It’s been an interesting week – one of those weeks when you end up thinking about things in unanticipated ways and drawing connections between things that seem completely unrelated.
It started the other day when my daughter was chatting about her 8th grade science class. She said, “We’re talking about the human body right now. Whenever we talk about that kind of stuff, my science teacher gets all weird and creepy.” Being the helicopter parents that we are, my husband and I looked at her and immediately inquired, “What do you mean by ‘weird and creepy?’” My daughter replied, “Oh, she just gets all deep and profound about cells and organs and how it’s so amazing that everything works together in this magical way.” My husband and I exhaled as he pointed out that in the world of middle-schoolers “deep and profound” apparently means the same thing as “weird and creepy.”
My daughter’s assessment aside, I felt an immediate connection with this science teacher. As a trained neuroscientist, I will forever be in awe of the brain. Its ability to learn, to perceive, to remember, and to manage an incredibly complex biological system is nothing less than miraculous. And it’s not just the human brain that is exceptionally adept. The survival mechanisms found in the brains of other animals are almost unbelievable. There’s the auditory system of the bat, tuned to the frequency of its prey’s fluttering wings. There’s the olfactory system in dogs, capable of detecting abnormal blood sugar levels in diabetics. There’s the sea slug nervous system that produces identifiable chemical changes when being trained on behavioral tasks. The list is infinite.
As I pondered all this, I felt rather fortunate, maybe even a bit self-righteous. You see, I am one of those people who easily finds creation-wonder in biological systems. I am not trapped in a science-or-mysticism type of existence. I recognize the divine essence found in a single neuron from a brain slice. I can detect the sacred in the dazzling complexity of the human retina. I am deeply aware that all of creation, from mitochondria to mucus, is blessed. As you will see, in a few days, I became significantly less smug.
At mid-week, I was still basking in the glow of creation’s powerful beauty while searching for something specific in the Qur’an. As some of you know, I am part of a Qur’an study group that meets here at Jubilee! Community church. At the tail end of last Sunday’s session, one of the facilitators mentioned that the Qur’an contains verses about mosquitoes, ants, and flies. I was particularly interested in the mosquito reference since I don’t recall any passages in the Bible about that insect. I made a mental note to check it out and got around to it a couple of days later.
I found one passage in the Qur’an that specifically mentions mosquitoes. It is in Surah 2, verse 26.
Indeed, Allah is not timid to present an example – that of a mosquito or what is smaller than it. And those who have believed know that it is the truth from their Lord. But as for those who disbelieve, they say, “What did Allah intend by this as an example?” He misleads many thereby and guides many thereby. And He misleads not except the defiantly disobedient. (Saheeh International)
Some translations use the word “gnat.”
Lo! Allah disdaineth not to coin the similitude even of a gnat. Those who believe know that it is the truth from their Lord; but those who disbelieve say: What doth Allah wish (to teach) by such a similitude? He misleadeth many thereby, and He guideth many thereby; and He misleadeth thereby only miscreants. (Pickthall)
And some translations don’t use either word.
Allah does not disdain to use the similitude of things lowest as well as highest. Those who believe know that it is truth from their Lord, but those who reject Faith say, “What does Allah mean by this similitude?” By it He causes many to stray, and many He leads into the right path; but He causes not to stray, except those who forsake (the path). (Yusuf Ali)
I still haven’t found a Bible passage that mentions mosquitoes, but gnats show up in a couple of places. They are mentioned in Exodus 8 as the third plague, and they are mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 23:34 during his tirade against hypocritical Pharisees (“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”)
But I am not particularly interested in single-word differences in various translations. I’m more interested in what this verse from the Qur’an is trying to say about the smallest of things. Certainly, we’re all allowed to read sacred texts and interpret them for ourselves, but it seems to me that this verse is trying to make several points: 1) Allah created the world and all that is in it, 2) Allah is not ashamed of any part of that creation, including its smallest, and perhaps most pesky, aspects, and 3) Allah would not hesitate to use such creatures as examples of the magnificence shown to the world each and every day.
The passage, and my interpretation of it, resonated for me since I had just been thinking similar thoughts regarding science. The names of several poets and artists quickly passed through my mind as I thought of their attempts to depict the divine aspects of nature in their work. I thought about Buddhism’s declaration of compassion to all sentient beings, and I thought about the various “green” movements present in both Judaic and Christian schools of thought. I felt satisfied with my little investigation and moved on to something else.
But that evening, as I watched my son subconsciously wipe away imaginary bugs while trying to do homework, I realized the passage deserved a bit more thought. Our household is currently experiencing a small invasion of stink bugs. This Asian insect was accidentally introduced to the U.S. and is now considered an agricultural pest. It has the ability to release an unpleasant odor from its abdomen, which is why it’s called a stink bug. My son dislikes them intensely, is somewhat afraid of them, and has mentally granted them super-human powers. He’s not completely crazy. They don’t move quickly, but somehow they do manage to show up on your body or in your clothes with no advanced warning. On top of that, handling, moving, or crushing them can cause the odor to release, so one must be ever-vigilant in avoiding their diminutive dose of hostility. My son is not enjoying our little infestation one bit.
I could empathize, I thought to myself, as I watched him swat the back of his own head. I feel exactly the same way about mosquitoes. A few years ago, I contracted dengue fever while traveling in Indonesia. Dengue fever, also known as breakbone fever, is a mosquito-borne virus. The symptoms are extremely unpleasant and appear many days after the initial bite. Somehow, I was infected despite my twice-a-day slatherings of an environmentally unsound mosquito repellant. The whole situation felt totally unjust. On top of that, I now have immunity to only one of the five different strains of the virus. On hot summer evenings, the slightest wisp of wind crossing my skin causes me to jump out of the lawn chair as I swipe at my limbs. Like my son, who fails to recognize the beauty of stink bug abdominal pores, I’m hard-pressed to find the divine in a swarm of mosquitoes.
Which is precisely why I should be pondering them. Like other members of the fly family, they are rather amazing. They morph from eggs to larvae to pupae to adults. They have those crazy compound eyes that perceive the world in mosaic. And their complex antennae, with receptors for odor, sound, and temperature, have charmed scientist for decades. I know that I’m supposed to find the wonder in all of creation, but sometimes, that ain’t so easy. I don’t ever remember contemplating God when a cockroach crossed my kitchen sink or when my kid was infested with head lice. Experiencing the sacred on a starry night or during a sun-dappled hike is almost effortless. Finding the divine in the more disgusting or irritating parts of life is much trickier and holds the real space for spiritual growth. Obviously, I still need a little work in that arena. And maybe that’s why mosquitoes, or at least their ilk, are specifically mentioned in the Qur’an.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Pickthall, M.M. The Glorious Qur’an. Trans. Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., 2000. Print.
Saheeh International. The Qur’an. Trans. Web. 21 Feb. 2014. <http://www.saheehinternational.com/quran-translation/>.
Yusuf Ali, A. The Qur’an. Trans. Istanbul, Turkey: ASIR MEDIA, 2002. Print.