The Concept of Decoration in the Qur’an and Sunnah (Part Two)

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
E-mail: spahico@yahoo.com

 

Decoration as an instrument of enhancing the real qualities of a thing

The other type of decoration or beautification brought to light in both the Holy Qur’an and the statements (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is the one that plays the role of an instrument that enhances the real and original qualities of a thing. The Qur’an says, for example:

            “We have indeed decked the lower heaven with beauty (in) the stars” (Al-Saffat 6).

            “It is We Who have set out constellations in the heavens and made them fair-seeming to (all) beholders” (Al-Hijr 16).

            “Do they not look at the sky above them? How We have made it and adorned it, and there are no flaws in it” (Qaf 6).

            “…But Allah has endeared the Faith to you, and has made it beautiful in your hearts, and He has made hateful to you unbelief, wrongdoing, and rebellion…” (Al-Hujurat 7).

            “The likeness of the life of the Present is as the rain which We send down from the skies: by its mingling arises the produce of the earth – which provides food for men and animals: (it grows) till the earth is clad with its golden ornaments and is decked out (in beauty)…” (Yunus 24).

            As regards the Prophet (pbuh), he too on many occasions referred to the subject of decoration as an instrument of enhancing the real qualities of a thing. For example, he said: “Decorate your reading of the Qur’an with your voices.”[1]

One of the Prophet’s supplications was: “O God, endear the Faith to us, and make it beautiful in our hearts…”[2]

            He also prayed: “O God, adorn us with the beauty of belief (iman).”[3]

            The Prophet (pbuh) has said that Allah decorates every day His Paradise (jannah) for His true servants.[4]

            On one occasion when he implored Allah for rain (istisqa’), the Prophet (pbuh) uttered the following: “O God, send down upon us on our earth its ornaments (that is, send down rain and bring forth therewith the earth’s plants which are the former’s decoration)”[5]

            A companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Abdullah b. ‘Abbas, is reported to have said that the Hajj (pilgrimage) is decorated with the talbiyah (chanting prescribed words).[6]

            The Prophet’s mosque in Madinah, when first built, was extremely simple in its form. It consisted of an enclosure with walls made of mud bricks and an arcade on the qiblah side made of palm-trunks used as columns to support a roof of palm-leaves and mud. There were no decorative elements whatsoever within or without it.  The same was the case with all early mosques. However, it is reported that some of the Prophet’s companions from the ranks of al-ansar (the natives of the city of Madinah) brought one day some money to the Prophet (pbuh) telling him: “How long shall we pray under these palm-leaves? Take this, adorn the mosque (zayyinhu) (that is, improve its physical condition).” The Prophet (pbuh) did not reprimand them and their proposal but retorted: “I have no intention to differ from my brother Musa (Moses); an arbor like the arbor of Musa”. The arbor of the Prophet Musa is said to have been so low that he could touch the roof if he raised his hand; or, when he stood up his head touched it, as stated in another report.[7]

According to another account, the Prophet (pbuh) replied, somewhat in a more judgmental way, that decoration is but for churches, and that mosques should be maintained white, i.e., free of decorative elements.[8] Yet, the Prophet (pbuh) fell short of prohibiting mosque decoration altogether.

            On the word of a proverb attributed to an early Muslim sage, “knowledge is adorned by the forbearance and prudence of scholars.”[9]

From the above, we can infer that the concept of decoration, which functions as an instrument of enhancing the real and original qualities of a thing, involves no camouflaging via certain means and media. Nor do the decorative themes and methods thus applied stand between a thing and a beholder revealing to the latter not what the former actually is, but what it is not. Instead, this brand of decoration and beautification accounts for an extension and enhancement of a thing’s substance by the use of appropriate themes and channels – sometimes more and sometimes less. So important is such a brand of decoration in life that it sometimes not only denotes an enhancement of a thing’s actual qualities, but it also becomes an integral part thereof.

 Through these decorative representations, more avenues are opened for more people to correctly approach and make a way into grasping the fundamental nature of life’s experiences. It appears as though a hierarchy in people’s cognitive and spiritual aptitudes called for a hierarchy in opportunities for people to come to terms with the real meanings of the many-sided realities of life. Certainly, the area of decoration and beautification serves to many people as an inducement to pay attention to many events and things, which, in turn, causes them to aptly comprehend and duly appreciate the same events and things. Without the supplement of the enhancing decorative designs and features, many from among this category of people would remain short of fully recognizing the true significance of the surrounding things. To another category of people, who are more insightful and earnest than the first group, on the other hand, the roles of decoration are rather supplementary and not essential. If they had to, they could easily do without them. Due to a variety of useful functions performed by the systems of decoration that aim at enhancing the actual qualities of a thing, it stands to reason, the same emerged as an indispensable facet of creation. It features at all levels including the one that belongs solely to the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

This type of decoration can be applied only to the positive aspects of existence. On the negative aspects which have been generated by Satan and his followers from among the Jinns and men, the same can by no means be applied because the unfavorable aspects of a thing are not susceptible to being decorated or beautified. Instead, they must be confronted head-on aiming at their alteration. Attempting to decorate the negative aspects of a thing is rather absurd and a form of deception, which then should be treated under the first category of the subject of decoration. To a perceptive observer, any attempt to decorate the unfavorable aspects of a thing can only exacerbate them, triggering, in turn, more wrongdoing and a wider deceit.

According to the Islamic worldview, this terrestrial life is a positive affair, which has been flawlessly envisaged and executed by Almighty God. In addition, whatever good happens to man, and on earth in general, such is but from God. But whatever evil happens to man, and on earth in general, such is but because of what man’s hands have earned. Thus, on earth goodness and beauty are the rule, and evil and ugliness are the exception. Virtue is the norm and sin is the aberration.[10] It follows that the decorative paradigms, which underscore the spiritual significance of the notion of creation and are aimed at enhancing the real and original qualities of wholesome things, are the rule on earth, whereas deceptive decorative schemes are the exception confined only to those who willingly rebel against their inherent character (fitrah) and the heavenly will and plan.     

We have seen earlier that God, the only Creator and Fashioner, has perfectly adornedHis creation. This is readily noticeable as much in the grandest as in the simplest manifestation of God’s wisdom and power in the design and function of the universe. The purposes of God’s beautification of the world are mainly two. Firstly, it is to be seen as a blessing to man, which he is bidden to observe, marvel at, and obtain a good deal of sensual, mental and even spiritual pleasure from. Secondly, the world’s emphasized beauty aims to draw people’s attention towards contemplating the countless signs of God that have been inscribed as much, and as well, on the small and slight as on the great and vast, which, in turn, lead their intuitive observers to an appreciation of a higher order of things.

Creating ex nihilo (from absolute nothingness) is both the right and power of God alone. The attribute of creation, in the above-mentioned sense, cannot be ascribed to man. Man was and will remain forever short of enjoying a power of bringing into being anything without making use of the available raw materials and elements created for him in nature. Indeed, everything that man invents, conceives, concocts and creates is possible only thanks to the unbounded bounties and munificence from God, which man only discovers, manipulates, processes, uses and reuses in different ways most convenient and efficient for him.

As a result of this, man’s cultural and civilizational “creations” are a relative thing. They are not really the “creations” and, as such, the possessions of man. Man neither creates nor possesses de facto anything. “To Allah belong all that is in the heavens and on earth” (Al-Baqarah 284). Everything around man has been loaned to him so that he in a responsible and unhindered manner can carry out his duties of vicegerency – no more than that. Even his very self, i.e., his life, man does not own. It belongs to his Lord, and if needed he is to sacrifice it for Him and His cause (Al-Tawbah 111). It goes without saying, therefore, that the legitimacy of man’s “creations” is conditioned by a variety of factors all of which center upon the strengthening of man’s relationship with his Lord and with the rest of His creation.

The idea of decoration and beautification for the purpose of enhancing the actual qualities of a thing is not an exception to this rule. People are permitted to do so as long as the following conditions are met: 1) affordability, 2) avoidance of major transgressions, such as wasting, showing off and unhealthy competition, 3) propagation of the principles, values, teachings and standards that typify the objectives of the divinely revealed truth, 4) encouraging, yet facilitating, people’s contemplation of the actual significance of life’s terrestrial and heavenly realities.

It must be always borne in mind, nonetheless, that the whole of Allah’s creation is innately beautiful. The same is true with regard to anything that serves the purpose of the truth. The best adornment that can be conferred on the things made by people is the sincerity of intensions, the integrity of goals and objectives, and, last but not least, the appropriate functions of the made things. If no extra decorative substance is attached to such things, they are and will remain beautiful in the sight of both Almighty God and the people of righteousness.

 

 



[1]Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal, Awwal Musnad al-Kufiyyin, Hadith No. 17784.

[2]Ibid., Musnad al-Makkiyyin, Hadith No. 14945.

[3] Al-Nasa’i, Sunan al-Nasa’i, Kitab al-Sahw, Hadith No. 1289.

[4] Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal, Baqi Musnad al-Mukthirin, Hadith No. 7576.

[5] Abu al-Fadl Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-‘Arab, vol. 13 p. 202.

[6] Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Bani Hashim, Hadith No. 1774.

[7]Al-Samhudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), vol. 1 p. 339. See also: Ibn Sad, Al-Tabaqat al-Kubra, (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1957), vol. 2, p. 240.

[8]Ahmad b. Yahya, Al-Bahr al-Zakhkhar, http://feqh.al-islam.com.

[9] Al-Darimi, Sunan al-Darimi, see the “Introduction” (Siyanah al-‘Ilm), Hadith No. 578. 

[10]Muzammil H. Siddiqi, Why Does Allah Allow Suffering and Evil in the World?, http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?pagename=IslamOnline-English-Ask_Scholar/FatwaE/FatwaE&cid=1119503544478.

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