CHAPTER FIVE: COMPASSION AND LOVE, PEACE AND BEAUTY
My Mercy and Compassion embrace all things.
Those who believe and do good works, the Infinitely Good will appoint for them love.
God is He than Whom there is no god, the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One, Peace.
God is beautiful and loves beauty.
COMPASSION, LOVE, PEACE, AND BEAUTY AS DIVINE QUALITIES
According to a well-knownhadith , on the Throne of God is written, “Verily My Mercy and Compassion precede my Wrath.” To be sure there is Divine Justice and need for justice in the world, as there is Divine Rigor and Wrath related to the Divine Majesty described so powerfully in both the Bible and the Quran. But the inner dimension of reality is inseparable from that Divine Mercy and Compassion but for which there would be no creation. Since this world is the creation of God, it must reflect His Qualities, and Islamic spiritual teachings emphasize that in fact the whole universe is nothing but the interplay of the reflections of God’s Names and Qualities. Therefore His Names of Beauty and Mercy must be reflected in His creation as much as His Names of Majesty and Justice. Furthermore, the former Names, having to do with the inner dimension of the Divine Reality, take precedence when it comes to the inner life of the soul of the Muslim.
The idea propagated by certain Western scholars and Christian apologists that the God of Islam is only the God of Justice but not of Mercy, Compassion, and Love is totally false. God’s Mercy, Compassion, Forgiveness, and Love are mentioned more times in the Quran than are His Justice and Retribution. All the four concepts mentioned in the title of this chapter, namely, Compassion (which is inseparable from Mercy in the Islamic view), Love, Peace, and Beauty, are Divine Names whose reflections must therefore be part of the very substance and root of the existence of human beings as well as that of other creatures.
COMPASSION AND MERCY
Of special significance for the understanding of the Islamic perspective on creation and revelation is the notion and reality of mercy and compassion. As the Quranic verse cited above bears witness, the Mercy and Compassion (rahmah ) of God embraces all things, and in fact the world would not exist if there were to be norahmah . The termrahmah , which means both “mercy” and “compassion,” is related to the two Divine Namesal-Rahman , the Infinitely Good, and al-Rah. im, the All-Merciful, with which every chapter of the Quran except one commences. They are also the Names with which daily human acts are consecrated.
Because these Names are interwoven into every aspect of the life of Muslims, life is thereby wrapped in Divine Goodness, Mercy, and Compassion, which are inextricably associated with the Arabic word al-rahmah . Moreover, this word is related to the Arabic term for “womb,” rah. im.
Therefore, it might be said that the world issues from the womb of Divine Mercy and Compassion. This truth is emphasized by Sufis who, as already mentioned, claim that the very substance of cosmic existence is the “Breath of the Compassionate.” God breathed upon the archetypal realities of this world, and the consequence of this action was the realm of separative existence we call the world. It is most significant that this “Breath”(nafas) is associated with the goodness and compassion of God and not some other quality. Compassion is therefore at the root of our very existence, the gate through which both revelation and creation were brought forth and therefore a central reality in all aspects of human life. Every aspect of the traditional life of Muslims over the ages has been intertwined withrahmah and inseparable from it, since compassion is woven into the very fiber of human existence.
A poem of Rumi states, “Mus.t.afa [the chosen one-
Muh. ammad] came to bring about intimacy and compassion(hamdami) .” The termhamdami in Persian means literally “having the same breath,” therefore indicating close intimacy and what some ancient philosophers called sympatheia, which is closely related to compassion. Spiritually, the very message of the Prophet and the revelation of the Quran were to bring about a full flowering of the compassion that relates all beings to each other by the very fact that they exist. The Prophet is himself calledrahmah to all the worlds, and his inner reality plays a most important role in the spiritual economy of Islamic life as far as compassion and mercy are concerned.
If one asks how compassion and mercy function concretely in Islamic life, the answer begins with the distinctions between the relation of God to the individual, the individual to God, human beings to each other, and humanity to the rest of creation. As far as the relation of God to the individual and in fact to all of His creation is concerned, it always involves compassion and mercy. In addition toal-Rahman , the Infinitely Good, and al-Rah. im, the All-Merciful, God is also known as al-Karim, the All-Generous, al-Ghafur, the All-Forgiver, and al-Lat.if, the All-Kind. He possesses also other Names and Qualities that indicate His Compassion
toward His creation and His Mercy, but for which there would be no religion, no human salvation, and in fact no existence. It is impossible for a Muslim to pray to God or even to think of God without awareness of this essential dimension of Compassion and Mercy, without, however, losing sight of the Divine Majesty, before which one must always remain in reverential awe.
I recall from the numerous Islamic holy sites I have visited, where one hears hundreds of audible supplications to God by women and men that besides the wordAllah , orKhuda in Persian, no word is heard more often thanRaman ,Rahim , andrahmah . I remember especially this prayer uttered in Arabic with the utmost sincerity by a simple woman: “O Lord, have Mercy and Compassion, for if Thou dost not have Mercy, who will have mercy?” The heartfelt prayer of this simple pilgrim epitomizes the quintessential Islamic attitude toward God as the source of compassion and mercy. No matter what one has done in life, one should never lose hope in His Compassion and Mercy, for as the Quran states, “And who despaireth of the Mercy of his Lord save those who go astray” (15:56), and “Do not despair of God’s Mercy” (39:53). A Muslim’s prayer always contains an appeal to His dimension of Compassion and Mercy. This attitude can be summarized in the Quranic verse, “Have mercy upon us for Thou art the best of those who show mercy” (23:109). We may lose faith in the compassion and mercy of human beings and even close friends, although even this despair is spiritually incorrect, but we should never lose faith or hope in God’s Compassion and Mercy. It might be said that in the Islamic universe the Face of God turned toward His creation is inseparable from His Compassion and Mercy, while the face of men and women turned toward their Lord must always be based on appeal to that Divine Compassion and Mercy that “embraceth all things.”
As for the relationship between human beings, not only do the injunctions of theShari‘ah recommend and require acts of compassion, charity, and mercy toward the poor, the sick, the weak, orphans, and the needy, but Islamic ethics, based on the model of the Prophet, emphasizes over and over again the importance of the virtues of compassion and charity, mercy and forgiveness. Muslims should be strict with themselves, but generous and compassionate toward those around them. This begins with the family, where the Quran andHadith emphasize in numerous verses the importance of exercising ihsan, that is, spiritual virtue and goodness, which includes compassion and kindness toward one’s parents, spouse, children, and other family members.
Compassion and generosity must, moreover, be in deeds as well as in words, and here the whole tradition of adab, or traditional courtesy, manners, and comportment, plays a central role in making compassion, generosity, and the selfdiscipline and nobility that are inseparable from them a concrete reality.
Beyond the family there is the general category of neighbor, which usually includes one’s physical neighbors and those living nearby. Again, there are numerous teachings in the Quran andHadith emphasizing the importance of having compassion toward the people who are one’s
neighbors and being aware of their needs. Then beyond one’s neighborhood there is society at large, in which the same attitude of compassion and kindness must exist even beyond the boundary of one’s religion.
When one looks at Islamic societies as a whole, one becomes aware how socially and economically significant the acts of compassion and mercy, in fact, are in the lives of so many people, especially the poor. Without these religiously motivated acts of compassion and charity, the social order would collapse, since in many places in the Islamic world governments are not strong or wealthy enough to provide a minimum income for all their citizens. Consequently the welfare of the poor is left to a large extent to the mercy of private individuals and institutions, all motivated, not by some kind of secularist altruism, but by the Islamic emphasis upon the importance of compassion, charity, kindness, and mercy to those less fortunate who turn to those better off for help. The hand of the needy beggar asking for help is in the deepest sense the Hand of Divine Mercy extended to us, for in extending our compassion and mercy to one of God’s creatures we become ourselves recipients of Divine Mercy.
The last relation to consider is that of human beings to the nonhuman world. Despite the terrible abuse of both animals and vegetation in many big Islamic cities filled by recently uprooted people no longer in harmony with their natural environment, Islamic teachings themselves emphasize that compassion, mercy, and kindness must be extended to animals and plants as well as to human beings.
Already in medieval Islamic cities there were animal hospitals and endowments established for the keeping of horses and donkeys that had become ill or incapacitated. The Prophet dealt with animals gently, and many hadiths refer to the importance of showing kindness to them as well as of respecting the life of the vegetal world, of not destroying trees and other vegetation unless absolutely necessary. Traditional Islamic societies have many examples of the exercise of compassion and mercy toward nonhuman realms of life as well as the human order.
Needless to say, not all Muslims heed the teachings of Islam as far as compassion, mercy, generosity, and kindness are concerned, any more than do all Jews, Christians, or even Buddhists, whose whole religion is based on the two foundations of compassion and enlightenment. Human imperfection is not the monopoly of any single people, race, or religious community; it exists everywhere. It is essential to bring out the significance of compassion and mercy in the Islamic religious universe, not in order to claim that all Muslims have abided by the teachings of their religion concerning this central matter, but to refute the false conception propagated by some in the West that Islam is a religion without compassion. If an impartial observer were to visit, let us say, ten major sacred sites in ten Islamic countries and record how many times in one hour words related to compassion and mercy, the Arabicrahmah , are heard in the supplications and prayers arising from the hearts of those assembled at such sites, it would become clear how central compassion and mercy are to the Islamic understanding of God, the relation between human beings and God, and the rapport between human beings and all of His creation. The goal of Islam has always been to train
individuals to be aware of God’s Compassion and Mercy, to rely in their spiritual life upon these Divine Qualities, and to reflect these qualities in their human form in their relations with all other beings in God’s creation.
The aim of the Quranic revelation has also been to create a compassionate society, a society not based on ruthless competition and individualistic selfishness, but on the awareness that to gain inner felicity and be worthy of receiving God’s Mercy and Compassion, we must exercise compassion and kindness toward others. In giving on the basis of compassion and mercy to others, we also give ourselves to God and gain freedom from the prison of our limited ego.
One of God’s Names is al-Wadud, Love, and in the Quran there are numerous references to love, or hubb, as when it is said, “God will bring a people whom He loveth and who love Him” (5:54). There is a certitude for Muslims that God is all-loving, as He is all-compassionate and allforgiving, as stated in the verses, “Surely my Lord is All-Merciful, All-Love” (11:90) and “He is the All-Forgiving, the All-Loving” (85:14). Even the Prophet’s following of God’s commands is related to his love for God, for as the Sacred Text states, “Say (O Muhammad): If ye love God, follow me” (3:31). One of the titles of the Prophet is in fact H. abibAllah , usually translated as “Friend of God,” but meaning also “Beloved of God.”
In Christianity it is said that God is Love, and often from that perspective Islam is criticized for having a conception of God that lacks love. In this context it is of interest to turn to the observation of an outsider from the medieval period, the famous Jewish sage and poet Abraham ibn Ezra, who wrote:
The Muslims sing of love and of passion The Christians of war and revenge The Greeks of wisdom and devices The Indians of parables and riddles And the Israelites-songs and praises to the Lord of Hosts.1
The assertion that Muslims do not know Divine Love is as absurd as claiming that Muslims know nothing of Divine Compassion. Neither Judaism nor Hinduism identifies God simply or purely with love, but that does not mean either of these religions, any more than Islam, is devoid of the notion of Divine Love, which flowered in them in the form of the Hasidic and bhakti movements, respectively. Islam states that God is Love, since this is one of His Divine Names, but it does not identify God solely with love, for He is also Knowledge and Light, Justice and Majesty as well as Peace and Beauty, but He is never without love and His Love is essential to the creation of the universe and our relation with Him.
It is important to note that in the Islamic perspective God’s Compassion for the world is not identified with suffering.
Rather, it is translated into love. God’s Essence transcends the created and temporal order, and He cannot suffer in His Essence for what happens in that order. This aspect of Islam is therefore in contrast to the theme of the suffering servant in messianic Judaism and the “suffering of God” in many strands of Christianity. As already mentioned, in the Islamic perspective God “loved” to be known and therefore created the world. Therefore love runs through the vein of the universe and, like compassion, is inseparable
from existence. There is no realm of existence where love does not manifest itself in some way. One can even say that, metaphysically speaking, the gravitational attraction of physical bodies for each other is a particular instance of the universal principle of love operating on the level of physical reality.
On the more practical level, love in the life of Muslims has its exemplar in the love of God for the Prophet and the Prophet for Him. For human beings the love of God necessitates the love of the Prophet, and the love of the Prophet and the saints, who are his spiritual or biological progeny, necessitates the love of God. There are, furthermore, many levels of love natural to human beings: romantic love, love of children and parents, love of beauty in art and nature, love of knowledge, and even love of power, wealth, and fame, which, however, since they are turned toward the world, pose a danger for the soul. In the Islamic perspective, all earthly love should be in God and not separated from the love of God, and any love that excludes God and turns us away from Him is an illusion that can lead to the ruin of the soul. The Islamic sages have in fact asserted the doctrine that only the love of God is real love and all other love is metaphorical love. But metaphorical love is also real on its own level and is in fact a Divine gift, if it is understood properly and used as a ladder to reach real love, which is the love for the Source of all love, which is God.
The dimension of love gushed forth in Islam within Sufism and resulted in some of the greatest literary works about mystical love ever written. This perennial spring of inspiration began to inundate the soul and spirit of Muslims early in the history of Islam with the appearance of the woman saint of Basra, Rabi‘ah al-‘Adawiyyah. Her beautiful Arabic poems on the love of God are recited to this day in the Arab world even by popular singers. In one of her moving poems she writes:
Two ways I love Thee: selfishly, And next, as worthy is of Thee.
’Tis selfish love that I do naught Save think on Thee with every thought.
’Tis purest love when Thou dost raise The veil to my adoring gaze.
Not mine the praise in that or this, Thine is the praise in both, I wis.2
Although in Sufism love is never separated from knowledge, some schools have emphasized one and some the other. In early Islamic history the School of Khurasan in Persia was especially identified with love and its greatest masters, such as Bayazid Bast.ami, Abu Sa‘id Abi’l-Khayr, and especially Ah.mad Ghazzali, who developed a whole metaphysical language based on ‘ishq, or intense love, wrote some of the most memorable hymns to Divine Love.
This tradition finally led to what some have considered the greatest mystical poetry ever written, namely, that of the thirteenth-century poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, who was Persian but spent most of his life in Anatolia and is buried in Konya in present-day Turkey. Rumi, who calls love “our Plato and Galen” and says that when the pen comes to the question of describing what love is, it breaks in half, is today the most widely read poet in America. This supreme troubadour of Divine Love, along with Ibn ‘Arabi, who lived a generation before him, represents the highest peak of Islamic spirituality in that period that saw the inner renewal and revival of the spiritual dimensions
of Islam and the creation of a sweet spring of spiritual knowledge and love whose tributaries have watered various Islamic lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific during the past seven centuries.
Such extensive manifestation of love within the Islamic religious universe was not in spite of Islam, but because of it. It cannot be traced to any foreign influences any more than Christian treatises on love can be reduced to the reading of Neoplatonic sources without consideration of the love for Christ. The very presence of this vast literature on Divine Love in nearly every Islamic language from Arabic and Persian to Turkish and Swahili, as well as most of the local languages of India and Southeast Asia, is the best external sign of the significance of the dimension of love in the inner life of Islam. This outpouring was so extensive and powerful in expression that it even influenced Jewish, Christian, and Hindu writers and spiritual practitioners.
Raymond Lull, a Franciscan theologian who wrote against Islam, also composed a treatise entitled The Lover and the Beloved, in which he imitated Sufi terminology, and the greatest mystical writers of sixteenth-century Spain, St.Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, adopted numerous Sufi symbols for the love of God. The inner signs of this dimension of love have always remained a secret between a human being and God, as they have in other religions, between “a people whom He loveth and who love Him” (5:54) to quote the Quran, and this intimate nexus between the soul and God is beyond external description.
It is a fire that can only be known if it gives off sparks, as it has fortunately done in the luminous writings of those “lovers of God,” those Islamic fedeli d’amore, who have expressed something of that love in human language. But then there are many fires that do not give off sparks.
Some might claim that all this Sufi emphasis upon love is only for the Sufis and has nothing to do with the rest of Islamic society. Nothing could be further from the truth, if one considers traditional Islamic society and not modernist or “fundamentalist” circles. Poetry celebrating the love and the yearning of the soul for God spread throughout traditional society and was often memorized by ordinary men and women who recited and still recite such verses with the deepest feeling and existential identification rather than simply as literature of historical significance.
Over forty years ago, when Lahore was still a beautiful garden city, I remember visiting the tomb of the famous Sufi saint Mian Mir in the fields outside the city, a sanctuary now surrounded by the horrid sprawl of the once beautiful Lahore. It was nighttime, and I decided to take a horsedrawn carriage called a tonga back to town. The driver appeared to be very poor and was scantily dressed. At the beginning of our trip, he greeted me with the Islamic greeting and asked me in Urdu where I was from. I answered in Persian that I was from Persia. He became excited and smiled. Then he began to recite God knows how many sublime Persian poems of ‘At.t.ar, Rumi, H. afiz., and others on Divine Love and the nostalgia of the soul for God, rendering all those poems as if he had experienced what was described in them and had composed the poems himself.
That example-riding in that carriage that night under the starry sky of the Punjabi countryside listening to an illiterate tonga driver reciting some of the most sublime mystical love poetry ever written, reciting both from memory and from the center of his heart-shows how universal the living reality of the love for God is in the Islamic spiritual universe.
This love uses the sublime language of Sufi poets, but this poetry speaks for all those Muslims, technically Sufi and non-Sufi alike, who are aware of God’s Love for His creation, those whose own love for God, hidden within the very primordial substance of their souls, has begun to stir and the steed of whose souls has turned in the direction of that spiritual homeland from which they have come and to which they yearn to return.
If one walks along the Ganges River in Benares, one keeps hearing the phrase “Shanti, shanti, shanti,” meaning “Peace, peace, peace,” and when one sees Jews greeting each other, one hears “Shalom” and from Muslims “Salam,” while for nearly two millennia the chant of “Pacem, pacem, pacem” has reverberated in the houses of worship dedicated to the figure known as the Prince of Peace.
There is no major religion that does not emphasize peace, although only small groups such as the Quakers or Mennonites could afford to be pacifists. All the major religions preach peace, yet have to face occasions when war has become inevitable for one reason or another. Christ spoke of turning the other cheek, yet for centuries in Europe major and minor wars were fought in the name of Christianity or a particular brand of Christianity.
And yet in the West Islam is often singled out as being warlike and the “religion of the sword” in contrast primarily to Christianity as the religion of peace. Although such a major spiritual text of Hinduism as the Bhagavad Gita was revealed in the middle of a battlefield and the Old Testament has many more passages dealing with war than the Quran, among many Christians the opprobrium against religious war is generally saved for Islam. As this book is being written, some Filipinos are writing about how peaceful Christianity is in contrast to Islam by conveniently forgetting that, according to Spanish chronicles, when the Spaniards invaded the Philippines they defeated the Islamic sultanate, with its seat in Manila, and then slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslims, forcing the rest of those they were able to conquer to convert to Catholicism, as they had done to Jews and Muslims in Spain. Moreover, in the West the spread of Islam is associated with the “sword,” while hardly anyone ever mentions the brutal manner in which northern Europeans were forcefully converted to Christianity and the older European religions destroyed. Even the Crusades, carried out in the name of Christianity, did not succeed in changing the Western image of Islam as the “religion of the sword” and Christianity as the religion of peace.
It is true that the sacred history of Islam begins as an epic with the rapid spread of the Arabs outside of Arabia in an event that changed world history forever. But this rapid expansion did not mean forced conversion of Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, or others. In Persia three hundred years after Muslim rule much of the country was still Zoroastrian, and the province of Mazandaran by the Caspian Sea did not embrace Islam until the tenth
century. In most areas Islamization was a gradual process. The history of Islam, like that of Judaism and Hinduism, is intertwined with a sacred epic, but that does not mean that Islam is any more or less the “religion of the sword” or the “religion of peace” than any other religion.
Since this accusation against Islam as the “religion of the sword” has continued in the modern West, which has fought more deadly wars than any other civilization, contemporary Muslims have usually developed a defensive attitude and simply respond that the very name Islam is related to the word salam, which means “peace.” This response is, however, not sufficient. They need to point out that, since the goal of all authentic religions is to reach God Who is Peace and the Source of all peace, Islam also aims to lead its followers to the “Abode of Peace” and to create peace to the degree possible in a world full of disequilibrium, tension, and affliction. Furthermore, Islam has sought to limit war by legislating conditions pertaining to it, as will be discussed in the next chapter, and succeeded during the fourteen centuries of its history in reaching the goal of creating inner peace to a remarkable degree, while in the creation of outward peace it was certainly no less successful than any of the other major traditional civilizations such as the Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, or Christian. It is high time to put aside this curious historical characterization of Islam in a West that has carried out wars over the five continents often in the name of Christianity and even eradicated whole ethnic groups with impunity because they were not Christians.
It is easy for Muslims and Christians, or for that matter Hindus, Confucians, or Buddhists, to point to episodes of war in the history of other religions. The history of all societies, whether religious or secular, is replete with such examples, because human beings contain in their fallen state the seeds of strife and contention and take recourse in aggression and war, using for their cause whatever idea or ideology has the power to move people. When most Westerners were devout Christians, it was Christianity that was the banner under which wars were fought, and when religion became weak, nationalism, Fascism, Communism, and other ideologies as well as economic interests took its place. In the Islamic world, because religion remains a powerful force, its name is still used in support of whatever causes arise that lead to contention and conflict, although the Quran emphasizes that war must be only for defense of one’s homeland and religion and not be offensive and aggressive. When we return to the teachings that are at the heart of all authentic religions, however, we see that the role of each religion is to seek to bring about peace and to accentuate those religious teachings that emphasize both heavenly and earthly accord, harmony, and peace. Seen in this light, it becomes clear how central in fact the emphasis on peace is in the teachings of Islam as traditionally understood.
Everyone today speaks of the need for peace, thanks partly to modern military technology, which has brought the horrors of war to a level inconceivable to even the most warlike people of old. But there is also an innate yearning for peace in the soul of human beings that is certainly not derived from experience. Even those who have never experienced peace
yearn for it. One might therefore ask why people seek peace. Islamic teachings have a clear answer to this question, one that clarifies the concept and reality of peace in the Islamic context. In the Quran God refers to Himself as al-Salam, or Peace, so that one could, as a Muslim, say that God is Peace and our yearning for peace is nothing more than our yearning for God. Deep down in our primordial nature there is still the recollection of the peace we experienced when we bore witness to God’s Lordship in pre-eternity before our fall into this world of forgetfulness. Through a process we might liken to Platonic recollection, we still recall now and then that peace that Christ said “passeth all understanding.”
For Muslims, only religion is able to take us back to the “Abode of Peace,” which is ultimately paradisal reality and Divine Presence. “God guideth him who seeketh His good pleasure unto paths of peace” (5:16). Over and over again the Quran identifies peace with the paradisal states: “And they call upon the dwellers of paradise: Peace be unto you” (7:46); the phrase “peace be unto you” is also the Muslim greeting taught by the Prophet as the greeting of the people of paradise. “In paradise there is not idle chatter but only the invocation of peace” (19:62). “‘Peace’-such is the greeting from the Lord All-Compassionate” (36:58). In paradise there is “naught but the saying ‘peace, peace’” (56:26).
Precisely because it is a celestial quality, peace is not easy to attain either outwardly or inwardly. To have outward peace, one must be at peace with oneself, and to be at peace with oneself, one must be at peace with God. Human beings have been created in the “form” of God, according to thehadith already cited. Therefore every element of the soul is of some value. The problem is that the soul of the fallen human being has become chaotic, and various elements are no longer in their proper place. The great plays of Shakespeare can be understood as depicting this inner drama of the soul. In Hamlet, all is not well in the kingdom of Denmark, and the situation has become chaotic because no one is in his or her right place. The kingdom of Denmark is our soul, within which matters have to be put straight and elements put in their right place before harmony and peace can be established. But it is impossible for the soul to achieve this task by itself. It needs the help of Heaven. Like other spiritual traditions, Islam insists that without surrender to God (taslim, which has the same root as peace, salam), we cannot attain peace, and without peace within ourselves there can be no external peace.
In the general discussion of peace today this hierarchy is often forgotten. Secularized men and women, for whom the spiritual world has become unreal, limit their vision of reality to the earth and life in this world; so they naturally want to live in peace and avoid the dangers of war and strife. But this talk of peace goes on while modern society is carrying out a brutal war against the natural environment and while, within human society, competition based on greed often eclipses compassion and the sense of social responsibility. Consequently, although there is no global war today, smaller wars, local strife, and acts of terror abound around the globe, not to mention the continuing economic and ecological warfare going on against nature in the name and under the banner of peace and prosperity.
From the Islamic point of view, since Peace (al-Salam) is a Name of God and all peace is a reflection of that Divine Name, the question can be asked why God should allow humanity to live at peace in the forgetfulness of Him, negligent of the goal for which men and women were created.
For Muslims, the idea of living at peace while denying God is totally absurd, because only God can put the chaos and strife within the human soul in order, and when there is no peace within, there will be no peace without. Islamic teachings contain many injunctions for settling disputes between people and nations with the aim of establishing peace. But the highest goal of Islam is to lead the soul to the “Abode of Peace” by guiding us to live a virtuous life and to establish inner harmony with the help of Heaven.
For Islam, as for all authentic traditions, the goal of religion is to save the human soul and consequently establish justice and peace in society so that people can live virtuously and live and die “in peace,” which in the deepest sense means in the blessed state that leads to the experience of celestial peace. In Buddhism, the spiritual practices that lead to escape from samsara and entry into nirvana on the basis of the doctrine of no-self represent another perspective of the same reality. Buddhism is there to save its followers from samsara and the wheel of rebirth, suffering, and death, as other religions are there to save their adherents from the world. Islam has been there to remind its followers over the ages that there is no possibility of peace on earth without peace with Heaven, and today it is called upon to also assert that peace with Heaven requires, as never before, peace between the messages that, through Divine Wisdom, have descended from Heaven over the ages. As Rumi has said, If thou fleest with the hope of peace and comfort, From that side thou shalt be afflicted with misfortune.
There is no treasure without wild beasts and traps, There is no peace except in the spiritual retreat of God.3
When speaking of peace, one should never forget the famous Quranic verse, “He it is who made the Divine Peace (al-sakinah) to descend in the hearts of believers” (48:4). Whether one speaks of sakinah, or the Hebrew equivalentshekinah , or for that matter pacem or shanti, the reality emphasized by Islam remains that the source of peace is God Who is Himself Peace and without Whom there can be no peace on earth.
Like compassion, love, and peace, beauty is seen as a Divine Quality in Islam, one of God’s Names being al-Jamil, the Beautiful. Furthermore, according to thehadith quoted at the beginning of this chapter, God loves beauty, meaning that the qualities of beauty and love are intertwined on the Divine plane. And this reality is reflected on the human plane as well by the fact that our soul loves what it perceives as beautiful and sees as beautiful what it loves. Beauty also has the power of radiation and emanation and shares therefore a basic characteristic with compassion and mercy. Furthermore, beauty brings about collectedness and helps the scattered elements of the soul gather together in a state of calm. Beauty is therefore also related to peace and has a remarkable pacifying power over the soul, a quality that is essential to Islamic spirituality, as reflected so clearly in Islamic art.
But what is beauty? In the Islamic universe, as in other traditional worlds, beauty is not simply a subjective state existing only “in the eye of the beholder,” although each human being usually has the capacity to appreciate certain kinds of beauty and not others. Beauty is a dimension of reality itself, and throughout the ages Islamic philosophers and mystics have confirmed in their own terms the Platonic dictum “Beauty is the splendor of the truth.” Now, the Arabic word haqiqah means both “truth” and “reality” and theDivine Name al-Haqq indicates the union of the two in God Who is both the Truth in its absolute sense, the Truth that makes us free, as Christ asserted, and absolute Reality.
Metaphysically speaking, since God is both Truth and Reality, He could not but be beautiful. As the Sufis would say, ultimately all beauty is the radiation on a particular level of reality of the Beauty of the Face of the Beloved.
One might say that Islam is the religion of beauty, which it never separates from goodness. In today’s world, goodness and beauty have become separated from each other, and even religious people inclined toward the good often consider beauty a luxury. Some modern religious thinkers in the West have even developed a “cult of ugliness,” the result of which is a large number of horrendously ugly churches to be seen especially in some Catholic countries, where one also finds the most beautiful manifestations of Christian architecture. Needless to say, this “cult of ugliness” has now also spread to the Islamic world, which knows many mosques that are in no way behind their Western counterparts in ugliness. They do not, however, represent Islamic art or thought but simply external influences.
In any case, in the traditional Islamic perspective beauty and goodness are inseparable. In fact, in Arabic the word husn means both “beauty” and “goodness,” whilequbh . means both “ugliness” and “evil.”
One might say that goodness corresponds to the outer dimension and beauty to the inner dimension of things, not that there is no outward beauty or inward goodness. There is a very telling saying in connection with this question that also clarifies the complementarity between the male and female, or yin and yang, which are seen cosmologically and spiritually as well as on the human level. It is said in Islam that a woman’s beauty is outward and her goodness inward, while a man’s goodness is outward and his beauty inward. Like the yin and yang, which complement each other and together make the perfect circle associated with the Tao, beauty and goodness complement and are inseparable from each other. In the Islamic perspective the role of religion is not only to teach the practice of goodness, but also to disseminate beauty on all its levels, spiritual, intellectual, and physical.
It is said in Buddhism that the Buddha image saves souls through its beauty. One might say, likewise, that the very beauty of Quranic recitation is salvific. In traditional Islamic society one never hears the Word of God except in beautiful chanting, which moves the very depth of the soul of even those Muslims who do not know Arabic and do not comprehend the message of what is recited. The same holds true for the writing of the
Quran, which is the fountainhead of all Islamic calligraphy. From the earliest days, the Sacred Text was written in beautiful calligraphy, and certainly throughout the centuries the most beautiful books produced in any generation of Muslims have been the Quran. In the eyes and ears of Muslims the central theophany of their religion, namely the Quran, has always been associated with beauty, as have sites and structures associated with religious matters. Nor has this emphasis upon the link between beauty and the sacred been unique to Islam. Before modern times the most beautiful art of all civilizations was the sacred art associated directly with the rites and practices of religion, as seen in Gothic cathedrals, Torah scrolls, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and various types of icons, not to mention the sonoral arts of music and poetry.
It might be asked why, if Islam can be called the religion of beauty, religious thinkers, Islamic as well as Jewish and Christian, have also warned that the soul can be ensnared by beauty and distracted from God, and why some great mystics have avoided having or being surrounded by beautiful objects. The answer is that precisely because beauty is a powerfully attractive theophany, or visible manifestation, of the Divine Reality, it has the power to draw the soul to itself and can cause some to mistake that theophany for the Origin of all theophanies. It is precisely beauty’s ability to attract the soul that makes it a double-edged sword. Beauty is at once a royal path to God and an impediment to reaching God if it is taken as a god in itself. One might say that if there were no beauty in this world, there would be no worldly distraction for the soul and every soul would be drawn only to God. In a sense the spiritual life would not be a challenge and the grandeur of the human state would itself be diminished. What makes the spiritual quest heroic is precisely that the soul must learn to distance itself from the worldly, which nevertheless appeals to it as attractive and beautiful, in order to reach the Source of all beauty.
It is here that the element of asceticism comes in, for Islam as for other religions. In order to see earthly beauty as a ladder to Divine Beauty, it is first of all necessary for the soul to pull its roots from this world and plant them in God. Hence the necessity of ascetic practice and spiritual discipline. There is no religious law and spiritual path that does not contain at least some ascetic practices. In Islam, although excessive asceticism as practiced by certain monks or yogis is not acceptable, asceticism and spiritual selfdiscipline certainly exist, as one sees in the prayers and the fast. Through the disciplines of theShari‘ah , the soul is prepared to accept further spiritual discipline and embark upon the spiritual path that leads to God, where the source of attraction that makes this journey possible is beauty and love. There is also, of course, in addition, the spiritual and initiatic power (wilayah/walayah) transmitted through the Prophet to all later generations of Muslims who have sought and still seek to behold even in this life the incomparable beauty of the Face of the Origin of all beauty. For the realized sages, all beauty is the reflection of Divine Beauty. The soul of such persons has passed beyond the danger of being ensnared by the reflection of Beauty from beholding the Beautiful. For such persons no earthly beauty can become an obstacle to God. On the contrary, every form of beauty here
below offers the occasion for the recollection of the Beauty of God and the remembrance of beholding the Beauty of His Countenance in our preeternal encounter with our Lord when we attested, according to the Quran, to His Lordship.
Islamic thought and artistic sensibility have always associated beauty with reality and ugliness with nonexistence.
Today, it has become fashionable for many to seek the ugly and the evil and to parade them as the real, while the beautiful and the good are cast aside as being irrelevant, secondary, and ultimately unreal. For example, the media often search and search to find some evil in a person’s life and then exaggerate it to such an extent that the good and the beautiful in that life are completely overshadowed.
Even in the photography and film used in the media, the ugly is often more emphasized than the beautiful. The reign of the machine and the creation by modern human beings of an artificial urban ambience cut off from nature, which is overwhelmingly beautiful, have caused many to take the ugly to be the norm and the real while beauty is seen as a luxury for the rich. This is diametrically opposed to the Islamic perspective, which has always been opposed to the “cult of ugliness” and has always remembered that beauty, far from being a luxury, is as necessary for the soul as the air we breathe is for the body. It is no accident that only in those urban settings deprived of sacred and traditional art and the harmony and beauty of nature have agnostics and atheists arisen and thrived. Islamic civilization avoided this pitfall by creating an art and architecture both beautiful and still in touch with nature and its underlying rhythms and harmonies.
Wherever it went, throughout its history, Islam created an atmosphere of beauty. According to a hadith, “God hath written beauty upon the face of all things.” The mission of Islam has always been to guide the soul to God both through the Divine Law and the creation of art through which the beauty written by God on the face of things would be unveiled. There has never been an authentic expression of Islam without beauty, and one could even say that the criterion of beauty can be used along with that of the truth to judge the authenticity of the claims of any movement today that seeks to use the name of and identify itself with Islam. The Quranic verse “God is with the good” (29:69) can also be translated “God is with those enmeshed in beauty.”
THE SPIRITUAL SIGNIFICANCE OF ISLAMIC ART
One cannot speak of beauty in the Islamic context without saying something about Islamic art and its spiritual and religious significance. Since Islam seeks to embrace all of life, it had to create its own art just as it brought forth the Divine Law. Now, human beings both act and make. TheShari‘ah concerns the plane of action, while Islamic art is concerned with the principles and methods of the making of things.
Both Islamic art and Islamic Law derive from the Quranic revelation and theSunnah of the Prophet, but they do so in different ways. TheShari‘ah is based on the legal aspects of the revelation and the literal and outward meaning of the Quran and Sunnah, while Islamic art is derived from the haqiqah, or inner truth, of these sources. As in other major traditions such as Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the sacred art of Islam is related to its very essence and heart. If one wants to understand what Christianity is, all one needs to do is to go inside Chartres Cathedral and behold the sacred space and forms that surround the observer.
Or what better explanation of Japanese Buddhism than the Golden Temple in Kyoto? Once a European asked Titus Burckhardt, who more than any other Westerner has succeeded in revealing the meaning and spiritual significance of Islamic art, what Islam was. He answered, “Go and see the Ibn T. ulun Mosque in Cairo.” He could have said the same of many other masterpieces of Islamic architecture, from the Mezquita in Cordova to the Qayrawan Mosque in Tunis to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the Shah Mosque in Isfahan and the Sult.an Ah.mad Mosque in Istanbul.
For Westerners sensitive to art, Islamic art is in fact one of the best means of understanding the heart of Islam. The metaphysical reason why something in the material world made of brick, stucco, or stone can play such a role is that, according to the famous Hermetic saying, “That which is lowest symbolizes that which is highest.” By virtue of belonging to the physical level of reality, the plastic and sonoral arts are able to symbolize and reflect the highest level of reality, which is the Divine Realm. Far from being something peripheral, Islamic art is a central manifestation of the Islamic religion. It not only plays a decisive and essential role in the life of Muslims, but is also a key for the understanding of the deepest dimensions of Islam, if one is willing to seek beyond mere formal appearances.
In Arabic the words used for art are fann and s.ina‘ah.
The second word, like the original Greek term techne and the Latin ars, means simply to make something according to the correct principles. The first means the know-how in doing or making anything correctly and must be combined with wisdom, or hikmah, to become operative as art. In traditional Islamic society art was life itself and not a particular activity, and everything from sewing to cooking to playing music or composing poetry had its own fann. Once A. K. Coomaraswamy, the great twentieth-century Indian expert on traditional metaphysics and art, said that in modern society the artist is a special kind of person, while in traditional society every person is a special kind of artist. This observation holds completely true for traditional Islamic society as well, where no distinction was made between
fine arts and industrial arts or major and minor arts or religious and secular art. Everything was marked by the seal of Islamic spirituality.
Of course, each civilization has its own hierarchy of arts based on the formal structure of the religion that created that civilization. For example, in the West the highest form of art has been painting because of the centrality of the icon in Christianity. In contrast, there is no iconic presentation in Islamic art, since Islam, like Judaism, prohibits the painting or sculpture of the image of the Divine and its sacred art is aniconic. For Islam the highest art is, as in Christianity, related to the Word of God, which for Islam, however, is not a person named Christ, but a book known as the Quran. The writing of the Word of God, that is, calligraphy, and chanting of it, that is, Quranic psalmody, stand at the top of the hierarchy of the arts. Next comes architecture, essentially of the mosque, but also extending to other forms, where the Word of God in the form of the chanting of the Quran reverberates. The art of dress, both male and female, follows, because after our body nothing is as close to our soul as the clothing we wear. Much of the artistic creativity of Muslims went into the art of the dress based on the modesty ordained by the Quran, the theomorphic nature of the human being and its sacerdotal function in the world, and the sharp distinction between the complementary functions of men and women, including the complementary nature of the beauty belonging to each gender.
After dress come the articles of the house, the so-called minor arts, such as carpets, textiles, utensils, and the like, which affect the soul much more than paintings hanging on the walls of palaces or museums do. Then there is the art of the book, which includes paintings usually called miniatures. These were originally illustrations for various scientific, literary, and historical texts, but later developed as refined Persian miniatures, which reached their peak of perfection from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries.
The Persian miniature also led later to the Ottoman and Moghul schools of miniature painting.
Although some Persian miniatures are among the great masterpieces of world art and Islamic paintings in general are deeply appreciated in the West, painting as a whole does not occupy the same position in Islamic art as it does in Western art. But that does not mean that all forms of painting were prohibited in Islam. What is forbidden is the painting or sculpture of the Divine and of the Prophet.
Furthermore, Islam opposes a naturalistic art that would seek to imitate God’s creation without being able to breathe life into it; hence the almost complete lack of the art of sculpture in Islam. The few lions or other animals that do appear in some gardens are highly stylized. As a whole, Islamic piety tries to avoid setting before believers any images that might become idols or negatively affect the imaginative faculty. Therefore, there are no images of any kind in any mosques or other places of worship, and the Quran andHadith are never illustrated. The prohibition of nonnaturalistic paintings has been strongest historically among Arabs, who as Semites are in greater danger of confusing image and idol than most other ethnic groups.
Among Persians, Turks, Indian Muslims, Malays, and Black Africans the prohibition has not been as strict. In modern times, of course, there are painters everywhere, including in the Arab world, but most modern paintings, even if they are sometimes inspired by traditional Islamic themes and motifs, are not really Islamic art, but Westerninspired art executed by artists who are Muslims.
A word must also be said about music and poetry, both of which are sonoral arts and must be considered separately from the hierarchy listed above. Although the Quran is poetry of the highest quality and eloquence, it is not called poetry in the usual sense; in fact, in one of the Quranic chapters entitled “The Poets” it is said, “As for the poets, the erring follows them” (26:224). But this criticism was cast not against poetry in general, but rather against the influential poets of pre-Islamic Mecca, soothsayers who would compose poetry for any patron without being concerned with the truth (although their poetry was of a very high quality). In fact, as a result of the impact of the Quran, poetry became a highly appreciated art in Islam, and major works of poetry appeared in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other Islamic languages, some of which are among the greatest masterpieces of world literature. Wherever Islam has gone, poetry has flourished, and to this day poetry is very much alive as a major cultural force in nearly every Islamic society, where it plays a much more central role culturally, religiously, and socially than it does in America and in most European countries today.
Many Westerners have heard that music is forbidden in Islam and may have even heard Muslim individuals from certain religious backgrounds express the same opinion. Yet the Quran, whose psalmody is the supreme sonoral sacred art in Islam, and the call to prayer are chanted musically throughout the Islamic world, and if one turns on the radio in a country such as the Islamic Republic of Iran one will hear the most sublime pieces of classical Persian music played throughout the day. The question of the legality of music in Islam is a complex one and the Quran, it seems providentially, did not leave specific injunctions concerning it. However, on the basis of theSunnah of the Prophet and the general tenor of the teachings of the Quran, music developed differently than it did in the West. First of all, for the chanting of the Quran and other liturgies the Arabic term musiqa, which is derived from the same Greek word that is the origin of the English word “music,” has never been used. Moreover, the chanting of the Quran is always done only with the human voice, and musical instruments are not allowed in mosques. In the early history of Christianity also the use of instruments was forbidden in sacred music, as we see with Gregorian chant. Second, certain kinds of music, such as music played at weddings, for the march of caravans, and for military expeditions, were allowed explicitly by the Prophet and in fact the earliest Western military bands were based on Ottoman models.
We even have Mozart’s famous “Turkish March.” As for other forms of music, what incited the passions toward evil acts was forbidden, and the door was left open for the development of the spiritual music that came to be cultivated by the Sufis over the centuries.
Several decades ago the world-famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin came to Tehran, and we arranged for him to hear classical Persian music for the first time. After listening to the concert he said, “This music is the ladder between the soul and God.” Being the great musician and human being that he was, he detected immediately the spiritual quality of this classical musical tradition, a quality also shared by classical Arabic, Turkish, Muslim Indian, and other traditions as far away as the Sundanese music of Java. The famous theologian and Sufi al-Ghazzali wrote that music intensifies the passions within the soul. If the passion is directed toward God, it makes this passion more powerful and increases the fire of love for God; and if there exists passion for worldliness, it increases the soul’s worldliness and tendency toward concupiscence. Islam was fully aware of this reality and limited exteriorized forms of music in favor of interiorized music, which increases the love for God, is the means of recollection of paradisal realities, and intensifies the upward currents that help the wings of the soul to fly to its original celestial homeland.
The traditions of music in the Islamic world are among the richest in the world. Over the ages they have not only enriched the lives of numerous Muslims and played an important role in Sufi practice, they have also influenced Western music in many ways. Whenever I hear flamenco music I feel as if I were hearing classical Arabic or Persian music. The Western lute was adapted from the Arabic ‘ud, as the name itself reveals, and the guitar is the child of the Persian tar. Today there is much interest in the Islamic musical traditions in the West, in a musical language that speaks of the deepest realities of Islam without the use of alien theological categories.
In recent years many heard of the Taliban’s banning of music in Afghanistan, a land that has always been a treasurehouse for several musical traditions in the Islamic world.
But this ban was far from being a common norm in Islamic history. Rather, it was like certain bans imposed in the past by strict Protestant groups on certain forms of art, including music, in the West. In the traditional Islamic world, one always heard and still hears to a large extent the sound of spiritual songs(nashid) in Egypt; the ney of the Mawlawis in Turkey; the tar and santur playing the dastgahs, or systems of classical Persian music, in Persia; the Andalusian orchestra in Morocco; the qawwali (made famous in the West by Nus.rat Fatih. ‘Ali Khan) in Pakistan and Muslim India; rhythmic drumbeats in Muslim Black Africa; and many other forms of spiritual music that permeated the air and accompanied throughout their lives those sensitive to the melodies and harmonies of music. Far from being un-Islamic, as some have claimed, the art of music in the Islamic world is one of the most powerful and universal means of expressing what lies at the heart of the Islamic message, which is the realization of the beauty of the Divine Face and surrender to that Reality which is at once Beauty and Peace, Compassion and Love.
Islamic art in its many forms is of the greatest import for the understanding of the essence of Islam and a central means of transmitting its message to the contemporary world. When one thinks of Islam, one should go beyond the repetitive scenes on television of wars and battles, which
unfortunately abound in today’s world, to behold the peace and harmony of Islamic art seen in the great mosques, traditional urban settings and gardens, and the rhythm and geometry of calligraphy and arabesque designs; read in the poems that sing of the love that permeates all of God’s creation and binds creatures to God; and heard in the strains of melodies that echo what we had experienced in that primordial morn preceding creation and our descent into this lowly world. Today more than ever before, the understanding of Islamic art is an indispensable key for the comprehension of Islam itself. Those who are sensitive to the language of traditional art and the beauty of a paradisal order that emanates from it as well as the intellectual principles conveyed through it can learn much from this art.
IHSAN: VIRTUOUS BEAUTY, BEAUTIFUL VIRTUE
The highest form of beauty in this world is the beauty of the human soul, which is related to ihsan, a term that means at once beauty, goodness, and virtue. To possess ihsan is to have the virtues of generosity and love and to live at peace in one’s Center, where God resides. The Quran states, “Surely We created man in the best of stature” (90:4). The word “best” in this verse is ah. san, which comes from the same root as ihsan and also means “beauty.” The verse could therefore also be translated as “in the most beautiful stature.” To embellish the soul with beauty, or ihsan, through spiritual practice is therefore to realize the original beauty of the soul and to return it to its primordial state of “the most beautiful stature.” To gain and practice ihsan is also to respond with the beauty of one’s soul to the Creator, Who is called the best or most beautiful of creators in the Quran (23:14) and to Whom belong the most beautiful Names (7:180). Even the famous Quranic verse “Is the reward of goodness ought save goodness(ihsan) ?” (55:60) can also be understood to mean “Is the reward of beauty but beauty?” Is the reward of the soul beautified through ihsan but the Beauty of the One?
The goal of human life is to beautify the soul through goodness and virtue and to make it worthy of offering to God Who is the Beautiful. Those who possess ihsan think through ihsan and act and create with ihsan. Their thoughts are based on the truth of which beauty is the aura and splendor, their actions are always based on ihsan as goodness, and what they create reflects the beauty of the object “written by God upon its face” as well as the beauty of the soul of the artisan. To possess ihsan is to be open to the Divine Compassion and Mercy and to be compassionate toward others. It is to love God and His creation in Him. It is to live at peace in the Center of one’s being in a state of equilibrium and harmony with the worlds within and without. And it is to be immersed in beauty on all its levels of manifestation, beauty that liberates us from the confinements of earthly existence and ultimately immerses us in the ocean of Divine Infinitude. To realize ihsan is, according to the already quotedhadith of Gabriel, to worship God as if we were to see Him, and if we were not to see Him, He would see us. It is therefore to live in Divine Intimacy, where the perfume and vision of God’s Compassion, Love, Peace, and Beauty are most evident. The person who has realized ihsan is fully aware of the centrality of the qualities of compassion and love, peace and beauty in the Islamic spiritual universe and is able to see with the inner eye the verse written on the Divine Throne, “Verily My Mercy and Compassion precede My Wrath.”