The Search for Beauty, Chapter 28, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

The Conference of the Books searches the past for moments of beauty and truth. In this search, the Shari‘a becomes the method and the way. The mind channels the search through the limitations of the present to the unbound potential of the future. In the past we find the signs of God, and in the future the promise of God; the present is nothing but a transient state. The mind is an imperfect conduit that, by necessity, corrupts the search. For how can we transform the signs of God into the promise of God without imposing ourselves upon the search? The Shari‘a is the sign of God and the promise of God, and we are the imperfect conduits leading to the way. Knowledge of our imperfections should restrain us, but knowledge of God’s perfection should liberate us. In our imperfections and temporality exists the secret of the Shari‘a’s perfection and immutability.


The hadith says, “God is beautiful and God loves all that is beautiful.” The temporal manifestations of God’s beauty perish, but the perennial truth of God’s beauty remains forever (55:26-27). God’s beauty is unchanging and objective, but it is pursued, realized, and manifested through the subjective limitations of God’s creations. I am, for instance, beautiful; the fact that I am God’s creation endows me with this beauty, and this beauty is eternal. But the extent to which I realize and manifest this beauty depends on my subjective limitations, which will most certainly perish. Since the Shari‘a is the way to God, it is of necessity the way to beauty. Every time I see something beautiful, I suspect that I have found a manifestation of the Divine. But because of the fact that I am aware of my subjective limitations and imperfections, I restrain my zeal with the duty of investigation and reflection. After all, how many people sought to worship God, but ended up only worshiping themselves?


So many of those who have the beautiful spark of youth seek the discourse on Islam and human rights. The images of Islam in their minds are not ones of beauty. Rather, they associate Islam with everything ugly, unpleasant, and inhumane. They come with the ingrained notion that Islam does not have an interest in the beautiful, moral, or ethical, but only looks to the strictly legal and functional. In these popular perceptions, Islam is a legalistic religion whose numerous laws vitiate the need for morality or ethics or for a sense of beauty. The encounter is rendered frustrating when a Muslim jumps up in the midst of discussion and declares, “Beauty is a corruption, and that is why there is no law in Shari‘a which commands that we should care for beauty.” An educator can only search the past and look to the future, and hope that the present will pass.


Shari‘a is the search for the beautiful because it is the search for God. There is an innate and intuitive sense of the beautiful which is the fitra that God has implanted in all of us. This fitra is corrupted not only by arrogance, which often equates human desire and the truth of God, but even more, it is corrupted when people ignore or forget its existence, and forget that they have an intuitive sense of the ethical, the just, and the beautiful. God commands that humans observe ihsan, command the ma‘ruf, and forbid the munkar. Ihsan means that which is commonly known to be good, ma‘ruf means that which is commonly known to be right, and munkar means that which is commonly known to be reprehensible. In each of these categories, the implicit assumption is that humans possess an intuitive sense of right and wrong. This is why God states that wrong and right have been inspired in every soul. Those who corrupt their soul fail, and those who purify it succeed (91:8-10).


The medieval jurist, Khamis al-Shaqasi, in his Manhaj al-Talibin argues that for every place and age there is an appropriate rule. For example, he asserts, in Medina, people forbade their maidens to go out uncovered (hasirat), while in Oman, it was considered reprehensible for maidens not to cover. Therefore, he concludes, everything that Muslims consider reprehensible is, in fact, reprehensible. Al-Shaqasi has a point but he is not entirely correct. There is no doubt that laws change with time and place, and that community standards are relevant in identifying the appropriate rule for the right age and place. In other words, community standards are relevant for distinguishing the beautiful from the ugly. Nonetheless, community standards cannot replace the need for the moral inquiry. Put differently, culture cannot replace morality. We search the Divine Will through several avenues of evidence. Among the avenues of evidence are textual sources and cultural practices. However, the Divine Will must also be searched through a moral and ethical inquiry.


In the contemporary Muslim world, the political and cultural often completely override and replace either the moral or textual inquiry. The idea that Islam must be associated with all that is humane, ethical, moral, and beautiful is often alien to the contemporary Muslim context.


Beyond the cultural and legal, there is also the beautiful. There is no doubt that hostility to Islam and prejudice against Muslims play a large role in the way Muslims are treated and perceived. But, perhaps, the ugliness of prejudice has permitted some of us to forget that the Prophet has been sent as a mercy to humankind, and that mercy is beautiful. Most of all, we cannot forget that we seek the beautiful because God is beautiful.