The 13th-century poet Ibn al Farid draws our attention to those serendipitous moments in life that one knows could only have come from God, when he says: "Has a flash of lightning appeared at the edge of the valley; or is it only that the veil has been lifted from the face of Layla?" Ibn al Farid's words are a refraction of the statement of the Prophet Mohammed that "Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty".
In last week's column I mentioned that beauty is an ever-present theme that threads its way through our Islamic tradition if we but notice. But it is not just art for art's sake; it has a higher purpose, to inspire us to loftier aims. The presence of things beautiful in our world pulls at our coat, if you will, to remind us that there are greater concerns than to be preoccupied with the petty and mundane.
The consequences of this principle of beauty within the Islamic tradition form an imperative of sorts, one that might be lost on many who see Islam at a distance and perhaps lost on more than a few Muslims themselves. The aesthetic imperative means that a person is called upon to consider just how beauty will reside in everything that he or she does, as if our everyday actions were a form of calligraphy. Aesthetic beauty then, in the Islamic perspective, is not just a property of objects, but it is also a quality of actions and ideas. It is not just concerned with the sensation of material things, but of deeper meanings that inform our motivations and intentions, operating from beyond the opacity of the material world.
Regarding the beauty of actions, the Prophet Mohammed counselled his young wife Aisha on the merits of gentleness. During a journey, Aisha had been given a rather insubordinate camel to ride and she was in the midst of letting it know just how frustrated she was. He turned to her, saying: "Aisha, be gentle. For gentleness does not inhere in anything except that it makes it more beautiful; and it is not withdrawn from anything except that it leaves it ugly."
The quality of patience and steadfastness in the face of adversity has also been identified as yet another manifestation of beauty. Jacob, upon losing his son Joseph, and being conflicted in not wanting to confront his other sons regarding his suspicions as to their involvement in his disappearance, says: "Patience is beautiful and Allah is the source of help." This is grace under pressure, it is serenity when things fall apart and it is a quality best mustered to negotiate the uncertainties that lie ahead of us in a world in flux. But just as Zamakhshari defines beautiful patience as patience without complaint, part of its serenity is an uplifting chord of optimism and positivity about the possibilities it proffers.
While it is true that the uncertainty enfolded in the unseen of tomorrow can be foreboding and suspicious, at the same time we find people buoyant today with the possibility of change. Can transformations in the political and social landscape be converted into a catalyst for renewal, an opportunity to refresh our spirit and sharpen our aesthetic senses in the brisk air of the new? Serenity must accompany sagacity together in a sense of purpose.
Whatever the case may be, two things are certain: cynicism is always dead weight, and we need to ensure that we are on the right side of history. Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi