Kufic and Other Metaphysical Toys

I was asked to introduce these toys, explaining why I made them and what their purpose is, and I find it very difficult to do this. I made them as a form of conversation and their purpose was to delight while also addressing truths that seem to have challenged written description and intellectual interpretation for centuries. They are the product of prolonged thought and are academic investigation and spiritual expression in equal parts. They came to mind one at a time and each seemed to be about something different as I worked on it. But on completion each instead threw new light on the previous ones, and showed ever more clearly that the different treatises, hadiths, and popular patterns present individual aspects of a single structurally consistent subject: God creating the universe. They are pretty when they spin – more so than the videos show – but spinning them is also a satisfying spiritual activity. It feels like wordless prayer or perhaps a kind of dhikr.

——Perette Michelli

Maghribi’s Circles of Tawhid and Wujud Spinner (video, 27 seconds)

tawhidwujudthumbThe issue is that the absolute perfection of God makes it impossible for anything else to exist at the same time – and yet the whole universe exists. Maghribi had been asked by some Sufis to explain this in terms of circles, which he did at great verbal length and with some complex diagrams, of which some are illegible.

This toy illustrates my personal understanding of the issue and its resolution, my contribution to the continuing debate. It is important to understand that God’s perfection is conceived as quantal: a single absolute continuum, no parts, no particles, no areas of difference. Clearly, such a being must occupy all possible time and space and therefore nothing else can exist because there is no “room” for it. Conversely, if particulate entities like ourselves and our universe exist, a quantal being like God cannot exist with us because His continuum has been invaded and broken.

The resolution, by my understanding, is that if God in His mercy will permit himself to be riddled with holes (i.e. mortally wounded), that creates room for us to exist although He is no longer in a state of quantal perfection. However, if that mortal wound endures only for an instant, He survives it and returns to His quantal state of perfection before sacrificing Himself again with another “Breath of the Compassionate”. We, in contrast, do not survive the instants of God’s quantal perfection but are continually recreated and depend on the “echo” of our previous existence to maintain an illusion of continuous existence. Thus we not only seem to co-exist with God, but the moments of exchange are moments of intimate contact, and He is indeed “closer than our jugular vein”. The whole thing hinges on the Haqiqa Muhammadiyya, which is the intersection point between the two states of quantal and particulate existence.

Hidden Treasure Spinner (video, 1 minute 43 seconds)

hiddentreasurethumbThis spinning toy imagines the Hidden Treasure at the heart of all the universes. The structure is based on medieval descriptions of the physical and metaphysical universe (Al-Makki, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sīnā, and Al-Ghazali), and the Kufic calligraphy is that of an anonymous medieval pottery painter. A friend asked me what it said and meant, so here is the explanation:

The Kufic on the toy is البر (Al-Br) – it means lots of things!  It is Al-Barr (a Beautiful Name of God, meaning “The Source of All Goodness”), and al-birr/alber (in normal language, righteousness, goodness, kindness, charity, filial duty, good deeds, alms-giving, and Paradise), and al-barr (no capitals, in normal language, land, earth, wheat), and al-burr (in normal language, wheat). All those meanings of al-birr/alber come together to mean love. So you can see those four words mean everything from God Himself, to His entire creation, His loving care for his creation, our loving goodness to each other, and our loving virtue towards God, and then Paradise at the end. So it is the shahada, the tahlil, “There is nothing but God” (that’s the Sufi understanding of it; more commonly it is understood as “There is no god but God”).

Breath of the Compassionate Spinner (video, 2 minutes 46 seconds)

breathofcompassionatethumbThis spinner demonstrates a remarkable property of the Breath of the Compassionate pattern I discovered recently: that it is self-creating. Normally, we see this pattern as tessellating stars and crosses, and less often as superimposed emblems. Sometimes it includes double spirals suggestive of hearts or palm trees.

However, when this toy spins it becomes clear that the spirals are puffs of air as God breathes or blows out His Names from the pursed lips of the star points. Meanwhile the cross of the indrawn breath self-discloses inside the star, collecting the ephemeral ‘arad which God clothes with His Names to form the universe. The glittering edge of the star on this toy is the the Haqiqa Muhammadiyya. Within the star is Maghribi’s circle of Tawhid, and outside it is the circle of Wujud.