On beauty

The saying of Prophet Muhammed "God is beautiful and He loves beauty," sums up an essential part of Islamic aesthetics: Beauty is a divine quality and it is manifested in everything that is beautiful. Given the deepening ugliness of the modern world in which we live, we need to remember what this means.

In most of the traditional societies, beauty was the rule and ugliness was the exception. Today, it is the other way around. Ugliness has become the standard and you have to look hard to find beauty in the big industrialized cities of today. Muslim nations suffer even more from the pervading ugliness of hyper-modernity because they can neither preserve their traditional forms of beauty nor fully adapt to the modern ways of doing things. The result is confusion and homelessness.

Traditional Muslim societies built some of the most beautiful human habitats in history. Samarqand, Bukhara, Baghdad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Istanbul, Bursa, Cordoba, Granada, Timbuktu, Fez and Marrakesh, among others, embody the spirit of Islamic aesthetics and testify to the fact that beauty and function, proportionality and mobility, peace and productivity, matter and form and self-awareness and pluralism can live in peace and harmony in an urban environment.

In its various forms, the Islamic intellectual tradition held that beauty is related to truth and virtue, and this fundamental principle gives beauty an existential dimension. All beauty has an intimate connection with the beauty of creation. The beauty of the bee and the skies reveal what is hidden behind the visible forms. Art enables us to develop intellectual and aesthetic senses to unveil what is hidden within us and within the universe. As the supreme artist, God has made everything beautiful and expects us to follow suit. Doing things properly and beautifully is an act of getting closer to the divine.

In the final analysis, there is no beauty without truth; anything that is beautiful has always emerged within a larger context of intellectual truth, moral uprightness and aesthetic taste. The soothing beauty of Alhambra Palace in Granada, the majestic Sultanahmet Mosque in Istanbul, the spectacular Taj Mahal in Agra, the shining presence of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the timeless lines of Rumi, Hafiz and Khayyam, the arresting miniatures of Matrakçı Nasuh and Levni, the dazzling beauty of Quranic calligraphy and illumination across the Islamic world, the simple yet profound textile designs of nomads in Central Asia and the masterpieces of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Indian music cannot be seen in separation from the cultural-civilizational environment in which they emerged and flourished. That environment was based on a concept of human civilization that took its cue from divine truth and beauty.

Today, beauty has been commercialized and turned into a commodity. The commonly held idea that beauty is an expensive luxury and belongs to the rich is one of the biggest illusions of modern culture. Beauty is not the exclusive property of any class. It is not a luxury or redundant triviality. It is an essential part of our human nature and nurtures our mind and senses. It inculcates a sense of awe, repose and happiness that cuts across socio-economic and cultural diversities.

Perceived in its proper context, beauty nourishes a sense of proportion and grace that helps us go through the tribulations of everyday life. It connects us to something larger than us and teaches us to be humble and grateful. It develops our senses and disciplines our emotions. Its elegance deepens our thoughts and behavior. The fundamental premises of mathematics and logic are not only true but also elegant and beautiful. From quantum particles to life forms, the most complex and sophisticated facts of science contain elements of simplicity, beauty and elegance. Beauty penetrates everything.

No uncorrupted soul remains indifferent to what beauty signifies. Unveiling beauty as well as contemplating and enjoying it requires the cleansing and beautification of the soul. The result is not simply a psychological feeling or sentimental idealism but a state of awareness that shapes our relationship with the world and other human beings. It has a transformative effect on us. The most beautiful cities in Islamic history were the most cosmopolitan and pluralistic. They were also the most creative and transformative.

We need to recover this sense of beauty in the face of the growing ugliness around us. Bad taste, superficiality and mediocrity cannot be a substitute for true beauty and aesthetic realization. Belittling art and aesthetics in the name of religion is one of the great losses of contemporary Islamic world. Some extremist groups go so far as to reject it altogether in the name of piety and purity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The profound simplicity and limitless beauty of the Kaaba stands as a living testimony to this. So does the calm majesty of Madina, the city of the prophet of Islam.

The violent extremists in the Muslim world are repeating modern forms of violence but use religious tags to justify their barbarism. The DAESH ideology is intellectually wrong, morally corrupt and aesthetically ugly. The best cure against it is to revive the Islamic intellectual tradition with its depth, ethics and beauty. This is the collective duty of all Muslims today.

"God is beautiful and He loves beauty." By striving to be beautiful, we seek proximity to the Divine. No ugly extremism and commercialism can prevent us from seeking this most noble and beautiful goal.


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