – driven hither and thither – by the body, which is the beast of the soul, is no praiseworthy life and it is a life devoid of all beauty. We feel it every time we give ourselves over to it entirely – a feeling of disgust and revulsion that our souls have lost something of the lustre they once possessed. Looking at the above verses, we see now the relationship between the metaphor of horse riding and taking the ‘right way’ in life. It is for us, like the novice horse rider, to follow the advice of the prophets – those who have perfected the art of truly living – of truly riding – and follow the guidance they bring, for it is only through the exercise of our free will and choosing that right way, that the riding of our souls will become beautiful and graceful, just as the true rider on the horse is a ‘source of beauty’. It is then, when we have followed the directions of God as to how our souls should ride the body He has given us, that one day, through His mercy, we will find His Hands over ours as we grip the reigns, His feet in our stirrups and His Being close beside us as we ride together. The beauty generated then will be true beauty. Perhaps no human on Earth has ever written of it in such moving words as the Promised Messiah (peace be upon him) and with his words I end this piece. He is referring to those humans who reach that highest stage of true humanity – of true life:
“They are not God, but their relationship to God is such as a piece of iron has to fire when it is heated in the fire to such a degree that it assumes the colour of the fire. When this happens, all that is under the command of God Almighty comes under their command, and the stars of heaven, the sun and the moon, the oceans, air and fire hear their voice and recognize them and serve them. Everything loves them naturally and is drawn to them like a true lover, except the wicked who are the reflections of Satan. Worldly love is ill-omened. It arises on one side and dies on the other, and also it is based upon beauty that is subject to decline and there are few people who come under its influence. But how wonderful is that spiritual beauty which is generated in a person by good behaviour, purity, righteousness and, after the manifestation of Divine love. It possesses a universal attraction, and draws eager hearts to itself as honey draws ants and not only men but also every particle of the universe is affected by its attraction. A person who has true love for God Almighty is Joseph for whom every particle of this Universe is like Zulaikha; but whose beauty has not yet been revealed to the world for this world cannot endure it. God Almighty says in His Holy Book, the Qur’an, that the light of the believers is displayed in their countenances and a believer is recognized by the beauty, the name of which in other words is light.” [Brahin-e-Ahmadiyya, Part V, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 21, pp. 221-224] – also found in Essence of Islam.