The First Admission, Chapter 85, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

The Trust was offered to the Heavens and the earth and they declined to bear it.  Because they are foolhardy, proud and arrogant, humans bore it.  So how have we done thus far?  The Trust is to have the gift of rational faculties bear the truth of Divinity without arrogantly pretending that our comprehensions and will are divine.  The Trust is to humbly submit to God while dominating no one; to praise God by honoring volition and will, and to abstain from coercion for it is the very negation of all that is divine.  So how have we done thus far?  The Trust is to supplicate God by spreading civilization, to refrain from corrupting the earth by infesting it with animosities, hostilities, hate, violence, and destruction.  So how have we done thus far?  The Trust is to venerate God by preserving the dignity and well-being of His creation and to understand that the measure of goodness is the divinity of beauty. “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” this is what the Merciful revealed about the truth of divinity.  What is Divine Magnificence but perfected beauty—the Trust is not an entitlement, it is the challenge of beauty.  Have we furnished this earth with beauty or with fear, suffering, and inequalities?  The Trust is God’s Law, but entrusted to our hands have we used it to affirm and manifest, or negate and defame divinity? 


The Conference of the Books was a nightly celebration of the Islamic civilization, of rationality, of beauty, of humanity, of Divinity and of God’s Trust.  Every Muslim who honored the word, who wrestled with the challenges of thought, and whose pursuit of knowledge was a jihad for the sake of God, was transformed into a book, and all congregated in this sanctuary to deliberate how to manifest the divinity of beauty in human life.


Twelve years ago, a man heard the call of his Lord:  “O you wrapped up in a mantle; arise and deliver God’s warning; and praise and magnify your Lord. Purify and clean your garments and shun all abominations and ugliness.  Do not expect any benefit for yourself but for the sake of your Lord be patient and constant.” (74:1-7)


Over fourteen hundred years ago, this was the same call that awoke the Prophet Muhammad, and it continues to enlist the conscience of Muslims to this very day.  Our friend had studied Islamic law all his life, but on that particular night he was called to go beyond the law, and embrace the soul and heart of his faith.


“Read in the name of your Lord and Cherisher who created all things; Who created humans out of a mere clot of congealed blood.  Read and your Lord is most learned and most bountiful.  He is the One Who taught by the use of the pen (intellect), taught humans that which they did not know, nay but humans do transgress all bounds, in that they look upon themselves as well sufficient. Verily to your Lord is the return of all.” (96:1-7)


With this, the Conference of Books—the search for beauty—was forever engraved in his mind, and he learned that the love of knowledge is inseparable from the love of beauty and God.  Beauty undisciplined by the mind is chaos, but reason, if not tempered by the sense of beauty is like a life constructed on mathematical formulas but without the breath of the Divine.   


“God commands justice, the doing of good, and kindness to kith and kin, and God forbids all shameful deeds, and ugliness and injustice.  God counsels you perhaps you will take heed.” (16:90)


“Recall the benefits and bounties of your Lord and do not go forth spreading mischief and corrupting the earth.” (7:74)


“Give just measure and weight; do not withhold from people their due (rights) and do not corrupt the earth after it has been organized and set in order (by God) that will be best for you if you have faith.” (7:85)


“Say: peace be on you; your Lord hath inscribed mercy for Himself.” (6:54)


The man recalled these Qur’anic verses as he realized that the heart of submission to the Lord is to avoid evil and ugliness and to seek justice and goodness in all its forms.  The heart of injustice is to deny human beings their due, and if God created humans in dignity (17:70) then dignity is their due.  The challenge posed by God to all humanity is to refrain from corrupting the earth for corruption is the antithesis of beauty.  What can corrupt the earth but the absence of peace and mercy?  Isn’t peace itself a divine mercy given to humanity?  If God charges us with peace, and inscribes mercy onto God’s self isn’t the pulse of the search for beauty to raise the salvation of the earth on foundations of mercy? 


“Let there be no compulsion in religion,” the Lord declared, “truth stands out clear from error.”  (2:256-7)


“If it had been the Lord’s Will, all who are in earth would all have believed! So would you then compel humankind against their will to believe!” (10:99)


“You have no power over the matter; whether God forgives or punishes the unjust.” (3:128)


The Conference of Books debates in history over the words of God. And hearing the voice of history our friend realized that coercion is the corruption of religion and life, it breeds hypocrisy, negates volition and rationality, and is an offense against God.  If God endowed humans with choice, freedom is their due, and who is empowered to take away a right given by God?  Coercion transgresses upon the Divine domain; especially if it is perpetuated in God’s name it is a usurpation of the seat of God.  Coercion is fraught with possible transgressions but despotism is coercion epitomized.  What history taught our friend is that despotism is fundamentally inconsistent with Islam because it cannot be reconciled with the mandate that Muslims submit only to God.  Despotism is inherent ugliness.  It is a corruption of the integrity of our testimony.    


“You were the best of nations brought out to humanity enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong and believing in God…” (3:110)


“Thus have We made you a moderate nation (justly balanced) so that you might be witnesses over all nations and the Messenger a witness over you…” (2:143)


The duty to enjoin the good and forbid the wrong is the first principle of morality; it is the essence to investigate and search for divinity—for the universal distinction between ugliness and beauty—the foundation of the Conference of Books and its testimony.  We are a nation charged with the obligation to learn the good and evil, to bear witness and testify, and to stand in moderation for such is the nature of the balance, of justice, and beauty.  But our friend understood that the best nation brought out to humanity—a nation of moderation for our beloved Prophet shunned all polarizations, all excesses and all extremes—was not given an entitlement or a status beyond accountability.  Muslims are not God’s chosen people and they enjoy no privilege founded on an inherent superiority. God warns Muslims that if they fail to discharge their duties and obligations, God will replace them while preserving the viability of Islam by sending those who can do it honor and preserve its integrity. (47:38)


Islam is a faith geared to liberate humans from oppression—the oppression of those who claim to have an exclusive venue to the Divine and the oppression of tradition, and patriarchy—the book of God forbade blind obedience and anchored the principle of individual accountability.  In submitting to God, Islam denies the legitimacy of submission to human beings.  Arising from this thought and in fulfillment of these ideals, the Conference of Books was built on the principle of rich diversity.  Thousands of scholars with a million competing ideas congregated every night, each arguing for his or her ideas.   In this our friend thrived and felt intoxicated with the world of thought.  Motivated by the dream that the Islamic civilization would once again rise to the benefit of all human beings, but concerned about what Muslims were doing in the name of their religion, and the infamy brought upon the faith by the failure to understand the Divine nature of beauty, our friend became the servant of the Conference of Books—each night, he preserved the books, listened to their arguments, and reported on their deliberations to the best of his ability.  In short, he became known as the humble keeper of the Conference—the faithful guardian of the Islamic Civilization with all its beauty and diversity, and this lasted for twelve blessed years.   


But in a night not too far long ago, the Conference of Books was found in a quiet and pensive state.  The books were there and the endless murmurings of the debates could be heard, but ghosts and phantoms roamed throughout the place.  The Conference of the Books stood in full dignity persisting in its search for beauty, but its keeper had disappeared.


Several disciples of the lost sage diligently searched the den and all the rooms, the rows of books, and even the attic upstairs but the keeper of the Conference could not be found anywhere.  The disciples wondered where the Conference keeper had gone and whether he left a clue as to his whereabouts, but there was not a trace.  The disciples inspected the desks, the diaries, and papers, and searched under the bed and behind the chairs, but all their efforts were in vain. 


Inspecting the keeper’s mail, the disciples found messages filled with bigotry, and a considerable amount of hate mail.  But they also found a few letters expressing admiration and praise.  They bumped into heaps of jealousies fallen harmlessly to the ground, and located trash cans filled with pedantic sophistry and dribble that once camouflaged itself and tried to infiltrate the Conference posing as thought.  They found broken hearts that once pumped with love in the keeper’s chest, and in an ethereal reality stubborn in their loyalty those broken hearts persisted in pumping away.  Hidden in the annals of the keeper the disciples found a sad history of betrayals by one-time students, friends, and brothers in the faith.  The disciples walked in on a magnificent garden filled with millions of flowers—a flower that sprouted for every ray of light and every moment of love and longing felt for the Prophet Muhammad, the most beautiful human being that ever blessed this earth. 


Diligently searching, the disciples were shocked when they walked in on the grim sight of thousands of headstones.  Upon closer inspection they discovered that lying under the tombstones was a huge corpus of theories and hypothesis that the keeper once proposed, lovingly embraced, and even defended before the world.  But after being martyred in rapines of merciless self-critiques, they were respectfully laid to rest in the gravesite of ideas.  After a sigh of relief, the disciples continued and found a ridiculous collection of green ink pens, which they assigned to some bizarre infatuation or strange eccentricity. They also found a large collection of the Diva Umm Kalthum next to numerous classical music CDs, so they reasonably surmised that the keeper was among those who believed that the transcendental beauty of music offered a gaze upon the supernal beauty of Divinity. 


After exhausting the search, the disciples reluctantly were forced to concede that the keeper of the Conference had disappeared into thin air.  After twelve years this keeper will no longer report on the Conference’s proceedings.  The search for beauty is but an eternal jihad—it is but a discovery of divinity, but in whichever way this jihad might now proceed, its reporter has ceased to be.    


The keepers of the Conference—never do they surrender, quit, resign, or desert their posts, and they cannot be abducted, murdered, maimed, or silenced regardless of what might be inflicted upon their bodies.  In essence, they are the keepers of memory and the remembrance, and although it may be deconstructed, misconstructed, or hidden and covered, at the end, history tells the truth about humanity. 


A disciple suggested that at times of collective amnesia and defeat, Conference keepers tend to fade—they fade so much so that they become increasingly faint. In such a condition and state they become sufficiently evanescent that although present, they cannot be seen.  Only the most perceptive or those who have been properly trained can detect their presence by the translucence of their being.  Another disciple argued that at times like this—times when countries founded on the great traditions of liberty and tolerance betray their principles.  Times when countries that afforded the Conference sanctuary and safety start slipping in swamps of religious bigotry, and abuses against human dignity; when these sanctuaries of beauty start desecrating holy texts and torturing captives, engaging in arbitrary and secret detentions, and justify such unmitigated ugliness in the name of national security—at times like these, it is the Conference itself that starts to fade, and eventually it hides from sight until it is impossible to locate.  So this disciple concluded that the keeper of the Conference is out somewhere feeling lost because it is the Conference that has faded from sight.  So the keeper must be roaming the whole country trying to find his Conference, but to no avail. 


The third disciple protested declaring both theories—that of the invisible keeper and invisible Conference--as patently absurd.  Conference keepers eventually become an anomaly discordant with every reality, he explained.  If you search long enough for beauty, you become the search—you become an open question—a never ending inquiry.  The keepers, the disciple claimed, inevitably lose their physicality and exist in an ethereal world that remains an unfulfilled potentiality gazing upon the consummate paragon, the immaculate and impeccable perfection itself—potentiality wonderfully and flawlessly fulfilled—God, the One and Only unblemished and faultless beauty.


You see my friends, the disciple said, the keeper of the Conference must have fallen in a fissure or rift—keepers of Conferences in their endless search for beauty are inevitably set for disappointment.  Sooner or later, they fall in a gaping cleft—a space between our forgetfulness and delusions, our pleasures and gluttony, our anger and avidity, our ingratitude and voracity, our greed and betrayals, our jealousies and insatiability, our self-deceptions and rapacity, our competitions and cupidity, our falsehoods and endless excuses—a cleft between the lives lived, and the lives lost, between what we are and what we could have been.  When trapped in this rift, it becomes impossible to reconcile what is sought with what is, between the dream of beauty and reality.  At such a moment, the keeper transforms into a member of the Conference—he is no longer a keeper he is a participant.  In short, the keeper can no longer experience life, but if we wait long enough we will hear his voice in the murmurings of the nightly proceedings of the Conference.  The truth is my friends the Conference needs a new keeper; as to the previous one he has become part of the beauty of our civilization searching for beauty in the proceedings of the night, may they forever be blessed by God.