I Learned one of the greatest lessons of my life in "horizon expansion" from a very modest imam of a destitute section of Dakar - practically a shantytown - next to which I lived in Senegal, some years ago.
Ibrahima Sall was the leader of the prayers of a small and considerably dilapidated mosque. (This is the main function of the imam - an important one in a religion in which the faithful gather five times a day for public prayer.) He also functioned as an informal judge and peacemaker for local disputes and family problems.
He lived in an extremely modest wooden shack. Its sole furniture consisted of a rug worn so thin you would believe that generations of Senegalese Muslims leaving for Mecca had piously walked over it by the tens of thousands; a foam mattress with a see-through blanket; a chair for his guests (Mr. Sall himself sat on the floor); and a very small prayer mat he used for his devotions and carried around wherever he went.
He was one of those rare wise persons I have met who has discovered that "less is more" - the less your life is cluttered up with material possessions, the more time, space, and energy you have for essentials.
From time to time, I would go over and visit him. He was the father of my best Senegalese friend, Aliou, who, from this extremely modest background, has evolved into one of the people I admire most in the world.
One day, I decided to ask how Islam defined God. I was so cocksure I had the best possible definition anyone could come up with! My state of mind, as I strode across the beach to Sall's home, must have been perilously close to that of the Pharisee in the well-known Biblical parable of the Pharisee and the publican in the temple.
This attitude is rather nicely summed up in the Japanese proverb that states, "You can't describe the vast horizons of the ocean to the frog sitting at the bottom of a well." Wells never experience the bracing winds of the ocean - and oh how snug and secure I felt at the bottom of my little mental well!
"Salaam maleikum!" I said. (Peace be with you.)
"Maleikum salaam!" he said. (With you peace.)
"Ana wa keur ge?" (How are the people of your household?)
"Nyunga fa, Allhamdullilah!" (They are well, praise be to God.)
After the traditional greeting in Wolof, I asked Ibrahima Sall my question.
The little frog in me had the surprise of its life when he replied, "If you took all the branches of all the trees of the world as pens, and the water of all the streams, rivers, and oceans of the world as ink, you could not describe all the names, the qualities of God."
In the moment of stunned silence that followed, and after having gently pulled me out of my puny little well shaft, he added in that soft voice of his that still rings in my ears, "You know, you are a better Muslim than most of the Muslims I meet every day."
By this he meant that, although I was not an adherent of the Muslim faith, my lifestyle was closer to the precepts of the Koran than that of many nominal Muslims - not to mention all the wine-bibbing Frenchmen who lived in Senegal.
I had excluded, he had included. Suddenly, I thought of a verse by American poet Edwin Markham that goes:
He drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
That was the second, and equally important, lesson Ibrahima Sall taught me.
How often we dig our little wells - wells of race, creed, culture, class, political ideology, religion, not to mention privileged viewpoints on given issues: abortion, the death penalty, the survival of penguins or the Amazon forest. Yet the ocean wind is so much more bracing....
So thank you, Ibrahima Sall, for the inner wealth that taught me such a lesson. Thank you for the wider circle. Thank you, Sall, for including me.
This first ran on The Home Forum of Aug. 27, 1991. It is reprinted with the author's permission.