BEAUTY AND ISLAM
Beauty is more than just shapes, colors, proportion, harmony, and melodies that bring joy to see and hear, for us to appreciate subjectively. Plato’s understanding of beauty also includes truths and virtues that cause admiration and are an objective aspect of reality. Our soul experiences beauty in order to behold the supreme Beauty of the Good as it seeps through in its worldly manifestations. With the words of Oludamini Ogunnaike: beauty is the air our soul breathes.
Beauty in Writings
The study of aesthetics, a term popularized in English by Immanuel Kant yet originally derived from the Greek for “perception by the senses”, could be regarded as a development peculiar to the West if we only consider it to be the subjective manner in which beauty is perceived. But if we use the term to refer to theories connected with beauty or issues of an artistic nature, then the medieval Islamic tradition also included aesthetic theories. However, scholars such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ikhwan al-Safa, Ibn Sina, and al-Ghazali did not treat them as separate subjects of aesthetic interest. Questions on these matters were entangled within theological, philosophical, and jurisprudential discussions.
Beauty in Words
Defined as “beauty in actions and constitutions”, jamaal, the Arabic word for beauty, can be applied to both the form and meaning of things. Although referred to in the Qur’an interchangeably in the ethical and aesthetic sense, husn has come to relate to action and moral goodness, whereas jamaal has become linked to beauty of form over time. Qur’anic examples of the effect of beauty upon the eye or soul are ʿajab (pleasure) and lidhdhat al-ʿayn (delight/sweetness of the eye). The attributes of the Divine can, in turn, be divided into those of beauty (sifat al-jamal) and those of majesty (sifat al-jalal).
Signs of Beauty
Beauty is not arbitrary. Real beauty is objective and attracts all of us indiscriminately. It has metaphysical roots, and is related to the ultimate nature of reality, of existence, of being. Beauty and true knowledge go hand in hand, and their third companion is virtue, goodness. They are metaphysically connected to justice and love, balance and harmony. This is at the very essence of the way we understand the world.
The objective aspect of finding wonder in the harmony, order, and beauty of Creation is proof of the One’s hand in it. True Beauty is a sign. It is inseparable from the Divine. The tangible experience of contemplating beauty has nourishing consequences for the human soul. It soothes it, and pulls it gently towards the ultimate truths it communicates. Beauty is the splendor of Truth.
For al-Ghazali, beauty is intrinsically interwoven with love. Everything beautiful will be loved because it gives pleasure, he states, and only beauty is loved for its own sake, not for a benefit. He considers perception of beauty an innate faculty (fitra), and distinguishes the more perfect inner beauty, perceived by the inner eye of the heart, from the outer beauty, gazed upon by the eye. Consequently, love of the inner form is loftier and requires the veils of the heart to be pierced to see it. All outward beauty then reveals an inner beauty that leads to the Pure, for all things are reflections of His power, His wisdom, His beauty. For al-Ghazali, to perceive husn (beauty) is a mode of remembrance of the One, which requires to beautify one’s interior, or to be of ihsan (excellence).
God is beautiful and He loves beauty. When we approach the Real by doing things integrated into the belief in Him, we become real. The closer we approach Him, the more beautiful we become on the inside. That beauty on the inside is called virtue. They are two faces of the same reality. Once we reach that, and let beauty free us, everything we do will be beautiful. The way we walk will be beautiful; the way we talk will be graceful; the way we deal with others will be dignified.
Perceiving and contemplating Beauty and conforming to it by manifesting it, transforms the heart. Modes of beauty are made by and reflect the One’s beauty, and experiencing them is a pathway to Him. When we fill our hearts with light, and use our hearts for what hearts are for, we are given hearing with which we hear, seeing with which we see, and hands with which we touch. We are capable of perfection once we strive to perfect ourselves. We can unself our self. We are treasurers of truth and can only access this through self-purification following prophetic law. When we strive for moral and spiritual perfection we get in touch with what is true about the One, about creation, about human beings. Excellence is to radiate beauty by being, doing, and transmitting it.
Beauty in the Making
We live in a world that desperately craves access to Beauty. We need beauty in order to live. The Islamic, self-sustaining societies of the past were traditionally, when spiritually healthy and mature, beautiful and in harmony with nature and the human soul. They were primordially known for their tectonic architecture bearing witness to a divine reality and their skilled labor behind carefully knotted carpets, geometric patterns, calligraphy, and floral ceramics. Creativity flows out of knowing Truth. Beauty flows through people who have beautified souls. The soul that is illuminated by Truth, that is infused with the blessing of knowing the Chosen One, and that strives for excellence, produces beauty and harmony. It cannot produce ugliness.
Beauty manifested in crafts has an indirect didactic role. It makes the invisible, spiritual realities tangible. Crafts can be so magnificent that they make the meanings behind them become visible to those who can not see them. Beautiful crafts teach us about the Truth that is at the very core of reality. They attract people to Truth and enable them to embrace this reality. Once we move through the aesthetic attraction we feel to the physical appearance of harmonious crafts, we approach the supreme Light and Beauty. This is why recitation, architecture, calligraphy, and other Islamic art forms allow us to feel the presence of the Divine. Vice versa, the Divine loves the craftsperson who draws near to Him through following the innate drive of excelling in one’s craft. Perfecting one’s craft is mirroring the divine attribute of Perfection according to human capacity. To enjoy beautiful craftsmanship—without being extravagant nor boasting about it—is to enjoy divine blessings, as a means of showing gratitude for those blessings.
- Abdal Hakim Murad, Muslims Are Beauty Producers, YouTube video posted on 7 May 2013 by Islam on Demand, accessed through https://youtu.be/OJ3lvdIqHxY, 5/12/2021.
- Joseph Lumbard, Love and Beauty in Sufism, Routledge Handbook on Sufism, Routledge, 2020, accessed through https://www.academia.edu/43841809/Love_and_Beauty_in_Sufism, 5/12/2021.
- Oludamini Ogunnaike and Ubaydullah Evans, Why Beauty Is Not Optional, Renovatio Podcast, 31 October 2021, accessed through https://renovatio.zaytuna.edu/media/why-beauty-is-not-optional-1, 5/12/2021.
- Omar Suleiman, Allah Loves Beauty | Episode 30 | Ramadan 2019, YouTube video posted on 6 June 2019 by Yaqeen Institute, accessed through https://youtu.be/DS0GmQbzk-E, 5/12/2021.
- Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Beauty, the Splendor of Truth, talk delivered at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC), 10 October 2015, accessed through https://youtu.be/jw-LHz8Td_Q, 5/12/2021.
- Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Beauty the Splendor of Truth. «La belleza. esplendor de la Verdad», Alqueria de Rosales, Zawiya 2015, accessed through https://youtu.be/PVPU87EVuuY, 5/12/2021.
- Samir Mahmoud, Beauty and Aesthetics in Classical Islamic Thought: An Introduction, Kalam Journal (1/2018), 18 February 2018, accessed through https://journal.kalamresearch.com/beauty-and-aesthetics-in-classical-islamic-thought, 5/12/2021.
- Yasien Mohamed, The Islamic Philosophy of Labor and Crafts: The View of the Ikhwan al-Safa’, Isfahani, and Ibn Khaldun, The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 23:1, 2006, accessed through https://www.academia.edu/25770387/The_Islamic_Philosophy_of_Labor_and_Crafts_The_View_of_the_Ikhwan, 5/12/2021.