By Khaled Abou El Fadl
The precursor to this book was a collection of essays published in 2001 under the title The Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam. Since the original publication, what began as a humble collection of essays, written with the hope of igniting a spark of interest in the Islamic intellectual heritage, has exceeded all expectations in striking a meaningful chord in enough hearts and minds so as to set off a flurry of interest around the world. In its pre-9/11 publication, The Conference of the Books was a difficult book to publish. Few publishers were interested in a book that tackled the nuanced and complex notions of a concept as elusive and amorphous as beauty in Islam. When the book was finally published it was very expensive, limited in its initial printing, and distributed largely through word of mouth. Nevertheless, somehow, this book has managed not only to survive, but rather thrive despite its inauspicious beginnings.
The events of 9/11 tragically demonstrated the further importance and prescience of The Conference. Written long before the 9/11 tragedies, The Conference had already detailed the potential dangers, threats and long-term effects of the ugliness of the puritanical Wahhabi movement upon Muslims and the world. Today it is even more urgent and necessary that Muslims reconnect with what is beautiful in their tradition and reclaim what has been lost to the puritanical forces within their religion. It is nothing short of devastating to witness the persistence, severity and uniformity of the ugliness that has been committed across the Muslim world. Rather than finding peace and tranquility in a shared understanding of beauty, today’s Muslims find more shared commonality in bitter understandings of violence, hatred, ignorance, pain and tragedy.
Since 2001, I have received numerous powerful, impassioned, heart-wrenching and beautiful letters from people around the world about how The Conference has somehow touched them, moved them, given them hope and even changed their lives. To non-Muslims, The Conference offered an opportunity to gain an insider’s view to the struggles, problems, and pains of contemporary Muslims as well as to understand what the Islamic tradition had to offer humanity. To Muslims, The Conference has allowed many to discover an Islam they never knew existed outside of their hearts, and for some, it provided an open door back to the faith that they had abandoned because of the ugly modern realities of Muslims. This is not a testament as to the power of my writing, rather it is a testament to the power and draw of the longing for beauty and the divinity of the search. It is evidence of a collective longing to reconnect with the Creator in beauty. It is also clear evidence that many Muslims are longing to reclaim the lost beauty many of their co-religionists had seemingly abandoned, when there seemed to be no road back.
The demand for The Conference has been nothing short of astonishing, and this new printing demonstrates that the book has grown and developed as a result of the incredible demand for the search to continue.
The Conference transcends all cultural, geographic, political and sociological boundaries, and has managed to touch people in all corners of the world. The Conference has been translated into several languages, and I have received correspondence from people as far away as Indonesia, Singapore, Nigeria, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia, Europe and the Middle East. One of the most amazing stories I have heard was relayed by a former student of mine who, while visiting her Persian relatives ended up in a remote village in the mountains so isolated that she was astonished to know people lived there. In polite regard for their guest, the villagers were eager to offer my student some form of entertainment during her stay, and collectively mustered a search for a book for her to read. In this far away village, hundreds of miles from civilization, the villagers were able to produce only two non-Persian books, a German book on engineering, and The Conference of the Books. My student was shocked and astonished that the Conference had somehow made the trek to this remote village in Iran.
This universal appeal of the search for beauty is evidence of the innateness of the idea and also of the power of our shared humanity. Beauty is a universal concept, a unifying force, and a source of hope for a better future. It is with this in mind that I humbly submit this complete collection of essays documenting the trials, the tribulations, and occasionally, the jubilation of one Muslim’s struggles to find beauty amidst the challenges that confront contemporary Islam, and to discover beauty in the past that once was Islam. In all cases, the search for beauty should continue and never end. While the efforts of one searcher might bring us a little closer to comprehending the divinity of beauty and the beauty of the Divine, neither Divinity nor beauty can be fully realized. Therefore, I present this modest work with the enduring hope that this is only the beginning of the search, not the end.