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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

In the origin story of Japan, it is written that the sun goddess Amaterasu was once found hiding in a cave, refusing to come out. Avoiding the potential disaster of having no sunlight, no sun rise, and no sun set, the deity Ishikoridome placed a mirror at the cave’s entrance to distract her. Upon seeing this new shiny object, Amaterasu was intrigued and slowly emerged from the darkness following the shiny reflections in the mirror. When Amaterasu was ultimately sent by her family to rule over Japan (literally the land of the rising sun), she was given three objects to serve as a sign of her power and authority: the mirror symbolizing truth, a jewel symbolizing benevolence, and a sword symbolizing virtue. These three objects, collectively referred to as the Imperial Regalia of Japan, are considered the most sacred objects to the Japanese people and a sign of the both the legitimacy and continuity of the Chrysanthemum throne: the oldest, continually running monarchy on earth. These objects are so important to the Japanese people that they have never been seen, not even by the emperor himself! They are always presented at imperial coronations in boxes covered with beautiful Japanese silk as a sign of authority and Imperial rule. They are also kept in three different locations throughout the country to provide maximum protection. As long as these three objects exist and remain safe, so too is Japan her people.

Mirrors are peculiar objects and there is hardly a culture, civilization, or religion that does not have a story, myth, or legend about mirrors and reflections. In our modern culture, we are perhaps most familiar with the story of Snow White in which the evil queen asks her magic mirror every day, “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Since, like in the origin story of Japan, mirrors stand for wisdom as they only reflect the truth, the mirror one day informed her that Snow White was the fairest and thus ensued a tragic tale of arrogance and jealousy.

Mirrors are objects that are supposed to provide accurate reflections of what is placed in front of them. Whether beautiful or ugly: nice or bad, mirrors simply tell us the truth. Islam too has the same basic teaching, but instead of an actual mirror, Islam speaks of the moon as an object that reflects. Not just any moon, but more specifically the full moon which appears in the middle of each lunar month. The full moon shines bright in the night sky, but it is not its own light that it emits, but rather the light of the sun that it reflects down on earth. And since the full moon is in essence a mighty mirror for an even mightier star, Islam commonly refers its Prophet ﷺ as the full moon in the night sky, reflecting the Light, Beauty, and Mercy of God Almighty. In verse after verse, tradition after tradition, and poem after poem, Muslims are reminded that the Prophet of Islam ﷺ – who is referred to as the perfect person (al-insān al-kāmil)- reflects to us Divine Perfection and Beauty. One of the reasons the Prophet ﷺ can do this is because his mirror is polished, allowing him to perfectly reflect and transmit wisdom and truth. There are no blemishes or rust on his mirror. There are no cracks, or missing pieces. Rather, it is a perfectly intact mirror that perfectly reflects.

This teaching is linked to an even greater one and serves as Islam’s unique contribution to the age-old story of mirrors and reflections: that each one of us too have mirrors and we reflect in our speech and deeds that which is imprinted on our hearts. If the images of this world are our focus, this will manifest in what we say and what we do. If we are obsessed with the latest this and the latest that, this will show. If we are used to seeing and hearing about violence and hate, this will show. If we are into this and that, this will show too. The list goes on and on. Whatever we choose to let into our heart will reflect out truthfully, because like all mirrors, our hearts reflect what is presented to it. For this reason, the Arabs say that the tongue is the interpreter of the heart.

So, if we are surrounded daily by images, news, social media, advertisements that are not necessarily of our choosing, how can we clean our hearts to reflect better? To this point, the Prophet of Islam ﷺ said, “everything has a polish, and the polish of the hearts is the remembrance of God.” The reason Narcissus fell in love with himself when he saw his reflection in the water is because he was already in love with himself. Why else would he reject the advances of all those potential lovers? Yes, the reflection in the water was true and honest, for that is the nature of reflections, but his internal mirror was clouded to begin with, he just didn’t know it. What this tradition of the Prophet teaches us is that by countering the thousands of images imprinted on our hearts daily by the remembrance of what is ultimately good and true, we clean the rust, fix the cracks, and polish our inner mirror. The more we do that, the more we ourselves will stand for truth and honesty. The higher will be our moral character and the more virtuous we will become.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “you become what you give attention to.” The images that we allow to sit on our hearts turn out to be our true focus points. They are the motivations that drive us to do things we do and say the things we say. Accordingly, if we make the effort remember God and His Prophet ﷺ more frequently, these images will replace other images and therefore alter our focus. It’s not that complicated, just something we might not have been aware of before, yet hopefully now its urgency will be understood.

Japan’s sacred mirror is a fascinating story. For not only is it part of that great nation’s origin story, it also has had dramatic consequences in modern times. While we commonly attribute Japan’s surrender in WWII to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is more to the story. As devastating and destructive as the bombings were, I would go as far as to say it was immoral, it was the fear of a land invasion by Emperor Hirohito that urged him to surrender. He would later reflect that he feared a land invasion would allow foreign forces to confiscate Japan’s sacred objects, including the mirror, and since it was his sworn duty to protect them and preserve them, he had no choice but to surrender. Here was an emperor surrendering his entire nation to preserve a mirror (the symbol of truth and wisdom to his people) he has never seen. What will you do to preserve and protect the mirror you carry inside you every day?!