The great golfer Walter Hagen once said: "You're only here for a short visit so be sure to smell the flowers along the way." Often, at the breakneck speed with which we lead our lives today we forget to do just that. But in the Islamic world view beauty plays an even more important role than a mere day trip for the senses. If we pause for a moment, we find that beauty is an ever-present theme that threads its way through our Islamic tradition. When the companions of the Prophet Mohammed expressed to him their concern that their natural inclinations to handsome presentation might actually smack of arrogance and pride, he instead confirmed their aesthetic proclivities. He told them that "Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty".
From this fundamental recognition of beauty, Muslims throughout the centuries of human history have gone on to celebrate it through craftsmanship, poetry, and architecture. Whether the zillij of the courtyards of the Qarawiyyin; the mashrabiyyah of terraces in Cairo; or the ceramics of Turkey and Transoxania; renderings of the beauty inherent in nature have excited and inspired the sensibilities of generations. Consider for a moment the calligraphy of the illuminationist Ibn al Bawwab of Buwayhid period Baghdad. In it we witness the transformative process of Quranic calligraphy: how revelation becomes text, and text becomes graceful form, and form points to meaning, and meaning inspires to higher purpose.
Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty. There is nothing more beautiful than His necessarily existent essence - in its purity, its unicity, its sublimity. "For Him are the most beautiful names," we are reminded in the Quran. The names of God are divided into those of beauty and those of majesty. But it's the word "husna" in the phrase "the most beautiful names" that is most telling for our purposes here. Husna is the feminine of ahsan (most beautiful) it comes from the root hasana attractive, handsome, comely - but it's also the word that is used for "good". We learn from this that for a thing to be truly beautiful it must fulfil the condition of providing a good that benefits the well-being of people.
Beauty in the Islamic conception has a spiritual and religious vocation. Its purpose is to direct men and women to transcend the mundane and the petty - to concern themselves with higher purposes. It is meant to cultivate within us an appreciation (and even awe) of the subtle and sublime. We are meant to read the signs (ayat) of Allah in the variegated aspects and features of the natural world - just as we would recite the verses (ayat) of the Quran to gain lessons and insight. The same word for sign - ayah - is the same word for verse. So the signs in nature are meant to be read and the verses are horizons from which arise new understanding and deeper enlightenment. Abu Atahiyyah, the early Muslim poet, said: "In everything He has a sign that indicates that He is the One."
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.