[Disclaimer: This is by definition a speculative exercise.]
In reading through the Qur’anic descriptions of Paradise, we get beautiful tales of a place with shade, a garden where cool rivers flow. To weary Arabs used to traveling under the brutal desert sun, the notion of reclining on comfortable cushions and resting in a garden sounded like…well, paradise.
What if instead of being born in a desert of Arabia, Muhammad had been born in a snowy clime? What if the Prophet’s world consisted of abundant snowfall, with freezing temperatures? I wonder if the description of paradise would have looked more like a place warm and tropical. I wonder if instead of a paradise filled with shade, if it would be a sunny, warm paradise.
Furthermore, if Muhammad had born in a snowy clime, I wonder if we would have more religious symbols building on snow?
*Would we have metaphysical speculation on the Oneness of Being (what Muslims call Wahdat al-wujud) that sees ice, water, and steam as sharing in an underlying unity?
*Would we have spiritual metaphors describing God’s mercy as covering all, sinner and saint alike, the way snowfall covers us all? It may even sound something like this.
*Would we have reflections on how no two snowflakes are alike, since the Lord is forever creating in ways that are beautiful, unique, and always fresh?
*Would we have religious teachings that remind us of the dangers of exposure to unbearable cold, not just for our skin, but also for our hearts?
In speculating on the above, of course I am not suggesting that Muhammad wrote the Qur’an, but merely that God chose symbols that made sense to the symbols of the particular society that was the first recipient of revelation. That much seems to be common sense.
And yet since I am always drawn to the bigger questions: it makes sense that the desert context of Arabia prefigured some of the images there. But what do we do with the tribalism of that society? What do we do with the patriarchy of that society? What do we do with so many of the other particularities (both beauties and shortcomings) of that society?
Today we allow ourselves to imagine other climes, other realities, other symbols, other possibilities to see God’s mercy not merely as the sunshine that shines on all but also as the snow that covers all.
What would it be like for us to imagine other spiritual “climes” without the tribalism, sexism, and classism that marked the original context of so much of early Biblical and Arab societies?
That would lead us to a world in which God’s mercy covers us all, like both sunshine and snowfall.