Islamic aesthetics

One well-known Hadith states, “Allah is beautiful, therefore Allah loves beauty”. [Muslim]

I can clearly recall a very interesting lunch conversation on the topic of ‘Islamic aesthetics’, a research of which has been opened up by Dr. Sulaiman Dufford in his PhD research for Universiti Putra Malaysia. Dr. Dufford points out that the majority of Muslims who convert from other religions are first and most powerfully attracted to Islam by aesthetic factors. I have read his recently translated book, “Liku-liku Pencarian Nur Islam” (now available at MPH Bookstores) which touches upon a number of aesthetic elements in the way Islam presents itself to outsiders. The first aesthetic miracle for the convert is, of course, the call to prayer or azan.

As we also know from Hadith in both Bukhari and Muslim, the “dreams of the true believers” are the last surviving remnant of the Prophet Muhammad’s own ‘wahy’ or revelation. This Azan was revealed in a dream to Abdullah bin Zaid (r.a), one of the Prophet’s companions, and has come down to us all these generations in complete purity.

What identifies the potential convert immediately is the feeling that the Azan creates an urge to respond, to DO something. Later, these converts learn to pray in a way unknown in previous religions. Those who only pass it by, as it were, do not convert.

Even before hearing an exquisite Azan (although all are not, sadly, that well done), the non-Muslim is often strongly impacted by mosque architecture. The genius of the Sultan Sulaiman’s architect, Sinan (himself a convert from Christianity) has moved many a non-Muslim visiting Istanbul, Turkey. Possibly even before seeing Muslim mosques, there is an aesthetic to the social behavior of the good and simple Muslims of the world (not so much, alas, the rich ones) that also may move the potential convert in mysterious new ways. Visitors to Jerusalem may note the simple Palestinians reciting Al Qur’an in their quiet shops.

If these examples of “Keindahan Allah” (Allah’s Beauty) are valid and important in today’s world, what, then, should be our response as Muslims to the aesthetic element of our beloved religion?

In the first place, we must be CAREFUL. Aside from guarding the pure beauty of our women, we must pay much closer attention to our prayer calls, for example. The Azan should always be live, not some endlessly repeated tape. And not anyone should give the call. Those who cannot do it well must be gently discouraged from grabbing the microphone at prayer time. As expressed by yet another convert, sometimes the calls he heard only made him want to run into the nearest closet!

We Muslims have an incomprehensible tendency to ‘habituate’ to Qur’anic recitations. How much chatting goes on during our recitation competitions? Why do we nowadays dispense with opening so many of our classes or public sessions with Al Qur’an? Or limiting such recitation to one or two minutes, fearing that the attention of the Muslims will quickly stray?

Why do we utterly disregard the beauty of our recitations by calling for ‘silent repetitions’ of Surah Al Asr, for example, in the Christian manner of calling for ‘a moment of silent prayer’? Why would we ever want to imitate Christians in this way, those people who possess neither the Qur’an nor the Solah itself?

Why do our so-called ‘Islamic radio stations’ imitate the West with bouncy, rap-like station identifications and slogans? Why do such stations often introduce their own Azans with different types of music? Why do they end their broadcast Qur’anic readings with a taped ‘Sadaq Allahu AlAzhim’ that is completely out of tune with the preceding recitation, and may even be a bit ugly? Such conclusion should be given LIVE by the studio announcers, not via some push-button tape.

Dr. Dufford is calling us to pay more attention to our ‘aesthetic sensibilities’. It is aesthetics that ‘sells’ our religion, not ‘jihad’. It is aesthetics that smoothes our social behavior, and the voice we must use when speaking with non-Muslims and Muslims alike, even in teaching or debate.

One definition of politeness is ‘social aesthetics’. One definition of covering the women’s ‘aurat’ is ‘gender aesthetics’. Casting our male eyes downwards would be an element of ‘male social aesthetics’. In our religion, the first, aesthetic look at a beautiful woman is free, but not the second, passionate one.

Many of our youth wish to explore the REASONS behind the regulations and habits of our Din, without necessarily challenging them. Perhaps the answers they seek can come through aesthetic explanations, rather than authoritarian, finger-shaking ones. For example, our sisters pray behind us precisely because they are stronger in ignoring us during their prayers, than we are in ignoring them!

We join our beloved children by paying attention to the aesthetics of their play. Indeed, they can teach us much about reviving the use of our Right Brains in this manner, as their Right Brains have been functional since birth, or perhaps even before. On the other hand, we impose our left-brain world upon them during all the years of their education, and then question why they lose their WONDER for the beauties of life, that very WONDER which is enjoined upon Muslims in so many verses throughout Al Qur’an. Modern neurology confirms the Gestalt-oriented, holistic and aesthetic processing of our Right Brains, which are already stronger in our children than they are in us as we age and struggle for economic survival (itself an exclusively left-brain activity).

It is that WONDER which must be sufficiently miracle-sensitive in itself, to prove the faith of the believer without suspending the laws of physics of the Natural Universe. And that WONDER is a purely aesthetic perception, which is why we must develop and refine our aesthetic sensibilities in all aspects of our daily lives, both within and outside of our mosques.

Islamic aesthetics is therefore the ‘Royal Road’, the background and context, the ‘template’, as it were, for our Ibadah, our Iman, our Ihsan, our Da’wah, and our sincerest aspirations to regain our lost Islamic civilization. May Allah swt continuously refine our aesthetic sensibility to perceive and wonder at His Creation, beginning with our own selves and the created universe in which we live, AMIN.

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