The Endurance of Beauty in the Grip of Modernity

“Beauty is the Splendour of Truth.”

Plato

On a recent trip to Turkey, I visited some of the most breathtaking mosques built by great Ottoman sultans nearly six hundred years ago. Undoubtedly the mosque that I was most enamoured by was none other than the Sultan Ahmet Camii in Istanbul (commonly known as the Blue Mosque) commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I. The grandeur and sublimity of this mosque is beyond my ability to express in words. However, it was while I was sitting in the courtyard entirely captivated by the splendour of this great mosque that I came to realize this; though caught in the web of modernity, beauty and tradition will endure.

Allah, as mentioned in the Qur’an, created Man in the best of forms. The Adamic nature is one of honour and intellect, but also one of haste and oppression. The way of Islam seeks to elevate the former and repress the latter. Allahprovided Man with the blueprint to fulfill the purpose of his true nature; that is to draw near to Allahthrough remembrance of Him and acting virtuously according to the way of our Beloved. Knowledge of this Truth is innately known to one’s soul. We are not, as John Locke described, a tabula rasa when we enter this material realm. In our natural disposition (also known as our fitrah) as human beings, we are born with the innate ability to recognize these axiomatic truths. Faith is ascertained when the soul acquiesce what the intellect recognizes as true. Once realized in the individual, the soul radiates light, beauty, virtue and goodness in the form of one’s character and in their very presence. This beauty that is so prevalent in our tradition is a testament to the Oneness of God. Beauty has always been revered in Muslim culture because beauty manifested the Truth of Al Haqq.

إِنَّ اللَّهَ جَمِيلٌ يُحِبُّ الْجَمَالَ

“Indeed Allah is beauty, and He loves beauty.”

Plato described beauty as the splendour of truth. In the Islamic metaphysical tradition, beauty is the highest manifestation of Truth. In his piece “The Silent Theology of Islamic Art” (1) published in Renovatio, the Journal of Zaytuna College, Oludamini Ogunnaike unfolds the spiritual origins of traditional Islamic art from the word ihsaan. By definition, the word ihsaan can be understood as narrated in the hadith of Gabriel whereupon asked the Prophet said ihsaan is “to worship God as though you see Him, for though you cannot see Him, know that He sees you” (Muslim). Ogunnaike illustrates that beauty was not merely a means to glorify cultural and historical legacies, but the manner in which the believer was able to actualize their worship of God as though they “saw” Him through displays of outward beauty.  Everything from mosques and madrasas, homes, courtyards, streets, palaces, textiles, gardens, even book covers were adorned with the most exquisite designs and colours. Men and women wore vibrant-coloured clothes. The homes of Muslims were graced with intricately woven prayer rugs and carpets. City streets were abundant with water fountains and blooming with lush gardens. It is only then natural to conclude that a civilization that internalizes the metaphysical reality of our human nature and the Absolute Truth of the Oneness of God cannot produce anything other than beauty.

In contrast, postmodernist thought empowers Man to repudiate his true nature. The denial of our human nature, which sprouted its roots in post-enlightenment discourse, is unnatural. Severing Man from his nature is to sever the integral relationship with his Creator. Mankind is then left uprooted from grasping the reality of its existence and purpose. This rejection of the Truth of God’s existence sets the precedence for a nominalist conception of our existence; that is that there are no axiomatic truths and there is no such thing as human nature. Where truth has become what the individual believes it is and is no longer based on established principles and maxims. Man’s servitude is no longer to his Creator, rather to his unruly carnal desires. Total and utter self-determination and the rejection of objective morality has become the ethos of the modern world. It is only natural to conclude that a civilization that rejects the metaphysical reality of our human nature and the Absolute Truth of the Oneness of God is incapable of producing anything of true beauty.

One of the greatest crimes of postmodernist thinkers is their denial of innate human nature. The rejection of absolute Truth and objective morality is leading us to witness the suppression of religion, the widespread acceptance of immorality, and in turn the abandonment of Man’s true purpose in this life. In the Islamic metaphysical tradition, the telos of the human being is to mirror the attributes of the Divine to the best of our limited ability. To show mercy to others as He is Ar Rahman to His creation. To show love to others as He is Al Wadood to His creation. To be just to others as he is Al ‘Adl with His creation, and to embody inner and outer beauty as He is Al Jameel. The greatest of those who reflected the magnificent attributes of the Divine was none other than our Master Muhammad in whose footsteps we seek to God’s love and mercy. As Ogunnaike simply puts it, “indifference to beauty is tantamount to indifference to the Divine.”.

In spite of this, reservoirs of beauty defiantly withstand the grip of modernity. We must seek to become a people who have cultivated and internalized a sound understanding of ihsaan and guard ourselves against the self-venerating nature of the modern world. We must become people of discernment grounded in our theological and metaphysical traditions. The principle of ihsaan is far more nuanced than “striving for excellence” as it is often translated as. It is not enough for one to merely recognize beauty, but to spare no effort in producing beauty within and around themselves.  It is no coincidence that wherever one travels in the Muslim world, the communities with deep-rooted spiritual traditions are also the most aesthetically pleasing. Those men and women involved in raising immaculate structures such as the Blue Mosque had a sound appreciation for ihsaan. They understood the intrinsic relationship between Truth and beauty, and its critical importance in the spiritual health of the believer. The world today threatens to suffocate anyone who affirms the Oneness of God and lives according to an objective code of morality. Those who affirm the Existence and Oneness of He who brings us into existence with every breath are scornfully ridiculed. Spiritual and theological fortitude in every Muslim is imperative. We are tasked as Muslims in secular liberal societies to engage the challenges posed by postmodernist theories by making use of and building upon the already established frameworks in our tradition. It goes without saying this task is not one that can be assumed by every Muslim. However, each of us is capable of enriching our character and reflecting the light of the Prophetic way to the world. Most importantly, we must cultivate a deeper appreciation of ihsaan so as not to impede our fitrah from returning to the One whom it recognizes as its Creator.

 

Written by Ilham Ibrahim

 

References

(1) Ogunnaike, O. (2017, December 5). The Silent Theology of Islamic Art. https://renovatio.zaytuna.edu/article/the-silent-theology-of-islamic-art

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