Believing that Allah is beautiful and that He loves beauty constitutes an Islamic tenet, which is based on an explicit tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)1. Furthermore, an Islamic tenet is to hold that Allah is the fountainhead of all beauty, light, love, compassion, goodness and perfection. All these are ensured to be rightly and adequately represented within the earthly contexts at the hands of men, provided that Allah and His revealed words are taken both as life's source and a point of reference. However, no sooner do men forsake the divine foundation in their life affairs, than delusion, deception, ignorance, darkness, ugliness and vice in diverse forms and levels step in and start reigning supreme.
Of the goals of life that every believer strives to achieve, is to recognize Almighty God and to live under the aegis of His infinite light and beauty. In order to make the progression towards the realization of this worthy goal a properly facilitated one, many strategies, systems and media have been perfected. When it comes to the spiritual realization on earth, no price, effort or sacrifice is deemed too huge in the sight of the believer to hold it back. Realizing the Islamic idea of beauty is as much a religious fulfillment as it is an impulsive terrestrial response to the inner yearnings of the soul for its Lord from Whom it came, to Whom it belongs and to Whom it ultimately returns.
The Islamic works of art in all its fields are artistic, spiritual, and sentimental testimonies of the transcendental through the temporal. They uniquely express the awe of, love and longing for the divine. This profound and meaningful relationship between believers and divinity through the media of aesthetics and art climaxes in one's de facto union with the divine kingdom upon one's return to where he actually once came from, that is, passing from the temporal to the transcendental plane of existence. Strong desire for this ultimate and inevitable, yet blissful union is palpable to an open mind and insightful heart in every aspect of Islamic aesthetics.
Apart from this philosophical and somewhat passive, so to speak, role played by Islamic aesthetics, it also plays a specifically proactive and functional role in which the avenues to a triumphant passage to the transcendental realm are presented and their adoption vigorously championed. In addition, through the power of the spirit of Islamic aesthetics, the barriers that may stand between a person and the Islamic notions of life, the universe, spirituality and God, which the works of Islamic aesthetics exemplify, are intended to be minimized and, at best, completely neutralized. This is to ensure that the quintessence exuded by the works of Islamic art, in particular, and by everything that bears the adjective 'Islamic', in general, is well received and comprehended. Hence, the roles of Islamic aesthetics appear to be three-fold, each one complementing the other. It goes without saying, therefore, that one's concentration on the concepts of beauty and the beautiful in Islam should encompass all of the three domains.
The pinnacle of a process that commences as early as when a believer makes a first step towards the comprehension and recognition of God in this world is when he is admitted in jannah (Paradise) where absolutely nothing will stand between him and seeing his Lord in His original, perfect and infinite light and beauty. Believers' vision of their Lord in Paradise will be indisputable. It will be as strong and unambiguous as seeing the sun and the bright full moon in the clear sky during a clear day, as disclosed by the Prophet (pbuh)2. The Qur'an also testifies to this: "Some faces, that Day, will beam (in brightness and beauty), looking towards their Lord." (al-Qiyamah, 22-23) Witnessing the beauty of Allah in Paradise is the greatest of joys and blessings that will be conferred on believers3.
By the same token, however, the greatest suffering and pain that non-believers will have to endure in Hell will be their inability to ever see the actual beauty and light of the Lord of the worlds. Nonetheless, the principles of justice demand that whosoever lives this terrestrial life, but turns a blind eye to the beauty and light of Allah clearly defined in the spheres of both His divine revelation and tangible creation, is bound to stay away from Allah's beauty and light in the Hereafter as well. The Qur'an says: "Verily, from (the Light of) their Lord, that Day, will they be veiled" (Al-Mutaffifin, 15). The Fire of punishment will be to non-believers the only reality which they will sense and be in contact with because in this life they see and pay attention only to such things as lead away from truth to falsehood.
According to Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, the best perception of Allah is the one through beauty because such a perception implies the knowledge of the characteristics of creation. Every creature knows its Creator through some of His Attributes, and the most comprehensive knowledge is the one based on Allah's perfection, majesty and beauty. Allah's beauty is such that if the creation in its totality becomes as beautiful as its most beautiful element or being is, then if the inner and outer beauty of the entire creation is compared with the beauty of the Creator, the former would be more insignificant than a fading lamp in relation to the sun. It is a sufficient example of Allah's beauty to say that if a veil is lifted from Allah's holy Face, His light will burn all visions from among His creation beholding Him. Also, it is a sufficient example of Allah's beauty to say that every beauty, both inner and outer, in this world and in the Hereafter is the result of His creation. Hence, one could try to imagine how beautiful the source of the pervasive beauty in this world and in the Hereafter is. Yet another proof of Allah's infinite beauty is likewise the fact that to Him all glory, all authority, all munificence, all excellence, all knowledge and all kindness belong. On the word of the Prophet (pbuh), the light of Allah's 'Face' shone over the darkness and because of the same light both this world and the Hereafter became fit for their respective purposes4.
Of Allah's beautiful names is Jamil, the Beautiful5. However, nothing can ever be like Him in any aspect of existence, as Allah explicitly says about Himself in the Qur'an (Al-Shura, 11). No name, or attribute, or action, or expression, or anything else that we humans use is like Allah. He is the Creator and Lord; the rest is His creation. He is the Master; the rest is His servants. He is transcendental and eternal; the rest is temporary and will perish. Whatever we say about Allah, the rule that always applies -- in addition to the one stated above -- is that He and things directly related to His holy Self are beyond both human imagination and expression. No mind can imagine Him and no words can express the actual meaning of His holy Self and His holy realm. Allah said about Himself: "No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision; He is Subtle (latif) well-aware" (al-An'am 103). Thus, the Prophet (pbuh) advised that we contemplate the creation of Allah and not the essence of Allah, or His holy Self, because our minds cannot possibly encompass the latter6. According to Abdullah Ibn 'Abbas, the direct motive for the Prophet's counsel was the presence of a group of people who used to debate the nature of Allah, which the Prophet (pbuh) obviously did not consent to.
Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah continued: "Allah's beauty has four categories: the beauty of His holy Self, the beauty of His holy Attributes, the beauty of His actions and the beauty of His holy Names. His holy Names are all beautiful. His holy Attributes are all perfect. His actions are all based on wisdom, interest, justice and mercy. As regards the beauty of His holy Self and His appearance, nobody except Him can grasp that and nobody except Him knows it. Of the knowledge concerning His holy Self, created beings possess only certain information with which He introduced Himself to those servants of His whom He wanted to honor. His infinite beauty is concealed from the creation with a 'robe' (rida'), which is Allah's glory, and with a 'veil' (izar), which is Allah's majesty, as mentioned by the Messenger of Allah (pbuh)7."
Abdullah Ibn 'Abbas is reported to have said about Allah's beauty: "(Allah's) holy Self is veiled with (His) holy Attributes, and (His) holy Attributes are veiled with (His) actions. So, can you imagine a beauty that is veiled with the qualities of perfection and is covered with the qualities of infinite glory and majesty?8"
Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah went on to conclude: "From this meaning some approximate idea as to the beauty of Allah's holy Self (can be established). A servant of God progresses from the knowledge of (Allah's) actions to the knowledge of the holy Attributes, and from the knowledge of the holy Attributes to the knowledge of the holy Self. Whenever he witnesses a beautiful thing in relation to the actions (of Allah), he will draw conclusions with regard to the beauty of the holy Attributes. Next, on the basis of the beauty of the holy Attributes, he will draw conclusions with regard to the beauty of the holy Self.9"
This article is an excerpt from the author's book "The Philosophy of Decoration in Islamic Architecture":
1. Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Hadith No. 164.
2. Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Tafsir al-Qur'an, Hadith No. 4215.
3. Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarah Muhammad 'Ali al-Sabni, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur'an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 3 p. 576.
4. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Fawa'id, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah, 1999), p. 202.
5. Ibid., p. 202.
6. Hasan al-Banna, Inquiring about the Nature of Allah, http://www.islamonline.net/english/index.shtml.
7. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Fawa'id, p. 203.
8. Ibid., p. 203.
9. Ibid., p. 203
Dr. Spahic Omer, a Bosnian currently residing in Malaysia, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design, International Islamic University Malaysia. He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and philosophy of the Islamic built environment. He can be reached at spahicoyahoo.com; his blog is at www.medinanet.org.