Appreciating Beauty in Islam-1

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
Jalan Gombak, 53100 Kuala Lumpur
e-mail:    spahico@yahoo.com

Introduction

This paper aims to discuss the notion of beauty from a perspective of the Islamic worldview. The paper shows that beauty in Islam and the utter formation of Islamic aesthetics – just like any other segment of Islamic culture and civilization – cannot be disengaged from the body of Islamic teachings and values and be treated in isolation. From conceptualizing beauty, over creating and appreciating beautiful objects and experiences, and finally to valuing and elevating the idea of beauty to such a level as to relate the same to the Ultimate Transcendental Reality, i.e. God, who is the source of all beauty, Islam provides an inspiration and guidance so that an actual and unambiguous aesthetic realization is duly accomplished on earth. The paper is divided into the following sections: 1) The beauty of Allah’s creation, 2) Defining beauty from different perspectives, 3) Islam on the duality of existence, 4) The believer’s universal outlook on life shapes his perception of beauty, 5) Recognizing beauty through a sixth sense, 6) Islam’s keenness for expressing and enjoying beauty, 7) Two erroneous views on beauty in Islam, 8) Representation of human figures, 9) Conclusion: the beauty of Allâh.

 

The beauty of Allah’s creation

The Prophet (pbuh) has said that Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty.[1] It is for this that the whole of Allah’s creation has been designed and created according to the highest heavenly standard of splendor and order impossible to be ever emulated by anyone. According to Ibn al-‘Arabi, who epitomized the Sufi speculative ontological thought, the divine beauty through which God is named “Beautiful”, and by which He described Himself as loving beauty, is in all things. There is nothing in existence but beauty, for God created the cosmos only in His image, that is, in the image of His infinite beauty. Hence all cosmos with all its objects and events is beautiful.[2]

Allah says on this: “Such is the Creation of Allah: now show Me what is there that others besides Him have created…” (Luqman 11)

“…(Such is) the artistry of Allah, Who disposes of all things in perfect order…” (al-Naml 88)

Since man has been created as the vicegerent on earth to whose use all things in the heavens and on earth had been subjected (Luqman 20), man stands for an essential part of the intricate picturesque network of creation, serving the Creator’s universal plan: “We have indeed created man in the best of moulds.” (al-Tin 4)

“It is Allah Who has made for you the earth as a resting place, and the sky as a canopy, and has given you shape – and made your shapes beautiful -, and has provided for you Sustenance…” (Gafir 64)

“He Who created all things in the best way and He began the creation of man from clay.” (al-Sajdah 7)

Man is created as the most beautiful creature on earth. He is given the power of reasoning and insight. He is created as the vicegerent on earth never to be forsaken by God’s words of guidance.  This is so lest man should lose his way, rebel against the will and plan of his Lord, and gradually become puffed up with egotism, self-exaltation and innumerable superstitions pertaining to his own existence and existence taken as a whole. When these exceptional qualities of man are paired with one’s absolute submission to the Creator, Lord and Cherisher of the worlds, one confidently sets out proving his worth, elevating his status over that of the angels in the process. Conversely, no sooner does one start mishandling and abusing the same qualities and gifts than one starts drifting away from the plane of truth, debasing his self lower than the level of animals in the process.

What is more, Adam, the father of mankind, has been created in Allah’s own image, as declared by the Prophet (pbuh).[3] This means that “Adam has been bestowed with life, knowledge, power of hearing, seeing, understanding, but the features of Adam are different from those of Allah, only the names are the same, e.g., Allah has life and knowledge and power of understanding, and Adam also has them, but there is no comparison between the Creator and the created thing. As Allah says in the Qur’an: “There is nothing like Him, and He is the All-Hearer, the All-Seer.” (al-Shura 11)”[4]

While actualizing his vicegerency mission on earth by means of holding fast to the values and philosophy divinely given, as well as by means of constant constructive interaction with the rest of creation, man is bound to comprehend rightly the mission and purpose of creation (including the creation of his very self), penetrating through some of its highest mysteries with his powers of reason and insight. In doing so, man will only be answering the divine call, over and over again reiterated in the Qur’an, the thrust of which is the meticulous study, exploration and reflection on the perfectly executed order in the universe hierarchy: from the gnat, fly and spider to the sun, moon, stars and other majestic cosmic objects. Man’s initial amazing impression with regard to the awesome sights in the universe, as a result of Allah’s supreme artistry, followed by his in-depth study of what is viable thereof, is meant to lead man to an unwavering spiritual awakening, thus prompting all his spiritual and mental faculties to assertively declare: “…Our Lord not for naught hast thou created (all) this! Glory to Thee! Give us Salvation from the Chastisement of the Fire.” (Alu ‘Imran 191)

Allah Almighty says, for instance: “He Who created the seven heavens one above another: no want of proportion wilt thou see in the Creation of the Most Gracious. So turn thy vision again: seest thou any flaw? Again turn thy vision a second time: (thy) vision will come back to thee dull and discomfited, in a state worn out.” (al-Mulk 3, 4)

Also: “On the earth are Signs for those of assured Faith; as also in your own selves: will yet not then see?” (al-Dhariyat 20-21)

Thus, everything in the universe has been created beautiful, with purpose and in proportion and measure, both qualitatively and quantitatively. (al-Qamar 49) The traces of divine wisdom and plan underpin each and every aspect of creation. Only is man’s ungodly and self-centered tempering with the existing total artistic setting able to render things ugly, harmful, evil and obsolete. Man’s own self, status and mission are no exception to this rule, in that man is capable very much of rendering them repulsive, dull, worthless and pathetic too.

The order and beauty of the earth, of the vast spaces surrounding it, and of the marvelous bodies that follow regular laws of motion in those enormous spaces in the visible world – they are our tangible and all-encompassing reality. However, we were not to stop just at marveling at its corporeal manifestations and the aura they generate. By discovering and mulling over the signs readily available in all things around us – big or small – which inevitably point at Allah’s Oneness, Presence, Authority and Clemency, we were, furthermore, to try to form from these some a priori intuition of the Supreme Beauty and of the vastly greater invisible world.

Defining beauty from different perspectives

Beauty is normally defined as “the phenomenon of the experience of pleasure, through the perception of balance and proportion of stimulus. It involves the cognition of a balanced form and structure that elicits attraction and appeal towards a person, animal, inanimate object, scene, music, idea, etc.”[5]

Beauty is also said to be “an assemblage or graces or properties pleasing to the eye, the ear, the intellect, the aesthetic faculty, or the moral sense.”[6]

Also, beauty is defined as “that quality or combination of qualities (or characteristics) in something that evoke in the perceiver a combination of strong positive emotion and a high degree of attraction.”[7]

The gist of the mentioned definitions is that beauty is “the qualities that give pleasure to the senses.”[8] It goes without saying, therefore, that appreciating beauty and beautiful objects, irrespective of whether the same is natural or represents the artistic expressions generated by men, is intrinsic in all humans. As such, attempts made at different levels and with different degrees of success to satiate people’s yearnings for aesthetics, must have been around and must have been greatly enjoyed by men since time immemorial. Needles to say, furthermore, that applying human talent and competence in recognizing the harmony, equilibrium and overall splendor of the world in creating aesthetic objects, environments and experiences for different reasons, is universal and permanent. By the Qur’anic words “He (God) taught Adam the names of all things” (al-Baqarah 31), we feel inclined to understanding that God had taught Adam – the first man and also prophet on earth – the inner nature, functions and qualities of all things on earth. Because God is beautiful, He loves beauty, and He is the source of all beauty – on the one hand – and because aesthetics and things related thereto are a universal life’s feature – on the other – matters related to these subjects are believed to have been some of the things that Adam had been taught by God.

Some commonly given criteria for determining what constitutes beauty and the beautiful are, as advanced by Aristotle – for an instance: unity, order, magnitude, symmetry and definiteness.[9] In early Christian aesthetics, such criteria were basically three: perfection, harmony and clarity.[10]

Whatever the definitions of beauty and the criteria for it, they all stem from certain philosophies and principles, which shape not only one’s conception and appreciation of beauty, but also one’s total outlook on life. Some notions of the subject of beauty lay emphasis only on the physical or the outer dimensions of life, recognizing no the other side of creation. To them, physical appearance is all that matters. Physical appearance is the prism through which things are only observed and aesthetically valued.

Other notions, however, encompass both the inner and outer aspects of creation considering them indivisible. Religions, by and large, more generously provide conceptual frameworks for accommodating this idea of duality, so to speak, in the field of aesthetics. In early Christianity, for instance, God was regarded as Absolute Beauty “that dictates and is the source of all other beauties.”[11] Augustine thus said about God: “Thou, therefore, Lord, didst make these things; Thou who art beautiful, for they are beautiful; Thou who art good, for they are good; Thou who art for they are. Nor even so are they beautiful, nor good, nor are they, as Thou their Creator art; compared with whom they are neither beautiful, nor good, nor are at all.”[12]

Islam on the duality of existence

According to the Islamic worldview, the reality of creation is a dual one: the physical (sensible) and spiritual (metaphysical), in the sense that it serves the purposes of both this world and the world to come. To this the Holy Qur’an refers in different contexts employing different implicit expressions, such as “the unseen and that which is open” (al-Ra’d 9); also: “…and He has created (other) things of which ye have no knowledge.” (al-Nahl 8); also: “…There is not a thing but celebrates His praise; and yet ye understand not how they declare His glory!” (al-Isra’ 44)

The Qur’an says, implying this duality as well as man’s inability to ever comprehend lots of things and experiences around him, in particular if he detaches himself from the source of most wholesome knowledge, i.e. revelation: “They ask thee concerning the Spirit (ruh). Say: “The Spirit is of the Command of my Lord, of knowledge it is only a little that is communicated to you, (O men!)” (al-Isra’ 85)

The two realms: physical and spiritual, are both intertwined and separated. There are beings and things that can only be categorized as unseen. By means of his five animal senses, man in no way is able to comprehend them. Man needed divine revelation, which through the prophets served as a means for realizing the existence of such realities, as well as for presenting a qualified insight into their essence. Thus, a sixth intuitive sense in the heart of the followers of the revelation and the prophets to whom the former had been revealed, has been generated, resulting in the truly guided and enlightened ones to see things and events in their proper light. Of such things and beings are – for example – jinns, angels, Hell, Paradise, the divine paradigms that accentuate the notions of life and death, etc.

On top of the things and beings that are beyond man’s comprehension in this earthly life is the Supreme Being, God, the Creator, Lord and Sustainer of the universe. He is like what He says about Himself in the Qur’an: “(He is) the Creator of the heavens and the earth… There is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the One that hears and sees.” (al-Shura 11)

Also: “No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision; He is Subtle (latif) well-aware.” (al-An’am 103) About the meaning of the attribute “latif”, translated as “subtle”, Abdullah Yusuf Ali commented: “Latif: fine, subtle, so fine and subtle as to be invisible to the physical eye; so fine as to be imperceptible to the senses.”[13]

Moreover, there are things and objects that have both their seen and unseen, or sensible and heavenly, aspects. To this category all physical beings, including man, belong. No physical being, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, that serves no spiritual purpose and that has no role to play in the fulfillment of the divine plan on earth. Hence, it is an Islamic tenet that all things have been created with purpose and in proportion and measure, both qualitatively and quantitatively. (al-Qamar 49)

About the duality of man, for example – the Qur’an says: “Behold! thy Lord said to the angels: “I am about to create man, from sounding clay from mud molded into shape. When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him.” (al-Hijr 29)

As to the duality of the rest of material creation’s components, suffice it to say that apart from being subjected to man’s use, they all incessantly declare the praises and glory of God, that is to say, they are God’s faithful “servants”. They also account for an arena splendidly impressed with countless signs (ayat) that prove the existence and greatness of God. Furthermore, they make up an integral part of God’s divine vision and plan for mankind, at the core of which is man, the vicegerent on earth, and for whose accomplishment both man and the rest of the material creation are indispensable. Summing up this unique status enjoyed by the earth and everything on it, the Prophet (pbuh) said that the earth has been made to him and his followers as pure and as a place of worship.[14]

About this duality in creation and how to deal with it, R. H. Princess Wijdan Ali, wrote: “Every external image is complemented by an inner reality that is its hidden internal essence. The outward form, or zahir, underlines the quantitative, physical aspect that is obvious, and easily and readily intelligible. It is represented in the shape of a building, the shell of a vessel, the body of man, or the outward form of religious rites. Meanwhile, the essential, qualitative aspect is the hidden, or inward, batin, that is present in all beings and things. In order to know each in its completeness, one must seek the knowledge and understanding of its outward and temporal reality, as well its essential and inward corporeality, where the eternal beauty of every object resides. It is the scholar who comprehends the logic of the composition; while the unlearned only appreciates its aesthetic value. This interpretive concept forms the most important philosophical aspect of Islamic aesthetics.”[15]

Thus, the idea of existence ought to be observed in its totality. Not to an aspect, or a few aspects, should one’s appreciation of the same be restricted. Moreover, one’s interaction with all the strata of existence ought to be performed against the backdrop of the above-explained truth, the latter dictating and serving as the source of such an interaction. No aspect of life, be it the zahir, outward or physical, or the batin, the inner or spiritual, is to be ministered to at the expense of the other. A delicate balance between the two is to be struck. This exactly is expected from the vicegerent on earth, or the steward of creation, to whom everything in the heavens and on the earth have been subjected so that he could freely and unhindered execute his earthly mission. Anything short of this implies ignorance, shortsightedness and possibly a symptom of going astray.

All the actions of true Muslims are saturated with the spirit of this philosophy. The material and spiritual facets of things are never separated. What’s more, if weighed against one another, in terms of their overall significance, the spiritual dimensions will always easily take precedence over the material ones, even though the latter at times plays a crucial role in sustaining the well-being of people. This by no means signifies, however, that the corporeality of life is neglected or mishandled. Rather, this simply means that God and spiritual enhancement is a true Muslim’s first love and his last fascination. Everything else comes second. Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi explains: “Human character, the a priori idea of man analyzable into a million details revelatory of another depth or height in the human personality – all this was for the Muslim artist just beside-the-point. The divine is his first love and his last obsession. To stand in the presence of divinity is for him the hallmark of all existence and all nobility and beauty. For this end, Muslims surround themselves with every prop and stimulus inductive of an intuition of that Presence.”[16]

While presenting his theory of beauty, in so far as it is the object of love for both the rational and animal souls, Ibn Sina (370-429 AH/980-1037 AC), a famed Muslim philosopher, said that “beauty (al-husn) consists in order (al-nazm), composition, (al-ta'lif) and symmetry (al-i'tidal). In the animal soul, this love of beauty is purely natural, arising either from instinct or from the simple pleasure of sensible perceptions. In the rational soul, however, love of beauty is more reflective, ultimately resting upon the recognition of the proximity of the beloved object to God, the First Beloved.”[17]

Apparently, Ibn Sina held that beauty consists in order, composition and symmetry because those three factors are the unmistaken representation of visual perfection (kamal). While beauty, on the other hand, is synonymous with not only visual but also intelligent and spiritual perfections. Order, composition and symmetry trigger in a beholder a sense of delight, ease, serenity, gratification and excitement,[18] just as beauty does at all its levels and within all its dimensions. Such are the verve and appeal both beauty and all of order, composition and symmetry entail that they are able to captivate one’s wits, psyche and spirit, thence inviting him to transcend the corporeality of life and delve into its profound metaphysical secrets.

The believer’s universal outlook on life shapes his perception of beauty

The vision of every true Muslim is a universal one, embracing both the outer and inner facets of the terrestrial reality. He sees creation as an exceptionally beautiful one, in that it was conceived and designed by God, the Absolute Beauty. Everything, regardless of how grand or slight it might be, is meaningful and beautiful, though, only because it originated from Him, who is the Source of all goodness and beauty, thus serving His will and plan for creation, and bearing the imprints that clearly and powerfully demonstrate divine infinite presence, omnipotence and grace. The perfect order, harmony, unity, clarity and symmetry – which are, by and large, of the universal standards of beauty – characterizing each and every component of existence, suggest the ultimate perfection, supremacy and infiniteness of God and His blessed Attributes one of which is the “Beautiful”. Were it not for these inner qualities of this fleeting world’s beings and things, they would be reduced to sheer dead and hollow matter as inconsequential and despised as their original substance.

It is for this that true Muslims see this world in the most positive way. They use as much of it as needed for discovering and ascertaining the truth. The material dimension of life is made use of only as a catalyst for establishing and further buttressing the spiritual order of things and events. The former, thus, serves as a preamble to the latter, as help rather than an obstacle toward the spiritual fulfillment. The former is a means, medium and instrument; the latter is the goal. It follows that without understanding rightly the outer dimension of creation there can be no proper understanding of the inner one either. Without understanding rightly this world there can be no proper understanding of the world to come either.

Toward this end are Allah’s repetitive imperatives to men in the Qur’an to contemplate the wonders of creation so that men in the end become able to grasp, neither casually nor superficially, but earnestly and systematically the essential meaning of life. Indeed, at the lowest ebb in the intelligent hierarchy of creation are those men who fail to avail themselves of the cognitive faculties that God has bestowed on them, or they do, after all, but for wrong purposes. Says thus the Qur’an: “For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and the dumb, – those who understand not.” (al-Anfal 22)

A Muslim sage is reported to have said that prolonged meditation leads to understanding; understanding leads to knowledge, and knowledge, in turn, leads to action.[19] Yet another Muslim sage, while stressing the character of meditation that Islam calls for, stated that this world has not been created so that we can only look at it, but rather that we can through it see the Hereafter.[20]

The Prophet (pbuh) too is said to have urged his followers to reflect on God’s creation rather than His divine Self, for the former leads to a favorable and affirmative point of view with regard to the latter. Doing things the wrong way round, however, warrants one’s self-ruin. A companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Abdullah Ibn `Abbas, said that a group of people used to debate the nature of Allah and the Prophet (pbuh) said to them: “Ponder over the creation of Allah and do not ponder over the essence of Allah because your minds cannot possibly encompass that.”[21]

This Islamic attitude is somewhat epitomized in an ancient maxim, which is – in all probability – associated with the religious legacy of the Children of Israel: “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” The maxim is often – albeit erroneously – ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).[22]

Thus, while discoursing on the theme of aesthetics in Islamic philosophy, Deborah L. Black wrote, “the nature of beauty was addressed by Islamic philosophers in the course of discussions about God and his attributes in relation to His creation… On the whole, Islamic philosophers did not view artistic and literary creativity as ends in themselves. Rather, their interest was in explaining the relations of these activities to purely intellectual ends.”[23]

About the concept of beauty: its meaning and its inner and outer dimensions, plus the sublime beauty of God, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (450-505 AH/1058-1111 AC) comprehensively wrote: “Know, O dear readers, that every which is beautiful is dear to one of the senses. Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. Material beauty can be perceived by the eye. The beauty of divine glory can only be appreciated by the mind. The word beauty is used to describe the attributes of individuals. It is therefore said that man has a beautiful character. The word applies to his qualities, and not to his physical appearance. He is loved for his beautiful attributes as one is loved for his beautiful appearance. If this love is deep, it is called ishq. Even more wonderful is when a dead man is loved, not for his appearance, but for the innate qualities he possessed. All worldly beauty is a spark of that permanent beauty of Allah and a spark of His light. So, how can he not love Him who is ever beautiful and the prime source of beauty? He who realizes this, loves Him the most. Nothing can be compared to the beauty of the sun and the moon. Allah is creator of these beautiful things. So how should He be loved?

Love for a created thing is defective. To love a creation is a sign of ignorance. But one who knows Him with knowledge of certainty knows of no beauty except the Creator of beauty. He who knows workmanship as the attribute of a workman does not get to anybody except to him. Everything in the world is the workmanship of Allah and the sign of His creation. So he realizes Him through His creations and realizes His attributes and His workmanship, just as one realizes the qualities of a writer through his written book. A man of little intellect understands love as physical union or satisfaction of sexual lust."[24]


[1] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Hadith No. 164.

[2] See: Claude Addas, The Experience and Doctrine of Love in Ibn Arabî, http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/addas1.html.

William C. Chittick, The Divine Roots of Human Love, http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/divinerootsoflove.html.

[3] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Book 040, Hadith No. 6809.

[4] Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din & Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Translation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an in the English Language, see the translators’ comment on the verse No. 86 of the chapter al-Nisa’.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beauty.

[6] http://www.brainydictionary.com/words/be/beauty135417.html.

[7] http://www.beautyanalysis.com/mba_definitionofbeauty_page.swf.

[8] http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn.

[9] Yurii Mirza, Concept of Beauty in Classical Greece and Early Christianity, http://www.ournet.md/~theology/beauty.htm.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Holy Quran, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary; see the translator’s comment No. 931.

[14]Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Tayammum, Hadith No. 323.

[15] R. H. Princess Wijdan Ali, Al-Ghazali and Aesthetics, http://members.tripod.com/naungan_nur_wahyu/id17.html

[16] Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, Al-Tawhid: its Implications for Thought and Life, (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1995), p. 208.

[17] Deborah L. Black, Aesthetics in Islamic Philosophy, http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ip/rep/h020.htm.

[18] Sa’duddin Kalib, al-Bunyah al-Jamaliyyah fi al-Fikr al-‘Arabi al-Islami, (Damascus: Manshurat Wizarah al-Thaqafah, 1997), p. 172-173.

[19] Salih b. Fawzan, Al-Tafakkur, http://www.kalemat.org/sections.php?so=va&aid=293.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hasan al-Banna, Inquiring about the Nature of Allah, http://www.islamonline.net/english/index.shtml.

[22] Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Silsilah al-Ahadith al-Da’ifah wa al-Mawdu’ah, (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1977), vol. 1 p. 96.

[23] Deborah L. Black, Aesthetics in Islamic Philosophy, http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ip/rep/h020.htm.

[24] R. H. Princess Wijdan Ali, Al-Ghazali and Aesthetics, http://members.tripod.com/naungan_nur_wahyu/id17.html.

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