Islam and the Ontology of Beauty
Appreciating beauty and beautiful objects, irrespective of whether the same is natural or represents the artistic expressions generated by men, is intrinsic in all humans. As such, attempts made at different levels and with different degrees of success to satiate people's yearnings for aesthetics, must have been around and must have been greatly enjoyed by men since time immemorial. Needless to say, furthermore, that applying human talent and competence in recognizing the harmony, equilibrium and overall splendor of the world in creating aesthetic objects, environments and experiences for different reasons, is universal and permanent. By the Qur'anic words "He (Allah) taught Adam the names of all things" (al-Baqarah 2:31), we feel inclined to understand - and Allah knows best -- that Allah had taught Adam -- the first man and also prophet on earth -- the inner natures, functions and qualities of all things on earth. Because Allah is beautiful, He loves beauty, and He is the source of all beauty, on the one hand, and because aesthetics and things related thereto signify a universal feature of existence, on the other, matters related to these subjects are believed to have been some of the things that Adam had been taught by Allah.
Whatever the definitions of beauty and the criteria for it, they all stem from certain philosophies and principles which shape not only one's conception and appreciation of beauty, but also one's total outlook on life. Some notions of the subject of beauty lay emphasis only on the physical or the outer dimensions of life without recognizing the other side of creation. To them, physical appearances are all that matters. Physical appearances are the prism through which things and events are only observed and aesthetically valued.
Other notions, however, encompass both the inner and outer aspects of creation considering them indivisible. Religions, by and large, more generously provide conceptual frameworks for accommodating this idea of duality, so to speak, in the field of aesthetics.
According to the Islamic worldview, the reality of creation is a dual one: the physical (sensible) and spiritual, in the sense that it serves the purposes of both this world and the world to come, as well as in the sense that it serves both the terrestrial and extraterrestrial tiers of existence. To this the Holy Qur'an refers in different contexts employing different both explicit and implicit expressions, such as "the unseen and that which is open" (al-Ra'd 13:9); "...and He has created (other) things of which ye have no knowledge." (al-Nahl 16:8); "...There is not a thing but celebrates His praise; and yet ye understand not how they declare His glory!" (al-Isra' 44).
The Qur'an says, implying this duality as well as man's inability to ever comprehend lots of things and experiences around him, in particular if he detaches himself from the source of the most wholesome knowledge, i.e., revelation: "They ask thee concerning the Spirit (ruh). Say: "The Spirit is of the Command of my Lord, of knowledge it is only a little that is communicated to you, (O men!)" (al-Isra' 17:85).
The two realms, physical and spiritual, are both intertwined and separated. There are beings and things that can only be categorized as unseen. By means of his five animal senses, man in no way is able to comprehend them. Man needed divine revelation, which through the prophets served as a means for realizing the existence of such realities, as well as for presenting a qualified insight into their essence. Thus, a sixth intuitive sense in the heart of the followers of revelation and the prophets to whom the former had been revealed, has been generated, resulting in the truly guided and enlightened persons to see and appreciate things and events in their proper light. Of such things and beings are, for example, jinns, angels, Hell, Paradise, the divine paradigms that accentuate the notions of life and death, etc.
On top of the beings that are beyond man's comprehension in this earthly life is the Supreme Being, Allah, the Creator, Lord and Sustainer of the universe. He is like what He says about Himself in the Qur'an: "(He is) the Creator of the heavens and the earth... There is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the One that hears and sees" (al-Shura 11).
Allah also says about Himself: "No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision; He is Subtle (latif) well-aware" (al-An'am 6:103).
Moreover, there are things and objects that have both their seen and unseen, or sensible and heavenly, aspects. To this category all physical beings, including man, belong. No physical being, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, that it does not serve any spiritual purpose and that it does not have any role to play in the fulfillment of the divine plan on earth. Hence, it is an Islamic tenet that each and every thing has been created in order to serve a purpose and to contribute its decent share to the fulfillment of the divine schemes in life.
Thus, the idea of existence ought to be observed in its totality. Not to an aspect, or a few aspects, should one's perception and appreciation of the same be restricted. Moreover, one's interaction with all the strata of existence ought to be performed against the backdrop of the above-explained truth, the latter dictating and serving as the source of such an interaction. No aspect of life, be it the zahir, the outward or the physical, or the batin, the inner or the spiritual, is to be ministered to at the expense of the other. A delicate balance between the two is to be pursued.
All the actions of true Muslims are saturated with the spirit of this philosophy. The material and spiritual facets of things are never separated. What's more, if weighed against one another, in terms of their overall significance, the spiritual dimensions will always easily take precedence over the material ones, even though the latter at times plays a crucial role in sustaining the well-being of people. However, this by no means signifies that the corporeality of life has been neglected or mishandled. Rather, this simply means that Allah and spiritual enhancement are a true Muslim's everlasting love and his biggest fascination. Everything else comes second.
In the same vein, the vision of every true Muslim is a universal one, embracing both the outer and inner facets of the terrestrial reality. He sees creation as an exceptionally beautiful one, in that it was conceived and designed by Allah, the Absolute Beauty. Everything, regardless of how grand or slight it might be, is meaningful and beautiful, though, only because it originated from Him, who is the Source of all goodness and beauty, thus serving His will and plan for creation, and bearing the imprints that clearly and powerfully demonstrate divine infinite presence, omnipotence and grace. The perfect order, harmony, unity, clarity and symmetry, which are, by and large, of the universal standards of beauty, characterizing each and every component of existence, suggest the ultimate perfection, supremacy and infiniteness of Allah and His blessed Attributes one of which is the "Beautiful." Were it not for these inner qualities of this fleeting world's beings and things, they would be reduced to sheer dead and hollow matter as inconsequential and despised as their original substance.
It is for this that true Muslims see this world in the most positive way. They use as much of it as needed for discovering and ascertaining the truth. The material dimension of life is made use of only as a catalyst for establishing and further buttressing the spiritual order of things and events. The former, thus, serves as a preamble to the latter, as help rather than an obstacle toward the spiritual fulfillment. The former is a means, medium and instrument; the latter is the goal. It follows that without understanding rightly the outer dimension of creation, there can be no proper understanding of the inner one either. Without understanding rightly this world, there can be no proper understanding of the world to come either.
Toward this end are Allah's repetitive imperatives to men in the Qur'an to contemplate and marvel at the wonders of creation so that men in the end become able to grasp and treasure, neither casually nor superficially, but earnestly and systematically, the essential meaning of life. Indeed, at the lowest ebb in the intelligent hierarchy of creation are those men who fail to avail themselves of the cognitive faculties that Allah has bestowed on them, or they do, after all, but for wrong purposes. The Qur'an thus says: "For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and the dumb, -- those who understand not" (al-Anfal 8:22).
The Prophet (pbuh) is said to have urged his followers to reflect on and admire Allah's creation rather than His divine Self, for the former leads to a favorable and affirmative point of view with regard to the latter. Doing things the wrong way round, however, warrants one's self-ruin. A companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Abdullah Ibn `Abbas, said that a group of people used to debate on the nature of Allah and the Prophet (pbuh) said to them: "Ponder over the creation of Allah and do not ponder over the essence of Allah, because your minds cannot possibly encompass that."
This Islamic attitude is somewhat epitomized in an ancient maxim, which, in all probability, is associated with the religious legacy of the Children of Israel: "He who knows himself knows his Lord." The maxim is often ascribed -- albeit erroneously -- to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
No wonder then that the Islamic message created in Muslims a sixth sense which transcends the boundaries of the five animal senses. Through this spiritual sixth sense, people can see and appreciate the real beauty of creation steeped in spiritual, moral and religious values. Inner beauty is more perfect and greater than outer beauty, the world of appearances. As a matter of fact, outer beauty, if divorced from, or -- worse yet -- if it contradicts the quintessence of inner beauty, becomes incomplete, and if observed from the ontological point of view, it cannot even be classified as beauty. Certainly, nothing can be viewed as beautiful if it did not serve the cause of the truth, irrespective of the intensity of its falsely embellished appearance. There is nothing that stands diametrically opposite to the truth, directly or indirectly promoting falsehood and vice, that can be viewed as beautiful or wholesome.
It is primarily for this that Allah instructs in the Qur'an that "beautiful" pagan women and men are not to be married by believing men and women, because unbelievers generally invite to wrongdoing and Hell, while Allah invites to contentment, forgiveness and His Paradise. "...A slave woman who believes is better than an unbelieving woman, even though she allures you... A man slave who believes is better than an unbeliever, even though he allures you" (al-Baqarah 2:220).
Indeed, there is nothing genuinely good, beautiful and alluring in sin and vice, and in their protagonists. That's why - after all -- they have been forbidden.
Undeniably, man's constant interaction with the world, resulting eventually in the creation of miscellaneous crafts, arts, vocations, industries, traditions and cultural refined patterns, ought to be all geared towards rising above the physical facet of the world and towards recognizing, comprehending and appreciating the supreme Being and Beauty, thus sharpening and enhancing one's spiritual insight. The primary mission of aesthetics carries the same spirit too, maybe even more than a number of other interests of man, given that using skill and imagination in recognizing order in the world and in creating aesthetic objects, environments and experiences is universal and permanent.
For Isma'il Raji al-Faruqi, aesthetic experience means "the apprehension through what is given to sense, of an a priori metanatural -- hence transcendent -- essence which acts as the normative principle of the object beheld...The nearer the visible object is to the essence, the more beautiful it is." It follows - according to al-Faruqi - that "art is the process of discovering within nature that metanatural essence and representing it in visible form. Evidently, art is not the imitation of created nature; not the sensory representation of natura naturata, the objects whose 'naturing' or natural reality is complete. A photographic representation, which reproduces the object as it is, may be valuable for illustration or documentation, for the establishment of identity. As a work of art, it is worthless. Art is the reading in nature of an essence that is non-nature, and the giving to that essence the visible form that is proper to it."
Finally, all human senses, including the mind, heart and soul, artistic expressions stir up in a person. Some senses are stimulated more and some less. People are able to see different things with different levels of fervor and judgment in a piece of art, due to a convoluted hierarchy in human aptitudes, ambitions, wisdom and interests. However, one's spiritual disposition and total worldview take precedence over one's cerebral faculties in one's appreciation and interpretation of beauty exemplified in works of art. In a piece of art, a person does not see what is imposed on him to be seen. He sees firstly that which he wants to see, and secondly that which he can see. Preaching uniformity in intuiting and construing beautiful objects is a theatrical and aberrant attitude. In reality, such is an impossible feat. If people can be unified in their readings and explanations of the artistry in the natural world, then they can also be unified insofar as reading and explicating the aesthetic expressions men are able to generate while operating under the gripping influence of the physical and intelligent laws that govern the whole of existence. Since the former is completely unfeasible, the latter is equally unfeasible too. Reinforcing the fact that in order to grasp the essence or the fundamental nature of a thing, one must rise above the realm of five senses and bring into play a refined sixth sense, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali stated, as quoted by Valeria Gonzalez: "The eye perceives the outer and the surface of things, but not their inner essence; moreover, it perceives only their shapes and their forms, not their real nature."
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 spahico yahoo.com; his blog is at www.medinanet.org.
Topics: Creation And Evolution, Islam Values: Excellence, Spirituality