Appreciating Beauty in Islam-2

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

Recognizing beauty through a sixth sense

No wonder then that the Islamic message created in men a sixth sense, which transcends the boundaries of the five animal senses. Through this sixth sense, people can see and appreciate the real beauty of creation. Such is the beauty of the inner world, “that is, the spiritual, moral and religious values.”[1] The inner beauty is more perfect and greater than the outer beauty, the world of appearance.[2] As a matter of fact, the outer beauty, if divorced from, or – worse yet – if it contradicts the quintessence of the inner beauty, it becomes incomplete, and if observed from the ontological point of view, the same then cannot be even classified as beauty. Certainly, nothing can be viewed as beautiful if it did not serve the cause of the truth, irrespective of the intensity of its falsely embellished appearances. There is no thing that stands at the diametrically opposite direction of the truth, directly or indirectly promoting falsehood and vice, that it can be viewed as beautiful or wholesome.

 

It is primarily for this that Allah instructs in the Qur’an that “beautiful” pagan women and men are not to be married by believing men and women, because pagans generally invite to wrongdoing and the Hell, while God invites to happiness, forgiveness and His Paradise. Anything that leads to the Hell cannot be hailed as good, desired and beautiful. Anything that leads to Paradise, on the other hand, must be hailed as good, pleasant and beautiful. Allah says: “…A slave woman who believes is better than an unbelieving woman, even though she allures you… A man slave who believes is better than an unbeliever, even though he allures you.” (al-Baqarah 220) It follows that although pagan men and women might outwardly be attractive and beautiful, their spiritual state — or the lack of it – which rescinds their physical condition, renders them repulsive and abominable in the sight of God and also in the sight of God’s faithful servants. Although, on the other hand, believing slave men and women might outwardly be disadvantaged and repellent, their spiritual state, which offsets their physical condition, renders them more attractive, more beautiful and more preferred than “beautiful” pagan men and women.

The sixth sense or the spiritual insight by which true Muslims develop the means and channels for appreciating the real inner beauty, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali refers to – obviously on the basis of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s experiences – as “soul”, also called the “spirit”, the “heart”, the “reason” and the “light”.[3] The Qur’an says – for example – about those jinns and men who will dwell in Hell: “…They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, – nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning).” (al-A’raf 179) This by no means implies that these had defective senses and faculties while in this world. Instead, their faculties of reason and perception were just perfect, in the physical sense of the word. However, “they so deadened them that those faculties do not work, and they go headlong into Hell.”[4] Also, the principal faculty – that is, the heart – which is the repository of genuine knowledge and wisdom, was impaired, resulting in the lower senses and agents of comprehension to remain impaired as well. Thus, the Qur’an asserts: “Do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts (and minds) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? Truly it is not the eyes that are blind, but the hearts which are in their breasts.” (al-Hajj 46)

The Qur’an also said: “It is He Who brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when ye knew nothing; and He gave you hearing and sight and intelligence and affections: that ye may give thanks (to Allah).” (al-Nahl 78)

About the contrast between the beauty of the outer and that of the inner world, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali expressly wrote: “…The beauty of the outer form which is seen with the bodily eye can be experienced even by children and animals, … while the beauty of the inner form can only be perceived by the eye of the ‘heart’ and the light of inner vision of man alone…

The inner vision is stronger than the outer one, the ‘heart’ keener in perception than the eye and the beauty of the objects perceived with the ‘reason’ is greater than the beauty of outer forms which present themselves to the eye. Hence the pleasure of the ‘heart’ over the exalted, divine objects which it sees and which are too lofty to be perceived by the senses must necessarily be more perfect and greater, and the inclination of sound disposition and reason toward them must be stronger…

He who lacks the inner vision cannot perceive the inner form and he cannot derive pleasure from it, love it and incline toward it. However, he who appreciates the inner values more than the outer senses loves the inner values more than the outer ones. There is a great difference between him who loves the painted picture on the wall on account of the beauty of its outer form and him who loves a prophet on account of the beauty of his inner firm.”[5]

Along the same lines, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali wrote that the inner beauty of the righteous persons “rests on three principles: first, knowledge… second, power to lead oneself and others to a better life and to maintain the kingdom of the world and the order of religion; and third, elevation above faults and deficiencies and all bad inclinations… The more perfect these men are the more they are loved.”[6]

Having dwelled on Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s view of beauty, and of the principles of the inner beauty of the righteous, Richard Ettinghausen inferred: “Since knowledge, power and elevation above faults are found complete only in God, and since they derive in their human form from Him, we can conclude that the love of the manifestations of the inner beauty by the perfect artist leads to God… An art object reflecting inner beauty should be regarded as “real”.[7]

The Holy Qur’an on many an occasion affirms that the heart is the depository of the highest form of human knowledge (and where other forms are refined and authenticated) with which all the barriers that stand between a man and his emphatic grasp of life’s major secrets simply fade away. As such, the constant healing, enrichment and illumination of the heart through the ways sanctioned by revelation must be the foremost goal of one’s overall cognitive development. This is so because the heart, as stated by the Prophet (pbuh), is an organ which if functions properly the whole body follows suit; however, if it breaks down or decays the whole body again follows suit.[8] It sounds as if the Prophet (pbuh) did not mention by chance the quality of the heart as being the most important agency in the human body immediately after he had divulged a broad categorization of human actions. The Prophet (pbuh) stressed that some of such categorization’s delicate aspects “many people cannot comprehend.” As if the Prophet (pbuh) thus wished to convey that it is the epistemological and ontological authority of the heart that plays a decisive role in a man’s orientation in life and in ways he sees to life’s countless phenomena and trials.

Allah the most High says, for example: “Do they not then earnestly seek to understand the Qur’an, or is that there are locks upon their hearts?” (Muhammad 24)

Also: “ Verily this is a Revelation from the Lord of the Worlds. With it came down the Truthful spirit to thy heart that thou mayest admonish.” (al-Shu’ara’ 192-194)

Also: “For, Believers are those who, when Allah is mentioned, fell a tremor in their hearts…” (al-Anfal 2)

Also: “When Allah, alone is mentioned, the hearts of those who believe not in the Hereafter are filled with disgust; but when (gods) other than He are mentioned, behold, they are filled with joy.” (al-Zumar 45)

Undeniably, man’s constant interaction with the world – resulting eventually in the creation of miscellaneous crafts, arts, vocations, industries, traditions and cultural refined patterns – ought to be all geared towards rising above the physical facet of the world and towards recognizing, comprehending and appreciating the supreme Being and Beauty, thus sharpening and enhancing one’s spiritual insight. The primary mission of aesthetics carries the same spirit too – maybe even more than a number of other interests of man – given that using skill and imagination in recognizing order in the world and in creating aesthetic objects, environments and experiences for various motives which can be shared with others is universal and perpetual.

The principles of beauty, both inner and outer, prevail in all the spheres of creation. Beauty and goodness are the norm. Ugliness and evil are the exception. It is thus natural that men, being an integral part of the labyrinth of creation, strive to perpetuate the established conditions in all his individual and civilizational endeavors. Adhering to the existing ontological canons means that men’s prosperous survival on earth can be prolonged, whereas having recourse to the opposite heralds an existential disorder and malaise at all levels, eventually resulting in men’s cultural, civilizational, epistemological and spiritual demise.

For Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, aesthetic experience means “the apprehension through what is given to sense, of an a priori metanatural – hence transcendent – essence which acts as the normative principle of the object beheld. It is what the object is to that ought to be. The nearer the visible object is to the essence, the more beautiful it is.”[9] It follows that “art is the process of discovering within nature that metanatural essence and representing it in visible form. Evidently, art is not the imitation of created nature; not the sensory representation of natura naturata, the objects whose ‘naturing’ or natural reality is complete. A photographic representation, which reproduces the object as it is, may be valuable for illustration or documentation, for the establishment of identity. As a work of art, it is worthless. Art is the reading in nature of an essence that is non-nature, and the giving to that essence the visible form that is proper to it.”[10]

To Muhammad Qutub, of the tasks that art performs is to ‘enlarge’ through its lens the realities and experiences of life so that they become clearer and more discernible in one’s eyesight. Through its lens, art also brings closer to the senses images with various categories and intensities in order that their manifold aspects and functions, as well as indefinable details, appear all the more congruent, sensible, pleasing and cohesive. Finally, through its lens, art reveals the concealed truths deposited in all earthly objects and events, which the bare eye would not otherwise be able to see and appreciate.[11]

In other words, all human senses, including the mind, heart and soul, artistic expressions stir up in a person. Some senses are stimulated more and some less. People are able to see different things with different levels of fervor and judgment in a piece of art, due to a convoluted hierarchy in human aptitudes, ambitions, wisdom and interests. However, one’s spiritual disposition and total worldview take precedence over one’s cerebral faculties in one’s appreciation and interpretation of beauty exemplified in works of art. In a piece of art, a person does not see what is imposed on him to be seen. He sees firstly that which he wants to see, and secondly that which he can see. Preaching uniformity in intuiting and construing beautiful objects is a theatrical and aberrant attitude. In reality, such is an impossible feat. If people can be unified in their readings and explanations of the artistry in the natural world, then they can also be unified insofar as reading and explicating the aesthetic expressions men is able to generate while operating under the gripping influence of the physical and intelligent laws that govern the whole of existence. Since the former is completely unfeasible, the latter is equally unfeasible too.

Reinforcing the fact that in order to grasp the essence or the fundamental nature of a thing, one must rise above the realm of five senses and bring into play a refined sixth sense, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali stated: “The eye perceives the outer and the surface of things, but not their inner essence; moreover, it perceives only their shapes and their forms, not their real nature.”[12]

A majority of Muslim philosophers seem to have agreed with the view propounded by al-Ghazali. To them, beauty is a celestial secret, or a luminous spark, or a power of the creating intellect, which came to the world as a result of the emanation process.[13] As is the case with all other existents in the world, beauty was radiated or emanated by God, which then overflowed into the world. Beauty, it goes without saying, is a supernatural substance. It is an integral part of the spiritual facet of existence. As such, beauty cannot be perceived and fully appreciated solely by means of the five senses. The full services of a sixth sense or a spiritual insight, refined and perfected by both human wits and divine revelation, are thus required.

According to a majority of Muslim philosophers, furthermore, matter of which the whole universe is composed is the repository of spirituality, hence beauty, in this terrestrial world.[14] Without the realm of matter and its qualities, spirituality and beauty will not be able to manifest themselves in the world. Certainly, this is the only recognition both spirituality and beauty owe matter. Nonetheless, if matter is the carrier of beauty, such by no means implies that matter controls beauty, or that it is as pertinent to life as beauty and other spiritual existents. Matter owes its existence to the existence of spirituality and beauty. Matter is thus subservient to them. Unlike beauty, matter is perishable and cannot exist by itself. Although interrelated and joint, the two are not destined to become a compact synthesis. Using philosophy’s terminology, matter is an accident (‘ard) and the spiritual side of the world, to which both the human soul and beauty belong, is a substance (jawhar).

Matter cannot be described as beautiful, in the real sense of the word, because beauty is that which matter is not, and will never be. The features and properties of one are nothing like the features and properties of the other. When we say that a physical body is beautiful, we actually say that metaphorically. The beauty that can be sensed in a physical body through the five senses is merely a reflection of the real beauty, not the beauty itself. Perceiving real beauty is beyond the five human senses. In order for one to realize in a thing its actual beauty, one must rise above physical shapes and forms, that is to say, above the physical side of an object beheld, and must possess a spiritual insight.[15] On the word of one of the Muslim philosophers, Ibn al-Dibagh, what the eyesight perceives is a reflection of beauty, not its inner essence.[16]

 

Islam’s keenness for expressing and enjoying beauty

 

Islam opposes neither artistic creativity nor the enjoyment of beauty. On the contrary, it “blesses the beautiful and promotes it. It sees absolute beauty only in God and in His revealed will or words.”[17] It follows that only such an artistic output meant to yield an intuition of the real essence of the Transcendent and its divine infinity and perfection[18] is to be endorsed by the Islamic worldview and by such men who epitomized it in their thoughts, words and deeds. Any other artistic representation typifying different viewpoint, intent and aim is inapt to be branded as Islamic, and, as such, will never genuinely appeal to a spectator imbued with the ethos, standards and ideals of Islam. Thus, the principal objective of Islamic aesthetics is to lead the beholder away from concentrating on self or anything from this terrestrial world, and toward a contemplation of Almighty God and His Oneness. The goal then becomes similar to that of studying the Holy Qur’an, performing daily prayers, declaring the praises and glory of God (dhikr and tasbih), and all other religious rites, i.e. to teach and reinforce in people the perception of divine transcendence, as well as to regularly and ubiquitously remind them of their stupendous but responsible role and status on earth, and of their reciprocal affiliation with God and with the rest of His pure and innocent creation.[19] On the word of Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, the beautiful, the significant in art, is for the Muslim not an aesthetic portrayal or a symbolic statement of the truths of nature. “Instead, the beautiful for the Muslim is that which stimulates in the viewer or listener an intuition of, or an insight into, the nature of transcendence.”[20]

Titus Burckhardt thus rightly remarked that the study of Islamic art “can lead, when it is understood with a certain open-mindedness, to a more or less profound understanding of the spiritual realities that lie at the root of a whole cosmic and human world.”[21]

Even Hegel (d. 1831), a German idealist philosopher who had influenced most facets of modern philosophy, and who wrote a “Philosophy of Fine Art”, believed that the highest function of art, as for philosophy and religion, was to express the Divine, or Absolute Spirit.[22] Schopenhauer (d. 1860), another German philosopher, went further towards providing a rationale for abstraction in art. In his text “The Metaphysics of Fine Art”, he suggested that “the picture leads us at once from the individual to the mere form; and this separation of the form from the matter brings the form very much nearer the Idea.” “It was logical to move on from this to suggest that the Idea could be better expressed if the form were divorced entirely from ‘matter’,” added Anna Moszynska.[23]

While commenting on the Qur’anic verses from the chapter al-Shu’ara’ (the Poets), which speak about the poets, Abdullah Yusuf Ali remarked that “poetry and other arts are not in themselves evil, but may on the contrary be used in the service of religion and righteousness. But there is a danger that they may be prostituted for base purposes. If they are insincere or are divorced from actual life or its goodness or its serious purpose, they may become instruments of evil or futility. They then wander about without any set purpose, and seek the depth of human folly rather than the heights of divine light.”[24]

Furthermore, Abdullah Yusuf Ali emphasized that “poetry and fine arts which are to be commended are those which emanate from minds steeped in Faith, which try to carry out in life the fine sentiments they express in their artistic work, aim at the glory of Allah rather than at self-glorification or the fulsome praise of men with feet of clay, and do not (as in Jihad) attack anything except aggressive evil. In this sense a perfect artist should be a perfect man. Perfection may not be attainable in this life, but it should be the aim of every man, and especially of one who wishes to become a supreme artist, not only in technique but in spirit and essentials.”[25]

There are so many traditions of the Prophet (pbuh), which in their own way draw attention to the real meaning of beauty and its chief qualities. For example, 'A'isha, the wife of the Prophet (pbuh) reported the Prophet (pbuh) as saying: “Kindness is not to be found in anything but that it adds to its beauty, and it is not withdrawn from anything but it makes it defective.”[26]

Narrated Abu Hurayrah that the Prophet (pbuh) said: "A woman is married for four things, i.e., her wealth, her family status, her beauty and her religion. So you should marry the religious woman (otherwise) you will be a losers.”[27]

Narrated al-Bara b. 'Azib that a piece of silken cloth was given to the Prophet (pbuh) as a present. The people handed it over amongst themselves and were astonished at its beauty and softness. The Prophet (pbuh) said: "Are you astonished at it?" They said: "Yes, O Allah's Messenger!" He said: "By Him in Whose Hand my soul is, the handkerchiefs of Sa'd in Paradise are better than it."[28]

The Prophet (pbuh) once also said: “Today I saw myself in a dream near the Ka'bah. I saw a whitish brown man, the handsomest of all brown men you might ever see. He had the most beautiful Limma (hair hanging down to the earlobes) you might ever see. He had combed it and it was dripping water; and he was performing the Tawaf (circumambulation) around the Ka’bah leaning on two men or on the shoulders of two men. l asked: "Who is this?" It was said: "Messiah, the son of Maryam (Mary)."[29] Certainly, the physical qualities of the Prophet ‘Isa, the son of Maryam, which have been singled out by the Prophet (pbuh), have been depicted as extremely beautiful because they have been associated with a personality which embodied the truth and the bitter struggle for its dominance on earth.

As a final point in our discussion about inner and outer beauty, let’s quote R. H. Princess Wijdan Ali, who wrote in the conclusion to her paper on “Al-Ghazali and Aesthetics”: “Because Islamic aesthetics focuses on the spiritual representation of beings and objects, instead of their material values, the outward appearance of an object in no way encompasses its essence and true self. Each zahir, or outward quantitative and physical appearance, differs from its batin, or inward qualitative and spiritual essence, while perfection can only be attributed to God the Creator. Therefore, to copy living figures from nature, though never intended to represent God, is regarded as a futile way of directing the recipient to the contemplation of transcendence and the truths embodied in tawhid, the Doctrine of Unity. For a Muslim, beauty is not an aesthetic portrayal of human attributes; nor is it copying an ideal state of nature, the concept of which Renaissance Europe borrowed from the ancient Greeks. The transcendence-obsessed culture of the Muslims seeks to stimulate in the viewer or listener, through the contemplation of the beautiful, a perception of the nature of God, in order to facilitate the realization of the ultimate union with Him.”[30]

 

Two erroneous views on beauty in Islam

 

The Islamic view of beauty explained above stands between two erroneous views of the same. The two views are flawed because of the flawed interpretations of certain religious texts.

 

First view:

 

According to the first view, everything that God created, without an exception, is beautiful.[31] God’s creation is perfect. There can be no imperfections originating from the Perfect God. Ugliness and evil are imperfect. Hence, they cannot be associated with God Who is beautiful and loves beauty. They are nonexistent.

God loves everything that He creates, so must men do the same seeing the whole of nature with all its ingredients as beautiful. Such creatures as Satan and unbelievers, and such things as faithlessness, sin and disobedience, are all classified as beautiful and positive in that God created them and consented to their existence. To men the notion of creation is ascribed just metaphorically. The real and only creator is God. In short, life with all its facets is beautiful, regardless of whether men played a role in their creation and subsistence or not. There is no room whatsoever for ugliness and repulsion in life. As a result, neither struggling against evil and its advocates, nor disseminating the message of Allah to men, plays a significant role insofar as the proponents of this view are concerned.

This view is based on the Qur’anic verses which we have cited earlier: “…(Such is) the artistry of Allah, Who disposes of all things in perfect order…” (al-Naml 88)

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

Also: “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?” (al-Mulk 3)

This view is well represented in certain circles of Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf), one of which is a form of speculative mysticism famously exemplified by Ibn al-‘Arabi. Central to this view is a hadith qudsi (God’s words, which are not enshrined in the Qur’an, though) wherein God said: “I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the creatures and made Myself known to them, so they knew Me.”[32] It follows that the world has been created out of God’s love for Himself. He loved His own beauty. Then, He wanted to be known to something other than Himself, resulting in the creation of the creatures whose main goal of existence is to reflect the divine Beauty. Apart from reflecting His infinite beauty to the created world and through the world, God also wanted to see His own beauty in things other than Himself.[33] The world is thus founded on the principles of infinite beauty, as well as on the foundation of a reciprocal love affair, so to speak, between the Creator and His creation.

One of the most perilous consequences stemming from this view is some people’s belief in the creation’s absolute union with God, incarnation and pantheism.[34] Believing that the universe is just an appearance of God and that it does not have an independent existence eventually got the better of some people who subscribed to this ideology, particularly within the realm of what could be branded as radical speculative Sufism (Islamic mysticism). This mode of Sufism “assumes that there is a union of God, universe and humans, and that human beings are an appearance of God; but God's appearance in the shape of a human being cannot be thought of any further than just an appearance. The reality is not a duality between God and humans, but rather a sameness, oneness between them. A person is a talking, thinking, acting God. This idea is beautifully expressed in Yunus Emre's following verse:

I didn't know you were the eye inside of me
You were a secret essence both in body and soul
I asked you show me a symbol of you in this world
Suddenly I realized you were the whole universe.”[35]

It should serve as no surprise then that according to this view there is nothing inherently wrong, ugly or negative in the whole of creation, neither in its substances (jawahir) nor in its accidents (arad). Even the notion of punishing wrongdoers in the Hereafter has to be adjusted to this speculative ideology, taking into account that such people as per the mainstream of Muslim thought run counter to the moral stipulations of the concepts of divine beauty and love. Hence, it has been asserted that God, or the One Who loves beauty, does not punish the loved one, that is, the world, or creation, which is beautiful as it reflects Him and His infinite beauty. If He does punish, however, as it sometimes may appear outwardly, such is only in order to make the loved one find ease or to educate him, like a father with his child.[36] It goes without saying, therefore, that a devout man enjoys every reason to be optimistic as regards his final outcome in the Hereafter. It is bound to be ease and happiness. As to the inhabitants of Hellfire in the Hereafter, to which both the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s sunnah explicitly refer to, however, they will have to undergo such a treatment in order that they become purified. They will not be punished in the real sense of the word. “Then, they will receive mercy in the fire since providence made love come first, even though they do not come out of the fire. For the love God has for His servants has no beginning and no end.”[37]

This excessive tolerance anchored in a precept that everything is a reflection of God, whereby beauty is seen even in the apparent ugly and arms are opened even to the most evil one, is expressed in the most beautiful way, perhaps, by the famous Sufi philosopher and poet Mevlana Rumi: “Come, come, whoever you are. Worshipper, Wanderer, Lover of Leaving; ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times… Come, come again, Come.”[38]

However, the above mentioned hadith qudsi: “I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known…”, on which the core of this viewpoint rests, is not authentic according to the authorities of the Prophet’s sunnah. It is not to be found in any compilation of the authentic traditions of the Prophet (pbuh). Moreover, while discoursing on the untrue and fabricated traditions, Ibn Taymiya remarked about the mentioned hadith qudsi that it is a lie.[39] Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani also said that the same is a baseless tradition.[40]

Having said all this, we cannot run away from the fact that there are in the world things and events that are negative, ugly and evil, something that is fundamentally denied by the advocates of the standpoint we are dealing with. Even so, one ought to remember, at the same time, that beauty in the world is the rule and ugliness is the exception. Virtue is the norm and evil is the aberration. The existence of negative things stands in no opposition to one of the major dogmas that underpin the notion of creation, that is, God only creates things and events that He likes, saturating them with the spirit of infinite love, beauty and care.

Sure, it is not fitting for God that He either creates or loves ugliness and evil for their own sake. A thing appears as an ugly or a negative one if we observe it within an earthly context alone where it has been actualized. However, if we take a look at the same thing within the context of the whole terrestrial reality, then the thing comes into sight rather in a positive light. It serves an exalted and wise purpose predetermined by the All-Wise God; or it plays a major or minor role in the realization of a noble intent; or it forms an integral part of the delicate web of creation which hinges on another components for its maintenance and continued existence and on which another life components hinge for their own survival.

In other words, ugly or evil things do exist. However, an ugly or an evil thing may exist in order that an uglier and even more evil thing is thus neutralized, or in order that a beautiful and wholesome thing is thus brought to fruition. A thing’s or event’s ugliness and malevolence are easily outshined by the beauty and goodness of life’s perfect systems, which have been worked out by the All-Wise and most High God Who is beautiful and loves beauty. Owing to this, their apparent ugliness and malevolence notwithstanding, ugly and negative things are still desirable, resulting in their presence being tolerated, yet liked, by God. Their apparent negative sides amount to a naught when juxtaposed with life’s incalculable and omnipresent positive aspects. The roles of such things are inconsequential amid life’s positive and benevolent laws and forces that determine the moral fiber of the world.

As a small digression, it is because of this tenet, whereby every physical and moral law and force serves a higher spiritual order of things, that God loves beautiful raiment. However, the raiment of righteousness and good conduct is far better and is thus dearer to God. (al-A’raf 26) Without the latter, beautiful raiment will be rendered but hollow and useless. What is more, it would easily become a target of the forces of profligacy and conceit, which are of the gravest offenses in the sight of God. Raiment can be classified as beautiful only if it is coupled with virtue and beautiful character.

In the same vein, God does not like that a believer suffers – for an instance – but if a trial which causes suffering is an avenue to one’s spiritual uplifting and a better commitment, then trials are very much needed and desired in this fleeting world – which is a trial in itself – for the sake of accomplishing a greater good in the spiritual kingdom. In the final analysis, it is even inapt to dub suffering as utterly horrid or disapproving experiences. The same could be asserted about the rest of worldly things and events that seem to be negative, ugly or evil.

In order to present this philosophy in a more comprehendible fashion, Ibn Taymiya drew an analogy between it and a bitter medicine.[41] A man abhors to eat a bitter medicine, however, knowing the benefits such a medicine will bring to him and his condition, he does eat it gladly. No normal human being who will discard a bitter medicine just because he does not take pleasure in consuming it, thus turning down the prospects of improving his wellbeing. A bitter drug though objectionable yet it remains desirable on account of the positive upshots it is likely to yield. How are we going to describe a bitter drug: good or bad, depends on how we look at it. It is bad inasmuch as it causes a sick person some temporary displeasure while eating it. It is good, on the other hand, as it increases the chances of the improvement of a sick person’s health. When compared, the latter easily overshadows the former. Hence, bitter drugs are positive and beneficial for men and human interests on earth. Nobody will say that bitter drugs are negative and detrimental for men, calling for their abolition.

Finally, it is appropriate to wind up our discussion by quoting the words of Muzammil Siddiqi, who said while dwelling on the subject of the reasons for which Allah allows suffering and evil in the world: “The Qur’an tells us that good, evil and whatever happens in this world happens by Allah’s Will (mashi’at Allah). Only Allah knows fully His Will. We finite beings cannot grasp fully His infinite Will and Wisdom. He runs His universe the way He deems fit. The Qur’an tells us that Allah is Wise and everything that Allah does is right, just, good and fair. We must submit and surrender to His Will. The Qur’an has not given us all the details about Allah’s Will, but it has enlightened us with the guidance that is useful and sufficient for us.”[42]

 

Second view:

 

At the diametrically opposite side of the first view stands another flawed view. According to it, no physical representation, picture, form, or any outward appearance is to be admitted as beautiful, no matter how they may look like and what purpose they may serve. Beauty can only be associated with the spiritual kingdom. The only thing that there is is inner beauty. Outer beauty is nonexistent. The proponents of this view base their perceptions on the misreading of several verses of the Holy Qur’an and the traditions (hadiths) of the Prophet (pbuh).

Of the misinterpreted texts are the following Allah’s words in the Qur’an as regards the hypocrites, the worst category of people: “When you look at them, their bodies please you; and when they speak, you listen to their words. They are as (worthless as hollow) pieces of timber propped up, (unable to stand on their own)…” (al-Munafiqun 4)

God also says about the tragic fate of some past boasted civilizations whose protagonists used to pride themselves on show and parade: “But how many (countless) generations before them have We destroyed, who were even better in equipment and in glitter to the eye?” (Maryam 74)

And about Qarun, whom the Qur’an portrays as an epitome of infidelity, arrogance, self-absorption and profligacy arising from his excessive affection for his massive worldly possessions, God says: “So he went forth among his people in the (pride of his worldly) glitter. Said those whose aim is the Life of this World: “Oh, that we had the like of what Qarun has got! For he is truly a lord of mighty good fortune!” But those who had been granted (true) knowledge said: “Alas for you! The reward of Allah (in the Hereafter) is best for those who believe and work righteousness: but this none shall attain, save those who steadfastly persevere (in good).” (al-Qasas  79-80)

While consoling and heartening His Prophet (pbuh) and the believing community, God affirms that the peripheral nature of the worldly achievements, which are normally shrouded in a dazzling, albeit illusory, show and pomp, is nothing compared with the real and eternal good that God presents to His devoted servants in both worlds, especially in the Hereafter: “Nor strain your eyes in longing for the things We have given for enjoyment to parties of them, the splendor of the life of this world, through which We test them: but the provision of your Lord is better and more enduring.” (Ta Ha 131)

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) also said to the effect that outward appearances count for nothing in the spiritual world: “Verily, Allah does not look into your appearances or your wealth, but He looks into your hearts and your deeds.”[43]

Finally, the advocates of the second erroneous view on beauty in Islam shore up their assertions by referring to the fact that Islam has prohibited the use of gold and silver utensils, and of pure silk spreads in the Muslim house.[44] Moreover, Muslim men have been forbidden to wear gold and silk on all occasions. Muslim women, however, are exempted from the latter decree but only in order that they may beautify themselves for their husbands. If beautifying forms and figures has any bearing in the sight of God, the second view has it, then gold, silver and silk, which are the symbols of worldly splendor and attraction would not be prohibited, though in some instances completely and in other instances partially. Even if allowed, using gold, silver, silk, and other luxurious materials must be governed by the dictates of modesty, moderation and prudence so that the show of extravagance and pride, on the one hand, and causing an injury to the feelings of the poor, on the other, are strictly avoided.

The second view on beauty in Islam is grossly incorrect because, as stated earlier, beauty of forms and appearances in buildings, apparel and human body can be legitimate if its presence has been fully sanctioned by the normative teachings and ideals of Islam. The idea of outer beauty exists and plays a noteworthy role. Whatever the case may be, however, outer beauty is always inferior to the inner one. In fact, the existence of outer beauty is conditioned by the existence of inner or spiritual beauty. Without the latter, the former cannot exist independently.

Indeed, Islamic texts are evident as regards all of this. Most of the evidence cited in support of the second view has been misconstrued, at worst, or taken out of context, at best, at the hands of its advocates. Each piece of the above-specified substantiation has its own thrust and motives that necessitated its contextual significance, which, unfortunately, have not been fully taken into account. Certainly, no evidence brought up that deals with the theme of beauty as such. What the evidence deals with is the severity of the consequences stemming from forsaking the most crucial thing in life, that is, the faith. Obviously, the subject matter of beauty or aesthetics is remotely a secondary concern.

The most dangerous of these consequences is, perhaps, the incompatibility of the needs and demands of the soul – which has been preordained but to submit in worship to its Creator and Lord – and the corporal pursuits and so life achievements of a person. This incompatibility eats into the moral foundation of one’s character and personality, resulting in one becoming inclined to go so far as to lead without a shred of shame, remorse and fear a two-faced life not only with people but also with God and his own self. At this point, the notions of beauty and beautification are very much capitalized on, due to their vast intrinsic potential, and are (mis)used as both avenues and instruments for deception. While on this path, the persons concerned find it somewhat easier than elsewhere to gain a moment or two of illusory contentment, relief and self-assurance. It goes without saying, therefore, that outer beauty is not to be proscribed just on account of it being misappropriated by certain categories of people and for certain ungodly aims. So potent and dignified is the mission of beauty and aesthetics that it cannot be eclipsed, much less undone, by the misdemeanor of such appalling groups of people as hypocrites, infidels and the faithless.

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah wrapped up his discussion on beauty in Islam by saying: “Beauty found in images, apparel and form is of three types: that which is commendable, condemned and that which falls in the category of neither of the first two. The commendable beauty is what is for or because of Allah and what helps toward obeying Allah, implementing His commands and complying with Him (with the authority of His words). An example of this is the Prophet Muhammad’s beautification prior to receiving foreign delegations. Such is equivalent to putting on weaponry during a fight, and wearing silk during a war for the purpose of conceit. These are all laudable acts only if they were meant for advancing the Word of Allah, strengthening His religion and incensing His foes.

The condemned beauty is that which is only for the benefit of this world, authority (over people), pride, self-importance, and (which is used as) a means and avenue to satisfying animal desires and lusts in men, and which is the ultimate goal of a man and his most important worldly pursuit. Indeed, to many people, this is the greatest of concerns.

As to the beauty that is neither commendable nor condemned, it is the one that is free from the ambitions of the first two types and is devoid of both characterizations.”[45]

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah’s final words about the Prophet’s hadith (tradition) that Allah is beautiful and loves beauty were that this tradition contains two profound foundations: knowledge and conduct. “Allah is thus known through the unequaled beauty in which nobody can partner Him, and He is worshipped through the beauty which He appreciates in words, deeds and demeanor. So Allah loves when His servant beautifies his tongue with sincerity, his heart with devotion, love, repentance and reliance on Allah, his organs with submission to Allah, and his body with acts aimed to display divine benefits conferred on him through apparel and through cleansing the body of ritual impurities, all kinds of dirtiness, unwanted body hair, (and through) circumcision and clipping nails. (A servant of Allah) knows Him (his Lord) through the attributes of beauty, and he introduces his self to Allah through beautiful deeds, words and demeanor. (A servant of Allah) knows Him (Allah) through the beauty which is His representation or sign (wasf), and worships Him through the beauty which is His law and faith.”[46]


[1]Richard Ettinghausen, Al-Ghazzali on Beauty, in: Fine Arts in Islamic Civilization, edited by M.A.J. Beg, (Kuala Lumpur: The University of Malaya Press, 1981), p. 27.

[2] Ibid., p. 27.

[3] Ibid., p. 27.

[4] The Holy Quran, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary; see the translator’s comment No. 1153.

[5] Richard Ettinghausen, Al-Ghazzali on Beauty, in: Fine Arts in Islamic Civilization, p. 28.

[6] Ibid., p. 29.

[7] Ibid., p. 29.

[8] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Musaqah, Hadith No. 2996.

[9] Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, Al-Tawhid: its Implications for Thought and Life, p. 199.

[10] Ibid., p. 199.

[11] Muhammad Qutub, Manhaj al-Fann al-Islami, (Beirut: Dar al-Shuruq, 1983), p. 124.

[12] Valerie Gonzalez, Beauty and Islam, (London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 2001), p. 26.

[13] Sa’duddin Kalib, al-Bunyah al-Jamaliyyah fi al-Fikr al-‘Arabi al-Islami, p. 173.

[14] Ibid., p. 173.

[15] Ibid., p. 180.

[16] Ibid., p. 180.

[17] Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, Al-Tawhid: its Implications for Thought and Life, p. 201.

[18] Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, Islam and Art, (Islamabad: National Hijra Council, 1985), p. 22.

[19] See: Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya’ al-Faruqi, The Cultural Atlas of Islam, (New York: Macmillian Publishing Company,  1986), p. 165, 380. Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, Islam and Art, p. 12-31.

[20] Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, Islam and Art, p. 103.

[21] Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam, (London: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd., 1976), p. 1.

[22] Anna Moszynska, Abstract Art, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), p. 46.

[23] Ibid., p. 46.

[24] The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary; see the translator’s comment No. 3237.

[25] Ibid., see the translator’s comment No. 3238.

[26] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Book 032, Hadith No. 6274.

[27] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 7, Book 62, Hadith No. 27.

[28] Ibid., Vol. 8, Book 78, Hadith No. 635.

[29] Ibid., Vol. 7, Book 72, Hadith No. 789.

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

[31] Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Fawa’id, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1999), p. 205. Ibn Taymiya, al-Istiqamah, (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2000), vol. 1 p. 424.

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

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibn Taymiya, al-Istiqamah, vol. 1 p. 425.

[35] Kamuran Godelek, The Neoplatonist Roots of Sufi Philosophy, http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Comp/CompGode.htm.

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

[37] Ibid.

[38] Sufism, http://www.encyclopedia-online.info/Sufism.

[39] Ibn Taymiya, al-Ahadith al-Da’ifah wa al-Batilah, (Tanta: Dar al-Sahabah li al-Turath, 1989), p. 48.

[40] Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Silsilah al-Ahadith al-Da’ifah wa al-Mawdu’ah, vol. 1 p. 96.

[41] Ibn Taymiya, al-Istiqamah, vol. 1 p. 441.

[42] Muzammil Siddiqi, Why Does Allah Allow Suffering and Evil in the World?, http://www.islamonline.net/English/index.shtml.

[43] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Birr wa al-Silah wa al-Adab, Hadith No. 4651.

[44] Ibn Taymiya, al-Istiqamah, vol. 1 p. 426.

[45] Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Fawa’id, p. 206.

[46] Ibid., p. 207.

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