Bite-Sized Philosophy

Amin Maalouf On Expanding Our Definition Of Prayer

“Only a man at peace with his Creator could find sleep in a place of worship.”

R. C. Abbott
3 min readJul 29, 2021

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Screenshot from Éric Rohmer’s 1970 film Claire’s Knee. A man and a young woman stand surrounded by trees, looking off into the distance. The subtitle reads: It’s too beautiful. It’s all this beauty that exhausts me after a while.
Photo credit: Criterion Babe. Claire’s Knee 1970, Éric Rohmer

In his stunning historical fiction Samarkand, Amin Maalouf crafts a historically-based story about Omar Kayyam during the time he was composing his famous Rubaiyat. Omar Kayyam was an 11th century poet, astronomer, philosopher, and mathematician.

In the fictionalized account, Omar has been accused of insulting Islam (for many reasons including sleeping in a Mosque) and has been dragged before a judge. He defends himself by saying:

Only a man at peace with his Creator could find sleep in a place of worship.

The idea that true connection with God can run contrary to the performative expectations of a religious or non-religious society at large is nothing new. Omar expands the idea into a little bit of a speech whereby he breaks down his impression of prayer:

Vincent van Gogh’s Roses, 1890. Oil on canvas. A vase of pale coloured roses sit on a green table in front of a wavering green and cream background.
Vincent van Gogh. Roses, 1890.

I am not one of those for whom faith is simply fear of judgement.

How do I pray?

I study a rose, I count the stars, I marvel at the beauty of creation and how perfectly ordered it is, at man, the most beautiful work of the Creator, his brain thirsting for knowledge, his heart for love, and his senses, all his senses alert or gratified.

The qadi who is judging Omar is moved by the speech and rather than giving Omar trouble, offers a warning to keep silent around other people so he doesn’t get in trouble again and a gift. He says:

We live in the age of the secret and of fear. You must have two faces. Show one to the crowd, and keep the other for yourself and your Creator. If…

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